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Painting Workshop 47

"Safe Harbour" 11 x 13" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Safe Harbour" 11 x 13" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

Safe Harbour

Welcome to the beautiful medieval village of Yvoire in France. Apparently it closes completely in the winter (Yvoire, not France) but while we were there it was warm, beautiful and begging to be painted. Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this ideal harbour scene quickly and easily in acrylics. Designing with big shapes, inventing warm light, creating atmospheric depth and painting reflections are all demonstrated in the video.

Workshop Challenge

Feel free to follow me step by step in painting the same scene or use the photos below or your own resources to design a piece that is more your own. You can paint this any size or shape you like using any medium. Happy painting!

Click image to enlarge.    
Resource Photo Resource Photo Resource Photo
Resource Photo Resource Photo  

The Process

Here's the general process I follow when painting in the studio:

1. Find a scene that moves me.
2. Find the visual concept for that scene. What's the big idea?
3. Draw or imagine the notan design. What's the dark/light design?
4. Paint or imagine a limited value study. Where will I place the main values?
5. Paint or imagine the colour study. Where will I place the main colours?
6. Paint the final painting. Dark to light, big to small, thin to thick.

Visual Concept

Every good painting begins with a strong visual concept. This is something that beginners usually miss completely because they are so concerned with trying to capture the likeness of their subject.

Here is a list of visual concepts written by Robert Bissett:

Interesting Shapes
Great Color
Unusual Texture
Sharp Contrast
Quiet Simplicity
Fascinating Complexity
Morning or Evening Light
Weather Effects
Back Lighting
Horizontal Movement, vertical counter-movement
Light Shape suspended amid darks
Light Shape moving against Dark Shape
Light Shape separating dark shape from mid-value shape
Eruption of fragmented shapes and colors
Etc., Etc....

Note that they are concepts, not things. For example it's not a 'beautiful tree' or 'big
clouds'. A good painter begins with a strong visual concept to base a painting on. The
visual concept is usually suggested by the subject itself, especially in plein air painting,
but you can just as easily apply your own visual concept to the subject or even begin with
a visual concept in mind and find a subject to suit your idea. More often than not the
visual concept will be the very thing that you love most about the scene, the thing that
compels you to paint it, like the dramatic lighting or the strong colour or interesting
shapes. The important thing is to clearly understand this motivation at the very beginning
and write it down so you keep it in mind through the entire painting process.

Here are a few examples of some of my own paintings which began with a strong visual

visual concept

Notan Design

Notan is a Japanese word meaning the balance of light and dark. Using small notan designs is the best way I know of to begin designing a painting. Most of the way we see our visual world is in terms of
light and dark patterns. Colour is really just the icing on the cake. Our brain recognizes the silhouettes of objects first and needs very little other visual information to work with.

When I see a notan design I see the absolute core of a painting, the skeleton that everything else is built on. Notan is a great way to sort out the placement of the major masses before you dive into your painting. What I try to achieve with my small notan designs is an interesting abstract design which expresses something about what I want to say about my subject, or the 'visual concept'. To help with that I often write the visual concept at the top of the page which sums up what I want to express in the painting. In the case below I wrote 'Bold Shapes, Strong Contrast'. Then I went ahead and did a few different notan designs.

Resource Photo   photo
Original Photo by Lorna Allan   Notan Designs
Can't see this video? 
Watch it on Youtube here:


Limited Value Study

We've looked at Visual Concept and Notan and the next step is to figure out the value structure of your painting. We can see the value of a colour if we convert it to grayscale, like in a black and white photo. Value gives us form. When everything is the same value, like in a whiteout fog, we can't see anything. Your limited value study or studies will be based on your favorite notan design.

Goals for your limited value study:

1. Design a strong value structure from your scene based on your visual concept and your notan design.
2. Learn to see colour in terms of value.
3. Understand the principle of conserving your values. That is, practicing compressing the entire visual range into 5 premixed values.
4. Explore the elements of your scene and how they relate to each other.
5. Explore the possibilities of variations in sharp and soft edges. How far can you push these to help enhance your focal areas?
6. Keep a simplified value structure by keeping your pre-mixed values separate and don't create large gradations. Soft edges yes, gradations no. Simpler is stronger. Don't mix the values together on your palette either.
7. Paint from dark to light, big to small, thin to thick.
8. Use your palette knife if you wish.
9. Enjoy the freedom of using expressive brushwork without the worry of colour mixing.

photo   shadow and light families
Notan Designs   Limited Value Study

For more information on notan and limited value studies please view the workshop video or refer to these earlier workshops: Workshop1 and Workshop2.

Colour Study

Painting a small colour study before getting to the final painting is a great step towards figuring out your colour scheme and ironing out any problems before you commit to a larger painting. Bigger painting, bigger mistakes. It's often easier and faster in the long run to correct those mistakes on a much smaller scale.

Resource Photo   Completed Painting - click to enlarge
Original Photo by Lorna Allan   A completed painting showing notan design, limited value study and colour study as well as the gamut mask used for the colour design.

Here's a video explaining how to analyse colour and value with a colour checker:

Can't see this video? Watch it on Youtube here:

Get The Ultimate Painter's Tool here:


You can learn more about using colour here.

Note: If you can't see the videos on this page (above) or on Youtube, I can't help with that sorry - there will be something wrong with your computer settings, but I'm no computer wiz. You would need to contact a computery person to fix that problem.


Gallery of the Month's Workshop Challenge Entries  

Painting Critiques

Student Painting

"Come sail away on the Sloop RR47" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Lori Ippolito

Great work Lori! I like the dramatic swoosh of the background echoing the smooth curves of the sail. Great atmospheric perspective there! The colours seem to be working very well together with a few blue exceptions in the reflection of the central boat and the midground water on the right becoming a bit too punchy. The drawing of the dock and buildings are very good but the boats could do with a little straightening, most notably the waterline of the black yacht needs to be flat and horizontal on the water. Nice to see you varying the colours in the shadows which many people have made too dark and colourless in this project.


Student Painting

"Day Sailing" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Jim Baldoumas

Nice work Jim with strong colour and interesting variations throughout. The drawing is all good except for the shape of the dome which is a little squat. We're missing the strong shadow across the pier and the shadows cast by the white fenders onto the side of the boat. You've achieved a good light effect across the scene with the values getting much lighter and closer together in the background - not easy but you've done it well. Overall a solid result - good to see.




Student Painting

"Hot Summer's Day (Yvoire - vue du port avec le château)" 50x65cm Oil on Canvas by Jon Main

You captured a great sense of warm light in this painting Jon which you mentioned was your particular goal for this piece. Mission accomplished! Beautiful greys in the shadows if the buildings particularly and great relationships with their counterpart sunlight colours. Subtle! You've also displayed excellent drawing skills and attention to detail without going overboard.

My only real concern with this piece is the confusion in the foreground water where you've tried to stick with the detail in the photograph instead of simplifying it a little so it is more easily readable. Australian artist Joseph Zbukvic does this exceedingly well - worth having a Google.



Student Painting

"Oversimplified W47" 13.5 x 14.5 cm Acrylic on Cellphone Case by Silvana M Albano

This is such a neat idea Silvana I just had to include it in the critiques. As a painting it could do with a few drawing tweaks, but the colours and certainly the exaggerated atmospheric recession are quite beautiful - like a tiny Monet. The drawing issues are just the waterline of the black boat should be horizontal and the mast needs straightening. Also the light stripe between the boat and its reflection could be removed to connect the boat better with the water, oh and you could remove the dark textures from the reflection too. Great idea!


Student Painting

"French Harbour" 11x14" Acrylic on Canvas by Charles Post

Charles you have an interesting style - crisp edges versus soft transitions, simplified forms versus fine details. I love the central boat - such good shapes. The drawing of the front 3 boats is at odds with each other because if you can see that much inside the front boat there should be a gradual reduction in the internal view of the other two, whereas you've drawn them with very little elevation, as they would be if placed further away from us. Beware of making soft shadows where you intend there to be strong sunlight because in most situations strong sunlight will produce hard edged shadows. Cast shadows from clouds and mountains are the usual exception to this. An overcast day will produce soft edged shadows. Great work!



My final painting


Thumnail Sketches

"Thumbnails sketches"
Keeping these sketches very small saves you from wasting time getting carried away with detail. This sketch in the middle measures about 2.5x2.5". Any bigger than that and you're wasting time not focusing on the big shapes. I was thinking of adding a couple of fishermen into the foreground handling a net but that would require models, and eventually I went with the idea of adding a sailboat as the center of interest.


Grayscale Study

"Grayscale study" 6x6" Acrylic on Paper
Nice but what is really the centre of interest here? The boats? The castle? The people? Not sure, so I added a sailboat in the colour study next.


Colour Study

"Colour Study" 6x7" Acrylic on Paper
Better with the strong light on the sail now - more interesting, but the triangular shapes of the castle compete with the sail, so made the castle into a church dome.


"Sketch" A3 Pencil on Paper
The dome was a nice idea but now the boats struck me as being too tidy - lined up like a car park, so I thought to angle the foreground dinghy and explored some different types that might make an interesting shape there.



"Cartoon" A4 Pencil on Paper
After several sketches tracing one over another I ended up with this final cartoon (Cartoon is the old school word for a drawing that is ready to transfer onto a painting surface).

(Print this out the size that you want and trace it onto your canvas!)


Detail. Notice how the shadow in the sail moves from cool grey to warm grey. That's because the sky is reflected more in the inner curved surface there. The subtle gradation in the light shape from light to darker helps create the effect of the scooped sail. The section at the top (A) tilts down and reflects the warm light from the sunlit sail and the deck of the boat.


"Safe Harbour" 11 x 13" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Safe Harbour" 11 x 13" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 47
Safe Harbour

Welcome to the beautiful medieval village of Yvoire in France. Apparently it closes completely in the winter (Yvoire, not France) but while we were there it was warm, beautiful and begging to be painted. Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this ideal harbour scene quickly and easily in acrylics. Designing with big shapes, inventing warm light, creating atmospheric depth and painting reflections are all demonstrated in the video.

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