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Painting Workshop 51

"Lillies" 7 x 12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Lillies" 7 x 12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge


Love painting flowers? This is the second lesson. Get the first lesson here. Learn about setting up a still life painting, monochrome underpainting, matching colours accurately and creating subtle glowing effects. This is a little more complex than the first lesson so we'll take our time and learn to really see before we paint. Enjoy!

Workshop Challenge

Feel free to follow me step by step in painting from the resource photo below, but you'll learn even more by painting from life as I do in the demo video. You can paint this any size or shape you like using any medium. Happy painting!

Click image to enlarge.  
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

'Canna Lillies' 38x30cm Oil on Canvas by Denis King

Great work Denis. Nice to see you taking something for your own garden. The overall idea of colour vs grey is a good one and it's worked well for the most part but the grey appears to be pretty dead neutral whereas if you'd added a little more colour in there like a blue or purple it would make those flowers pop even more. Alternatively you could add warm greys or green greys for a more harmonious colour scheme. Doesn't need to be a lot, just something to move it off dead neutral.

Despite that, the value gradation there works well. The greys in the spaces amongst the leaves is too light in value which flattens the image. Perhaps that's due to surface sheen in the photograph. Anyway, see how it looks with those two things altered a little in Photoshop, the background and the foreground darks:

Student Painting   Student Painting
The original   Background made slightly darker and purplish, foreground darks made darker.

Other than those two things you've done great work here in capturing all the subtle shapes and colour variations in the difficult and complex subject. I was also impressed by your copy of my lilly painting by the way. Good work!


Student Painting

'Lillies' 9x12" Alkyd on Canvas by Mike Robles

Good work Mike. You pretty much nailed the drawing, your layout is probably better than mine (more balanced at any rate), and your colours are strong, although there could be darker shadows in the biggest flower which seems a little flat at present. (Easy to glaze that with the alkyds since they dry so fast). I can see you're started to play with the edges on some of the petals but I'd encourage you to explore that even further to help avoid that 'cut-out' look that's so prevalent in fast drying media. You certainly managed it in the cast shadows on the cloth which look great. Anyway keep looking, keep painting. It's great to see your improvement over time.


Student Painting

'Lillies on Red' 9x12" Oil on Canvas by Joy Driggs

Wow this is really punchy and fun to look at Joy - good work. Visual music! The flowers are great, nothing I'd want to change there, the pods too, though the front one could do with that little cast shadow from the petal on it to help make that spacial relationship more clear and give it more curve at the back. It's a shame you didn't continue those fun little sparks of green and blue in the middle, taking them above there and into the background a little - it's like a trumpet started playing but was cut short.

That light blue-grey area under the central pod is, just like I said in the video, spoiling the simplicity of the shadow area there. Hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. Better to darken that down and simplify that area - it's not important so it's best to subdue it. Other than that, I love this!


Student Painting

'Lillies' 490x595mm Acrylic on Canvas Paper by Kym West

Hi Kym, nice work. You've nearly got your own style working great there - just a little more work! What you've done really well is sharp edges versus soft edges and big shapes versus small details. You nearly pulled off rough background versus smooth foreground too, but the muddiness around the cast shadows on the cloth is detracting from that. Doing that in acrylic does seem to be trickier, so I'd suggest premixing big piles of paint before you start that area and using two brushes - one for light and one for dark. Beautiful!


Student Painting

'Lillies' 9x12" Watercolour on Paper by Walda Juhl

Good on you for attempting this in watercolour Walda - not easy! Your drawing is pretty good and I can see you battling with the subtleties of light and shade in those petals, which you've won in some petals and lost in others where the lights are too similar to the darks so it ends up flattening it.

You've endeavoured to put some strong darks in there too to contrast the lights which is good to see - it's always so darn hard to achieve strong darks in watercolour! I wondered what this might look like overall with even stronger darks and more contrast so I took a moment to fiddle with it in Photoshop. See what you think:

Student Painting   Student Painting
The original   Darks and midtones made darker, lights a little lighter.




My final painting

"Lillies" 7 x 12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Lillies" 7 x 12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

When painting flowers it's important to use as few brush strokes as possible in order to keep the colours clean, especially in the lights. To help with that we can paint with a large brush first and finish off with a small brush. It's also vital to keep squinting at the flower to be able to see it as an interrelated whole - to be able to compare lights with lights and darks with darks. To draw complex shapes like this you need to constantly compare one shape and angle to another - the more time you take the better.



Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 51

Love painting flowers? This is the second lesson. Get the first lesson here. Learn about setting up a still life painting, monochrome underpainting, matching colours accurately and creating subtle glowing effects. This is a little more complex than the first lesson so we'll take our time and learn to really see before we paint. Enjoy!
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