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Painting Workshop 54

"Half Dome, Yosemite" 11 x 11" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Half Dome, Yosemite" 11 x 11" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

Half Dome, Yosemite

Yosemite National Park. It's an amazing place, but actually very difficult to paint in! It's just so big it's hard to squeeze onto a canvas. It calls for painters to use their artistic licence and move mountains. Paint this light filled scene with me, learning about misty atmospherics, intense glowing light effects and juicy impasto brushwork. Enjoy!

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

'Mountain and Lake' 10x8" Acrylic on Canvas by Stephen Street

Nice work Stephen, I like that you felt the freedom to swap Half Dome for Mt Blanc. I also like the impasto paintwork in this highlights on the rocks and trees which looks to be done with a palette knife. Acrylics are notoriously flat unless you use a heavy body acrylic or impasto mediums so it's good to see you've managed with a palette knife to get some chunky paint in the centre of interest and have it contrast with the thinner background areas. Despite that you have managed to treat the branches quite sensitively which is quite tricky once you've pulled out that palette knife.

My only real concern for this painting is that you've used a little too much white overall, especially in the background, which has left it looking chalky. Many other students also did that with this painting, so you're not alone and perhaps my own painting could have done with a little less white in the mid values - certainly it's on the edge of becoming chalky so I can see why many students tipped over that edge. It's a fine line between chalky and atmospheric.


student painting

'Half Dome Yosemite' 11x11" Oil on Canvas by Denis King

Hi Denis, this is a very good copy - nearly stroke for stroke! The only noticeable difference worth mentioning is the big blue shadow in the main rock could do with warming up with brown a little because the blue seems a little too strong. Other than that it's pretty much verbatim - great work! I hope you learned a lot copying so closely.


student painting

'Half Dome, Yosemite National Park' 11x11" Oil on Canvas by Fay Thomson

Good work, Fay. The drawing is all good, the value structure is good and you've achieved a pretty good glowing light effect in the path and trees. Note that if you had made all the darks around the base of the trees and rocks slightly warmer and lighter, avoiding cool purple colours, then the glowing light effect there would have been even stronger. Your edges, hard and soft are very good all over, but there's just one sneaky sharp edge along the mountain's edge drawing my eye to the top of the canvas. It competes with the foreground tree. Notice in my demo painting how I've softened that edge to avoid that happening? Boy am I picky! A very good job overall.



student painting

'The other side of Half Dome' 11x14" Acrylic on Paper by Robert Barker

Hi Robert, I think your other painting of Half Dome was more successful than this one, but I chose this to critique because there are more learning points available. I've photoshopped your image to illustrate a few of those points. Now you can play spot the difference.

The biggest changes I made were to do with lighting. The sky in yours suggests the sun is on the right, whereas the mountain and trees suggest light from the left. I also introduced large soft shadows across the foreground and shadows cast onto the land by the large group of trees on the left, in keeping with the altered light source. The sunlight trees in the middle needed some pruning so that one was the star of the show and the others subdued into supporting roles. I brought Half Dome in from the edge and softened the edges there too. One of the right hand banks of the river was altered to avoid repetition. I hope that helps.

student painting


student painting

'Half Dome' 11x11" Acrylic on Canvas Paper by Kym West

Hi Kym, lots of good work in here. The drawing is good, you've created a lot of depth with your colours and by making the foreground brushwork larger than that in the background, which is beautifully atmospheric. Just two things I would caution you on. The first is the very dark values in the foreground shadows. This is perhaps due to the photography of your painting. If it's not, just compare your darks to mine in the foreground. Yours have gone so dark it's lost a lot of the opportunity for colour in the shadows and this always tends to make a scene look foreboding. The second thing is the tree being too close to the edge of the canvas, like it's just about to leave, unsure whether it should be in the scene or not. Put your main actors in the spotlight, not in the wings.


My final painting

"Half Dome, Yosemite" 11 x 11" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Half Dome, Yosemite" 11 x 11" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

This painting is about contrast and light - the warm/cool contrast of foreground vs background and the intense glowing light bouncing of the rocky trail. There's also the contrast in paintwork - thinly applied and soft edged in the background vs sharp impasto brushwork in the foreground. This scene doesn't exist. It nearly exists, but it's actually a montage of elements found at the scene, placed carefully into a more pleasing composition. Sometimes you can't let the truth get in the way of a good story.



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Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 54
Half Dome, Yosemite

Yosemite National Park. It's an amazing place, but actually very difficult to paint in! It's just so big it's hard to squeeze onto a canvas. It calls for painters to use their artistic licence and move mountains. Paint this light filled scene with me, learning about misty atmospherics, intense glowing light effects and juicy impasto brushwork. Enjoy!
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