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Painting Workshop 56

"Shark Fin Cove" 13 x 13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Shark Fin Cove" 13 x 13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

Shark Fin Cove

Paint this beautiful Californian coastal scene with strong colour and exciting brushwork. Learn how to see the large colour movements within the darks, paint boldly with big shapes and avoid fussing over details. Follow me step by step or use the resource photo below to paint something more your own. Enjoy!

Click image to enlarge.        
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

'Shark Fin Cove' 12x12" Acrylic on Canvas by Sharon Repple

Beautiful colour Sharon! Very rich. Interesting that you gave the scene more room around the edges which gives a more spacious feeling. Your cast shadows on the sand could do with a touch more red in them to connect them better to the colour of the sand in the light. Beautiful subtle colour shifts you've achieved in the central rock. Nice one!


Student Painting

'Shark Fin Cove' 13x13" Oil on Canvas by Robert H. Smith

Good work Robert. Great to see you using a variety of paint thickness and really plastering it on in the highlights. Good drawing, but do be careful to keep a straight horizon - no one likes a tsunami. If that big bump is a distant land then just avoid running it into the top of the island like that because when we don't overlap objects clearly it tends to flatten that part of the image.


Student Painting

'Shark Fin Cove' 12x14" Oil on Paper by Eibhlin Ni Dhrisceoil

Lovely soft colour scheme Eibhlin! Love it. Great brushwork and shape variety and the sea foam and waves are beautifully crafted. The only small thing I'd change is to add a little more blue to the green foliage as it curves away from us towards the sky. Those greens are jumping out a little and this would help to tone them down a touch, bringing them in line with your soft colour scheme and would help to turn the form. Great work!


Student Painting

'Shark Fin Cove' 16x16" Oil on Canvas by Leigh Elks

Beautiful work Leigh. Just one thing - beware of making patterned brushwork. A few of your highlights in the cliff and bushes are very regular - dab dab dab dab, rather than dab, stroke, daub, dab, if you get my meaning. Beware! BEWARE the dab dab! Anyway, very good painting.


Student Painting

'Shark Fin Cove' 16x16" Oil on Canvas by Ken McAlice

Good work Ken. Great movement. Suggest you have a closer look at the drawing next time - perhaps grid it out or use some other transfer method. Also squint down and see how your shadow colours in the cliff are poking out a bit like they're actually lights instead of darks? So the cliff in shadow needs to be darker. Also the sea and sky can get darker as it recedes which makes a great backdrop for the brightly lit island.


Student Painting

'Shark Fin Cove' 30x40cm Acrylic on Canvas by Shoman Mohamed

Nice happy colour scheme. Speaks of joy. I think your photo is actually a bit light so I fiddled with it. I also darkened the water around the base of the rocks and tried to darken the shadows in the rocks. These aren't dark enough in your painting so it makes it hard to see what's in the shadow and what's in the light, which flattens the painting. Be clear from the beginning sketch about where your shadows and lights are going to be.

Student Painting




My final painting

"Shark Fin Cove" 13 x 13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Shark Fin Cove" 13 x 13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

When confronted with a complex scene like this it's easy to be overwhelmed and carried away by the detail in the cliff faces. In the video I show you how to overcome this by squinting and painting the big colour movements from darks to reflected light to lights. Practice that process a few times and it makes painting everything much easier. Another important lesson in the video is to maintain the strength of the glowing light areas by not defacing them with any strong darks. That goes for the cliffs, the beach and the sea foam.


Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 56
Shark Fin Cove

Paint this beautiful Californian coastal scene with strong colour and exciting brushwork. Learn how to see the large colour movements within the darks, paint boldly with big shapes and avoid fussing over details. Follow me step by step or use the resource photo below to paint something more your own. Enjoy!
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