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Painting Workshop 58

"Boat Repairs" 14 x 14" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Seagulls" 8 x 12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge


Adding seagulls to your coastal paintings adds a charming spark of life and interest. We'll paint a quick beach background and learn about adding seagulls in the distant sky, and flying and standing in the midground and foreground. Discover how to place seagulls in natural groupings, how to use atmospheric perspective, how to draw their beautiful shapes more accurately, how to trial them on a painting with no risk, and how to allow for different lighting conditions.

Follow me step by step or use the resource photos below to paint something more your own. Enjoy!

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:

  • Strong Contrast
  • Active Diagonals
  • Horizontal vs Vertical
  • Atmospherics
  • Light shape against dark shape
  • Spotlight
  • Intricate Complexity
  • Powerful Colour
  • Calm Horizontals
  • Backlighting
  • Tumultuous Movement
  • Mood
  • Interesting Shapes

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

"A Day at Sea" Oil on Canvas by Cheryl Gober

Some great work in here Cheryl, especially your buddy on the rail who's really outstanding (punny) compared to his fellows. Beautifully subtle modelling of form there. The other seagulls are a step down in terms of drawing which is a shame because I can see you've slaved over them. You are right - 'who knew they were so tricky!'. It'll only take a few more of these and you'll have it nailed. It'd be worth your while to do lots of little pencil sketches of them to really get your head around their complex forms. You struck a home run with your buddy already so you know you can do it again. If it were me painting this I'd want to zoom in on him and have hime standing on the life preserver. Great subject!


Student Painting

"Seagull Study" 18x24" Acrylic by Adrienne DeSaulniers

Beautiful luminous colour in the sky and water Adrienne. Wish I'd done that with mine! You've done everything right - just a little more practice to get the bird shapes spot on. (Me too.) Congratulations.


Student Painting

"Workshop 58" Oil on Canvas by Siobhan

A solid study Siobhan. From a wee distance away this looks amazing. Just the bird shapes need a little tweaking. Nearly there though!


Student Painting

"Gulls at East Freemantle, WA" Oil on Canvas by Mark Price

Nice composition Mark and strong colour use. Would like to see a little more colour variation in the water (some green shifts?) and particularly an overall slight colour change from top to bottom, which would give it more depth. Good seagulls but it shows you the importance of getting a photo without frontal light because it gives them no interesting shadows to work with and flattens the form. I would be looking for a way to separate the birds, like with shadow on the bird behind or colour change on the back of the front bird. Their feet need looking at too - they're too small at the moment. A few tweaks and you're there.


Student Painting

"Sailing the Skies" 8x11" Oil on Paper by Mairo Piroue

Great feeling to this one Mairo with beautiful bird shapes. Did you crop the photo a little hard or is that gull on the ground just living on the edge? Beware the slanted horizon, although I have seen a slanted aspect used well in other aerial flying images giving a sense of movement and freedom from the ground. I would suggest that if that's your intention, to make it even more slanted so that it becomes a feature, and to not have anyone standing on the ground because they'd look like they were about to fall over. Anyway that's an aside. You've done a great job!


My final painting

"Seagulls" 8 x 12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Seagulls" 8 x 12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.


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Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 58

Adding seagulls to your coastal paintings adds a charming spark of life and interest.  We'll paint a quick beach background and learn about adding seagulls in the distant sky, and flying and standing in the midground and foreground. Discover how to place seagulls in natural groupings, how to use atmospheric perspective, how to draw their beautiful shapes more accurately, how to trial them on a painting with no risk, and how to allow for different lighting conditions.
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