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Painting Workshop 60

"Kingfisher" 15 x 15" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Kingfisher" 15 x 15" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge


Paint a portrait of a beautiful kingfisher. Learn how to make a soft-focus background, an easy drawing cheat, simple techniques for creating complex detail and every single step of the painting. Follow me step by step or use the techniques and resource photos to paint something more your own. Enjoy!

Click image to enlarge.    
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

"Kingfisher" 9x12" Oil on Canvas by Sharon Pelicano

Nice work Sharon. The bird's colours and form have been very carefully rendered - beautifully crisp against the soft background, which perhaps could have done with a little more work to adding more branches etc to make it as convincing as the foreground. The end of your branch could do with some thinning down since it's currently thicker at its end than its beginning. (Oh mine's on the verge of doing that too now that I look!). A few minor points. Overall this is great work!


Student painting

"Kotare Sacred Kingfisher" 40x40cm Oil on Canvas by Isabel Heller

Hi Isabel, I like the dramatic addition of the dark plant - very dynamic, and nicely painted, though I do think if it were lightened and blued a smidge then that dark wouldn't compete so much with the foreground elements. I'd also throw in a few other blurry branches to help balance the design. The bird is well drawn and painted. The blue wing is looking a little flat due to not quite enough dark on its left side. Good job!

Student painting



Student painting

"Kingfisher Study" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Laurel Hinz

Beautiful work, Laurel! Excellent drawing and painting skills, subtle colour perception and you've achieved an overall colour harmony by adding more green into the background. The only tweak I could suggest is to beware of muddy colour in the background which has developed a little through painting a few lights into the darks and then smooshing them together. Moving from one colour group to another in a blurry situation like this can so quickly be spoiled by overworking with a brush that contains a little of every colour there, making grey. My solution to that as you saw in the video is to work gradually into the darks in one colour group and then at the very last, introduce the new colour and try to apply that with minimal fussing.


Student painting

"Kingfisher" 30x30cm Acrylic on Board by Kym West

Hi Kym, a very striking painting! Love those shafts of light and the green tone that carries through into the branch. The painting was looking a little flat to me so I deepened the shadows around the bottom half of the body, the head, and the underside of the branch which has given the elements a little stronger sense of roundness and realism. The biggest change was darkening the light blue along the bird's back so that it didn't jump out so much. Also a little stronger highlight on the moss. Hope that helps.


Student painting

Altered in Photoshop.


Student painting

"Kingfisher" 16x8" Oil on Linen Board by Elise Mahaffie

Great work Elise! Interesting to see the difference in effects between Kym West's painting done in acrylic on board, and yours done in oil on linen. You've done an outstanding job here with excellent drawing and subtle colour transitions both large and small - a real gem. I can't suggest any improvements. Beautiful!



My final painting

"Kingfisher" 15 x 15" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Kingfisher" 15 x 15" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.


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Painting Workshop 60

Paint a portrait of a beautiful kingfisher. Learn how to make a soft-focus background, an easy drawing cheat, simple techniques for creating complex detail and every single step of the painting. Follow me step by step or use the techniques and resource photos to paint something more your own. Enjoy!
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