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Painting Workshop 61

"Kalalau Opera 2" 16 x 16" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Kalalau Opera 2" 16 x 16" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

Red-Crested Cardinal

Paint an environment portrait of the stunning Red-Crested Cardinal in Kalalau Valley on the garden island of Kauai. Learn how to make a beautiful background with a large glowing light effect, 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
My mockup created in photoshop from several different photos.   The original photo of the Cardinal kindly supplied by David Leonard. See his nature photography website at
Resource Photo   Resource Photo
From Wikimedia.   From Wikimedia.

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

'Displaced Cardinal' 12x16" Oil on Paper by Mairo Piroue

Good work Mairo. You've drawn the bird very well and it's form is quite rounded and believable due to your subtle handling of values. Nice to see you stretching yourself and placing him in a different background. I think you're right - the bird could have been bigger in the scene, since that's your centre of interest, but perhaps just cropping the top 3 inches would achieve the same result. There's not much happening in the sky so a small slice of it can say the same thing as a big piece of it.

I would have made the dark trees on the left slightly lighter so their darkness didn't compete with the bird's. You've gone a bit grey in the rock shadows, losing some of their local colour. The sharp edges in the landscape behind the bird's crest are competing with it. They could be lowered and softened. The trees are too evening balanced between left and right. See what you think of my quick Photoshop makeover. I haven't touched the bird at all, just the background.

student painting

Altered in Photoshop.



student painting

'Free and Breezy' 9x12" Pastel on Paper by Pam Walker

Wow this is really captivating, Pam, with all it's energy and colour. Beautiful work! I love a painting like this that looks like the artist had fund doing it, rather than deliberating over it. Great contrast between the detail in the head and the looseness of the rest of the painting. I like how you've abstracted the background while maintaining the overall idea of light to dark. I wondered if you could make more of that idea so I darkened the bottom of the painting a little in Photoshop. See what you think.

student painting

Altered in Photoshop.


student painting

'Red Crested Cardinal' 16x20" Oil on Canvas by Mark Price 

There's some really good work in here Mark with great attention to detail, especially in the head and wing. You've nearly got that glowing effect working, though it could do with a subtler light to dark transition through that big yellow area on the left because that looks a bit flat at the moment. The underneath of body seems to be too light - you could have made it a bit darker which would have made the bird seem rounder.


student painting

'Cardinal' 40x40cm Acrylic and Oil on Canvas by Elena Sokolova

Great colour work in here Elena! Nice to see that mauve threaded through the painting which is a great counterpoint to all the warms. I see you’ve glazed that in with oils - a much easier approach that painting it alla prima. Good idea. Your drawing (your personal nemesis) is good all round, all except for the foot on the left which needs some attention. Overall, really good.



student painting

'The Cardinal' 16x16" Oil on Canvas Paper by Eibhlin Ni Dhrisceoil

Colour-wise this certainly has a lighter, cooler feel to it Eibhlin. I'd be interested to know if that was on purpose of it that's just the way it came out. Painting in mainly lighter values is called 'high-key' and you've achieved that in the background though I feel you could have connected the branch to the bird better if you'd use the same depth of darks in the branch as you did in the bird.

There's a wee problem with the drawing of the bird's neck on the left that you'll see if you have a closer look at the original photograph. You've cut away some of the neck with the background. That's probably largely due to my own demo painting where I regret making the value of the neck there the same as the background adjacent to it. Hindsight's a wonderful thing. Your bird has an exceptionally pointy hat! It must be for a special occasion. A few things to think about there. Good work!



My final painting

"Kalalau Opera 2" 16 x 16" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"Kalalau Opera 2" 16 x 16" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.


Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 61
Red-Crested Cardinal

Paint an environment portrait of the stunning Red-Crested Cardinal in Kalalau Valley on the garden island of Kauai. Learn how to make a beautiful background with a large glowing light effect, 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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