Painting Exercises: Limited Focus, Shape, Color and the Notan in Studio Landscape

Each spring I teach a class at Gage Academy called Landscape: Essential Theory and Process. It is an unusual class in that we don’t work outdoors, only in the studio. The class is structured around exercises that build core skills like site selection, value, simplification and massing, composition, and color strategies. These are difficult ideas for the beginner, intermediate (and even advanced!) painters to grasp — especially when they are trying to learn it en plein air, where they must deal with so much visual complexity and logistical issues. The hope is that by learning these concepts through exercises in the controlled, slow-paced environment of the studio, developing artists will have a foundation with which to make better observations and choices when they are outside.

Students typically choose a different subject for each exercise, but in this class, one student, Maggie Sharkey, stayed with the same subject through much of the quarter, which made for a very cohesive demonstration of the progression. Maggie writes:

“Although the lessons on limited focus, shapes and 2- and 4-value studies were all excellent, the part of the class that really opened my eyes was color strategy. I have always relied strictly upon observation for color and wondered how I could possibly get out of that rut and be more expressive. By learning in detail about the effects of analogous, complementary, neutral and high-key expressive strategies I now realize that I can make color choices before I start a painting and unify them with shape, value and composition to create a complete expression of the scene.”

The first few weeks of class are spent learning the requirements for a good subject. We talk a lot about differentiation — the ability to distinguish values, shapes and colors from one another, and how that keeps the picture organized and helps build the suggestion of space.

plein air limited focus

Limited Focus. The first exercises are designed to force the student’s eye and hand toward simplification. The first act of simplification is a limited focus — imposing a “picture window” around the larger scene, which eliminates superfluous information and brings greater focus to the most important aspects of the composition. Here, Maggie eliminates more than 50 percent of her original photo, but in doing so, creates a composition that is less sprawling and more focused. Our eye  moves nicely into the picture window and down the river. Note that the image is black and white. At this stage, when we only want to assess shapes, values and composition, color can actually complicate matters.

four-value landscape painting by Maggie Sharkey

4-Value Exercise. The 4-value exercise is one of my favorites, because it is always such a revelation to students. It is as much about value relationships as it is about simplification and massing. The goal is to translate the subject using just four values. Shapes must be kept relatively flat without any blending in between the values. Of course, there are more than four values in the subject, so this exercise forces us to make choices. Which one of the few values available is the best choice for each area of the painting? It is quite amazing to see how much can be conveyed with such an economy of shapes and values — the very point of the exercise.

two-value landscape painting by Maggie Sharkey

2-Value Exercise. This exercise also works with a limited set of values, but only two — black and white. Such strict value limitations asks the painter to make even more choices about how to interpret intermediate values. Which values will fall into white and which ones will fall into dark? Like the 4-value painting, the results can be a revelation. The high-contrast, pattern-like image that is produced is the most elemental, basic description of the underlying compositional energies. Therefore, this exercise (even on a smaller scale in pencil) can be used as a study to evaluate the weight and distribution of shapes in a composition. This type of study is called the value plan or Notan. The strongest lessons in composition for the entire class were realized in this exercise.

Instructions for doing these exercises appear on pages 62–65 in my book, Landscape Painting.

analogous harmony landscape painting by Maggie Sharkey

Color Strategy. Once the values, simplified shapes, and composition are understood, then the class begins painting in color. In my approach to teaching landscape color,  the original photo is never the primary reference for color. In fact, we don’t reference the color photo at all, only the black and white. Color is approached from the perspective of color strategies. In The Harmony of Analogy [Artists & Illustrators, July 2011], I write: “When we look at nature we never say, That just doesn’t look harmonious! Because natural light is real, it never fails to be convincing. But for artists who paint not with sunlight, but pigments on canvas, harmony doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through the use of a structured color plan or strategy. A strategy is like a recipe for harmony — a set of color relationships that are proven to work well and can be used as a formula for building our color composition. Like the musician who composes in a particular key, in order to maintain certain types of harmonic relationships, the colorist relies on a strategy to maintain a cohesive relationship among the colors.”

The first color strategy we explore is analogous harmony. Analogous colors are those that are most closely allied on the color wheel. Because analogous colors have an innate ability to create deeply harmonious relationships, they can a particularly effective strategy for landscape painters. Later exercises explore the complementary and neutral strategy.

For her next painting Maggie first did a series of color studies (below) to determine which strategy would be best for that particular subject. Each study is about 3-1/2 inches and each one took no more than 15 minutes. She says, “I now realize that I can make color choices before I start a painting and unify them with shape, value and composition to create a complete expression of the scene.”

color strategy studies by Maggie Sharkey

Additional Resources

from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
›› Color Strategies, 104–105
›› Interpreting Shape and Mass,  62–65
›› Chapter 5: Simplification and Massing

from this blog:
Video Lesson: Color Strategies in Plein Air
Value Divisions in Landscape
The Harmony of Neutrals
Demonstration: Exploring Composition Through a Limited Focus
Excerpt from Chapter 5: Simplification and Massing

About Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). Now in its fifth printing, it has sold over 25,000 copies and has been called a "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, he currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art and Pacific Northwest Art School. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artist & Illustrators magazines. He is represented by Lisa Harris Gallery. See his paintings at mitchalbala.com.