Planning a Painting with Notan

I finally had chance to break out the paints again today. Woohoo!


I thought it might be nice to  do a short series of posts showing the progress of a painting from initial planning through to completion.

And since I recently got back from San Francisco, it would be rude not to start with a bit of Golden Gate Bridge action!

Choosing a reference photo

The first thing I need to do is choose a photo to use as my reference. (I’d love to be able to paint the bridge from memory, but that just aint gonna happen any time soon!)

Here’s a photo I took on the trip, unedited:


Not a particularly awe-inspiring photo, but I like the angle of the bridge (this is taken from Vista Point, one of the most common places to go and look at the bridge).

I also like the lighting. It was pretty early in the morning not too long after sunrise, and I like the long shadows and the glow just over the land on the left of the image.

So I’m pretty happy to go with this photo as a reference image.

However, if I just painted this photo exactly as it is, it wouldn’t be very interesting. I need to zoom in a bit and capture the bridge as the focal point, cropping out anything that doesn’t add to the scene. As I mentioned the other day, don’t just paint what you see!

After playing around with the image for a bit, I decided that this is roughly the kind of composition I want to paint:


I’m going for a square composition, just because I feel like it. The bridge is now larger in relation to the overall scene, and is clearly the focal point, and I cropped out most of the foreground and the empty water on the left.

I’ve left in the interesting rocks (known as the Needles), and I really like the bits of coastline jutting out, that lead the viewers eye up to the bridge from the bottom left.

Notan Sketches

Now I need to plan the actual painting, and I find a great way to do this is with small thumbnail sketches called notan.

Notan is a Japanese design concept which translates shape and form into flat shapes on a two-dimensional surface.

For our purposes it is a small black and white sketch, used to plan the relationship of light and dark in a painting composition.

Here are three small notan sketches I did in a Moleskine notebook, using brush pens in three different values:


The idea is simply to sketch out the composition very quickly and get an idea of the overall placement of the major shapes. You also simplify the image into just a few values (levels of light/dark). I used 3 different pens, which gives 4 values (the white paper being the lightest value). Each sketch takes no more than a minute or two.

As you can see, in sketch #1 I made the bridge too dark. I thought a larger sketch may help, so I did sketch #2, which is better, but the value relationship wasn’t quite right.

I decided to go with sketch #3, in which I slightly raised the horizon line and extended the foreground down to the bottom left corner (more like the cropped photo above, which I cropped after deciding on this sketch.)

The next step is to paint a small value study in black and white. I’ll get onto that tomorrow!

Any questions? Leave a comment 🙂

My Studio Setup

So it’s 8:30pm, and I’ve spent the day painting our living room (not the most enjoyable kind of painting!)

I really don’t feel like writing a blog post, but hey, I guess that’s why they call it a challenge! My wife says I have to do one or I’ll feel bad tomorrow, so here it is!

I enjoy seeing pictures of other artists’ studios, so I thought I’d give you a look at mine.

My studio, if you can call it that, is just a small study that doubles as my office. I face west, I’m at work, I face east, I’m painting 🙂

Here’s a photo of my painting area:


The easel is a Winsor & Newton folding table easel, which sits on top of a wooden kitchen trolley that I use for storing paints and other equipment.

I usually have a plywood board sitting in the easel (as shown) so that I can tape smaller pieces of canvas/paper to it. If I’m working on a larger pre-stretched canvas I’ll remove the board and just place the canvas directly into the easel.

I have a big roll of paper towels just behind the easel, which you can see dangling over the top.

To the right of the easel is a table which hold my palette as well as my brushes and some other bits and pieces. Here’s a larger photo:


The palette is actually an old glass clip frame, which works really well. I had wanted a glass palette for a while but it seemed a lot of trouble and expense to get one custom made. Then I just found the picture frame in a cupboard and it was just what I needed. The backing board is a perfect middle value for mixing colours against.

You can see my paint piles around the edges of the palette, and some tubes of pigment just above those. A brush holder in the corner keeps all my brushes within reach, and I keep a few larger tubes of paint in an old cigar tin.

The jar just in front of the brushes contains a medium made from a mixture of rectified turpentine, stand oil and damar varnish. The smaller jar contains liquin original.

In the front right I have a ‘silcoil’ brush washer, which is a lidded metal container for odourless mineral spirit (for cleaning brushes). There’s a metal grill inside which you rub the brushes against to get the paint out of them.

Just behind that is the same kind of thing, but without a lid. I keep baby oil in that one, which I use to give the brushes a final clean, and I find it stops them from going hard once they dry.

Finally I have a paint scraper for removing paint from the palette.

That’s about it. I’d love to answer any questions you may have about my setup, and feel free to tell me about your own studio.

It’s now 10:30 and I must go to bed. So tired!


Don’t Paint What You See

One of the best and worst pieces of advice for someone learning to draw/paint is “Just paint what you see.”

In a sense, it’s great advice (if a little simplistic), especially for somebody just learning how to draw realistically.

The problem most beginners have is that they tend to draw what they think they see, rather than what is actually in front of them. As children, we all form symbols in our minds to help us easily identify objects, e.g. the sky is blue, eyes are almond shaped, snow is white etc.

But these symbols can hinder us, getting in the way of how things actually look. Snow is rarely pure white, and eyes can be almost any shape, depending on the angle of the person’s head etc.

So art teachers encourage us to ‘draw what we see’, ignoring what our minds tell us we are drawing, and simply focusing on the shapes, edges and angles that make up the image. It can help to turn the reference image upside down to trick your brain into seeing ‘shapes’ rather than ‘things’.

A great resource for learning to see in this way is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards.

Know When to Break the Rules

The problem with always drawing/painting what you see is that it can become very boring.

I’ve always been guilty of sticking far too rigidly to my reference photo, adding all the small background details, that actually add no value to the painting, and can even detract from the focal point.

Especially when painting landscapes, it’s rare that your reference, whether it’s a photo or a real scene in front of you, will be composed perfectly for the painting you want to create.

It’s likely you could improve the composition by rearranging certain elements, cropping the scene in different ways, and adding or removing elements, to enhance the overall effect of the painting.

Unless the lighting conditions are perfect, you’ll probably also want to adjust the colours in your painting, especially if you’re painting from a photograph, as the colours in photos can tend to look washed out and uninteresting. Just as you might add a filter to a photo you post on Instagram, you could think about doing the same kind of thing in your painting, to create a particular mood, increase the saturation, create a kind of vignette, or blur out certain elements to create focus.

Remember when you were a kid and you just painted things how you thought they looked good? That’s how you should paint, but with the benefit of the knowledge you’ve gained from first learning to draw what you see.


Don’t Let Your Materials Hold You Back

Ok, time to get back on topic!

It’s also time for me to get back to painting. I’ve been away from it for a couple of months now, due to other commitments.

First, I got married in September (YAY!), so the weeks leading up to that were pretty hectic and didn’t leave much time for painting.

Then we were on honeymoon in Italy and France for a couple of weeks, and then not long after we got back I headed to San Francisco for 10 days, for our company’s annual WooTrip.

So it’s been a busy couple of months, and I’m still just settling back into a normal routine. Now I’m keen to get the paint flowing again!

Anyway, back to the main point…

One thing that puts many people off painting is the cost of materials.

Most books you’ll read and courses you’ll take will tell you you need to paint on Belgian linen (which you must prime yourself, with a lead-based primer), using professional grade oil pigment, with specific expensive brushes and a painting medium made of 7 different rare earth minerals.

Ok, I’m exaggerating, but there is definitely a lot of emphasis placed on using certain materials that don’t always come cheap.

This can be enough to make people think they’ll never be able to afford to paint, so they might as well not bother.

Paint with what you can afford

Especially when you’re just starting out with painting, there’s no point in spending huge amounts of money on the most expensive materials you can find (unless money is no object for you, in which case go for it!)

It’s said that it takes 1000 bad paintings before you produce anything you’ll be pleased with (don’t let that put you off either, it’s just emphasising the point that you need to practice a lot to master any skill).

So you don’t want to waste 1000 expensive linen canvases and tons of expensive paint on these crappy practice paintings that you’re never even going to show to anyone.

Some cheaper alternatives

Painting surface

For a professional commissioned painting, sure, you might want to splash out on a nice linen painting surface. If you’re going to sell the painting, perhaps for hundreds or even thousands of pounds, then the cost of the canvas will be well worth it.

But if you’re just practicing, and the work isn’t intended for sale or even to be seen by anyone other than you, my favourite painting surface is a special oil painting paper by Daler Rowney.

You don’t even need to prime this stuff, you can just apply the paint to it directly, and it goes on pretty nicely. Most of my recent paintings and studies have been done on this kind of paper, and it costs less than £5 on Amazon for 12 sheets of the smallest size.

Oil Paints

It’s true that you should paint with “artist’s grade” pigments, rather than “student grade” if you can afford to, as the pigments will be much more pure, and the colour will last longer.

Personally, I like to use Talens Rembrandt oils, but Daler Rowney’s Georgian oils are a decent cheaper alternative.


Paint brushes can get crazy expensive, but a lot of brands sell several series of brushes at different price ranges. For example, ProArte Series A bristle brushes are great if you can afford them, but they also have a slightly cheaper Series B, which are almost as good in my opinion.

Painting Medium

There’s a staggering variety of oil painting mediums available, which you can mix with your paint to achieve different effects.

Currently, I’m using a popular medium, which is a mixture of rectified turpentine, stand oil and damar varnish. However, some of those ingredients can get pretty pricey, especially the turp, not to mention the hassle of combining it all, so a good alternative is simply to use Liquin Original. It’s cheap, and keeps things nice and simple.

Walnut oil is another popular choice, which is usually  just slightly more expensive than the Liquin.

Just Paint

My point here is that although it’s nice to have the best equipment possible, the most important thing is that you just paint with whatever you’ve got access to.

If you can’t afford any of this stuff, just mix some mud with water and paint with your fingers!


Let me know if you have any other cheap alternatives you can recommend.

Creating Good Habits

One goal I have in mind while taking part in this 30-day blogging challenge is to develop a blogging habit. I’ve always been sporadic when it comes to blogging, and I’d like to make it a more regular thing.

What is a habit?

A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up

– Oxford English Dictionary

There’s no mention of whether this is a favourable practice or not, because habits can be good or bad.

And just as it’s possible to give up a bad habit, it’s also possible to create good habits (you can create bad habits too if you like, but why you would do that intentionally is another matter!)

How do you create a habit?

I don’t have any scientific data for you here, so I’m just going to write from experience.

Over the last year I have developed a running habit. Running is something that I do regularly, and I feel like it would be hard for me to stop doing it. Running has gone from being a chore that I would do occasionally, to something I enjoy and feel compelled to do regularly.

So how did I do it?


I think the most important aspect is regular repetition. When I started, I made myself run 6 days a week without fail. I developed a morning routine and made running a central part of that routine. These days I’m not quite so strict, and might miss a day here and there, but when you start out it’s important to stick to a scrict schedule to make the habit become almost automatic.

That’s why I like the idea of the blogging challenge, as I have to do it every day for thirty days. I’ve also made it part of my routine by having it be the first thing I do in the morning.

Start small

As I mentioned in my original post, when starting out I would just run a short 1.7 mile route. This made it fairly easy to overcome any reluctance to get out there, as I didn’t feel overwhelmed by having to run a long distance. Over time, as the habit forms, you can increase the time you spend on it, or not, it’s up to you.

Writing 250 words a day is a realistic and achievable amount, which doesn’t put me off. (Usually I will end up writing more than that, but that’s ok).

Focus on the benefits

It also helped me to focus on the benefits of the practice. There were days when I really didn’t feel like running, because it was cold outside, or raining, or I was just too tired, but I made myself do it anyway, sticking to the routine, and then for the rest of the day I would focus on the positive feelings I got after a run – increased energy, a feeling of accomplishment, and a gradual sense of improving fitness. Whenever I feel like skipping a run, I think about missing out on those benefits, and it’s usually enough to get me out the door.

For me, some of the benefits of blogging include improving my writing skills, interacting with the art community, and having an outlet to express myself in writing.

One thing at a time

Don’t try to develop more than one habit at a time. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but you’re much more likely to succeed if you nail one habit before trying to create a new one.

Running is already a habit for me, so now I can focus on blogging for a while.

How do I know when it’s a habit?

I’ve heard people say it takes a month of daily repetition to form a habit, but I think that probably varies depending on the activity (hopefully it applies to blogging!)

For me, the key is in the ‘hard to give up’ part of the definition. If you practice daily, eventually it becomes such a part of your routine that you should find it becomes hard to miss a day. You’ll do it automatically, without really having to think about it, just like a smoker reaching for a cigarette, and if you do skip it, you may feel some sort of withdrawal symptoms.

If you find yourself in this situation, congratulations! You’ve developed a good habit. Keep it up! 🙂


So… what good habits are you going to work on? Leave a comment to let me know.

Wake Up and Create Something!

Ok, so it’s day 2 of Blogging for Hippo, my team’s 30 day blogging challenge, and now I’m realising what I’ve got myself into, I need to find a way to make sure I come up with the goods!

Sure, 250 words per day isn’t a huge amount (unless you’re George R R Martin)*, but I don’t want to publish 30 mindless posts about nothing, so it will also require quite a bit of thinking and planning time.

My strategy for completing this challenge is to make blogging the first thing I do every morning, for at least half an hour.

This is also part of a longer plan to try and make sure the first task of my day is something creative, rather than reactive.

It’s so easy to slip into the habit of waking up and reaching for your phone while still lying in bed, checking and responding to emails, scanning facebook, twitter etc. – all of these are reactive activities, where your actions are a response to what others have written.

I find that starting my day this way can leave me feeling unproductive and with less motivation than I would like.

Earlier this year, I spent several weeks getting up at 6am to paint. The feeling of accomplishment I got from having completed something creative by 7am, was always enough to put me in a productive mood for the rest of the day, and that’s what I want to get back to.

My wife loves baking, and recently sent me this article, which sums it up nicely (replace ‘baking’ with your chosen creative pastime):

We spend almost all of our time nowadays replying, responding and repeating, and almost none of it playing, pretending or creating. Not only does this make us less happy than we might be, but it also poses a danger for our future, because all breakthroughs can only come when we play, rather than when we respond. Baking restores a sense of creativity and of newness.

So this month, I’ll be getting up early again, ignoring my inbox, and settling down to write for 30 minutes. Even if I don’t finish a post in that time, it’ll be much easier to come back to it and finish it off later that day. Getting started is always the hardest part.

I encourage you to try it – get up in the morning and paint a picture, write a story, bake some bread, whatever you want to do, as long as it’s creative, not reactive. Let me know how you get on!


* I’ve just finished reading A Dance with Dragons, and now the cold hard reality is setting in that it will be years before the series is completed 😦

30 Days of Blogging

You probably aren’t aware that I work for a company called WooThemes.

We make awesome products that help you sell stuff online.

Last December, a few of my team mates took part in an internal blogging challenge, Blogging for Benjamin, where we would each write a blog post every day for a month, and the winner of the challenge would take home $100.

I didn’t participate, because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to keep up the momentum of posting every day.

Anyway, this year, another fellow WooNinja, Bryce Adams, has decided to revive the competition. The rules are the same, one post every day, about anything, at least 250 words (and bonus points for including an animated gif in each post!) The only difference is there’s no cash prize this year, and it’s been renamed Blogging for Hippo (in reference to the name of the upcoming version of our eCommerce plugin).


So this year I’m going for it, in an attempt to try and make blogging more of a habit, and less of something I do every few months 😛 (yeah I’m not sure why I chose to join in now, rather than when there was money involved either! Must be something to do with intrinsic rewards or whatever!)

So obviously, my first post (the one you’re currently reading) is dedicated to explaining this little challenge (that’s not cheating, I checked!)

But also, since you’re going to be hearing from me a lot over the next month, why not leave a comment and let me know what you’d like me to blog about.

I’m thinking it will be mainly art/painting related, but I’m open to suggestions, as I have been known to go off on tangents from time to time.

Anyway, I’m way over my 250 word quota, so I’m gonna leave it there, otherwise I’m just wasting words that I could be saving for tomorrow! 😛