Painting "Fundamentals" for the Advanced Artist

Painting "Fundamentals" for the Advanced Artist

By Keene Wilson


The two most important things in painting are value and design. If the foundation is strong, painting will stand up.

Ambivalence in your approach to painting will lead to an ambivalent response in the viewer.

Visualize the finished painting, know the color harmony, how the painting is to vibrate.

All paintings must have: a sense of space, design (masses must hold together abstractly), and artistic blend of strength and subtlety.

Have a general direction in mind, but don’t try to have all the answers

Chose to see in a particular way and with a consistent structural unity

Follow your feeling while painting, do most thinking beforehand

Beginners paint objects, experienced painters paint passages

Learn to subdue the natural tendency to see detail and value changes. Edit out that which doesn’t help clarify.


Focus on getting the relationships right

Temperature and value relate to what’s next to it, harmony relates to the whole painting, composition relates to masses, soften edges relative to the focal point,

A color is what it appears to be only because of its relationship to the surrounding colors. When we paint, we really aren't copying the colors of nature, we are painting the color relationships. We don't have the color palette that nature has, so we must give the illusion of truth through the relationships of the colors we choose.


Group darks and lights and separate into a large, clear pattern, group/gradate within the pattern.

First find the nice thing about a composition, then hide it.

“Muddy Alligators” by John Singer Sargent  


Click to view 20 Compositions (on Pinterest)


Underlying principle: Balance of vitality (contrast and opposition) with harmony. Vitality comes with use of brilliant colors, opposition of light with dark values, complementary hues and warm and cool colors. Harmony is achieved with the use of a pervading color, modifying complementaries with their opposites, and gradation of value and hue.

Think abstractly

A main objective in the art of painting is to disguise the use of methods or the influence of principles.

Be a little bit sloppy

Vary shape, direction and position, color; dramatize; sharpen points, large areas immense, small areas tiny, etc.

Design is critical – simple pattern, light/dark, color harmony, shapes, clarity/mystery, variety, contrast

Everything has gradation.

Richard Schmid’s paintings are considered highly realistic, but note how conscious he was of the abstract pattern in “Sketch of Nancy”.


       presented up-side-down to emphasize the design                                       and right-side-up


It’s not what you leave in, but what you leave out.

Think about editing and design all along

Edit out that which doesn’t help clarify

Everything for one thing

Look for the minimum visual information then add any detail on top of that. Yet, edit out that which doesn’t help clarify

Make a decision rather than mindlessly copying what’s there

For every painting you have to decide what it is about and what kind of reaction you want.

“Pulling Together” by Skip Lawrence    


Law of fine shapes – a dynamic oblique with different measures and interlocking edges (“incidents”) – Edgar Whitney

Think big, medium, small throughout painting


Harmonize the whole canvas as you go – no matter what’s out there

Look for contrasts of color that you can make both interesting and believable.

Alternate warm/cool within color family throughout painting.

Color and value appear truest in the core.

Use specific colors to express specific planes. Paint complexion tones in regard to the planes assigned to them: X planes warm; Y planes cool.

Click to view 20 Artists Showcasing Color (on Pinterest)


Art happens somewhere between clarity and ambiguity, concept and intuition.

Make something clear and recognizable, then tantalize with something left to interpretation

The best art amazes us because of what the artist left out, not because of what he or she put in. Provide just enough information to start perception in the right direction, let the mind of the viewer fill in the rest. A certain lack of clarity makes paintings more interesting because if everything is revealed at a glance why look longer. The viewer will complete the painting better than you could

If your goal is technical correctness, you will probably paint tightly. Set goals such as “paint quality”, “the effect of lig

ht”, “exciting color and shape organization” to allow for a more creative approach.

It’s not about making it correct (copying) but about making it interesting

“Stepping” by Melinda Matyas    


  • pattern,
  • shadows,
  • gesture, 
  • perspective/recession,
  • color harmony/passages,
  • the effect of light,
  • planes,
  • separation between light and dark
  • structure
  • Don’t exaggerate the variation – look for the clear simple statement first

“Old Man” by Andrew Wyeth  

Palette Management

Keep the palette mixing space organized.

For greater intensity, mix cools with cools and warms with warms.

Make an “octopus of colors”. Given a base color you wish to modify, blend the base color with each of several options. Create a range of value options.

Mix the color needed next to a color already used and when an intense color is needed, keep it uncontaminated with other colors.

Find the value and color on the palette, then place it

All the harmony is created on the palette.


2 palette mixing areas, after use


Emphasize structure. Don’t allow reality to destroy structure.

Overlap is the most powerful conveyer of depth

Get the gesture right (action, proportion and balance) before moving on


Color is mostly a matter of personal choice, but value is factual.

Don’t try to paint the values you see, but the value relationships you want.

When you’re chasing color, often it’s not the color that’s wrong, but the value.

Use as few value differences as possible, make warm and cool color changes rather than value changes

All the color within a shape value must live within that value

Initially, limit your value choices to two, three or four separate and distinct values, but later there can be subtle value differences within each value range, with each plane having its own value and temperature relative to other planes within its value range.

Value Painting Process

Group darks and lights and separate into a large, clear pattern, then group/gradate within the pattern.

Structure/construction; then values, “tonal solution”, initially everything flat; then draw into the tonal solution to pick out just enough to clarify what is happening; then color

Exaggerate planes and push the contrast between light and shadow


Reference photo, value study and demonstration painting by Vadim Zang

Depicting Form

Light and shadow will each have a value range which doesn’t overlap the other. Within these two values can show core shadow, cast shadow, reflected light, mid-tone and highlight.

Once you get the color and value structure laid in, think topographically using the principles of structure (not the subtle changes of form); this area goes in, this area comes out.

Use the shadow shape corner (always the “edge” nearest to you) to tell viewer where and how much the form turns.

Find the largest shapes possible within a form, simplify the form, then reduce the number of value changes needed to suggest it.

Establish the form from the model, but decide on your own color scheme. Use drawing skills and knowledge of value and temperature shifts to depict the form, but don’t paint the color you see, but rather establish the design using all aspects of color, then exaggerate color shifts to depict the form given the design.

All lighted areas should hold together as one group, as should the shadow areas. When distinguishing shadow forms, first establish how they belong together before showing how they are different.

Use value and color to describe topography (instead of copying the values and colors you see)

The right bone structure or topography will give a likeness.

Demonstration painting by Henry Yan  


Have one area with precise edges and strong value contrast (focal point), and another with compatible values and lost edges

Blend a lot but keep the colors clean in spots. Look for opportunities for lost/found edges where shapes of the same value meet.

Soften edges relative to the focal point

For brushstrokes think “power and variety”.

Use “markers” (line, shape, value, color) to keep track of where you are on the canvas without resorting to “paint within the lines”

Scraping with palette knife contrasts with thickness of brushstrokes and provides luminous and transparent effects

Contrast tight areas with loose.

Thin shadows, impasto lights.

Slow down, apply brushstroke with a descriptive purpose, and leave the stroke undisturbed

Apply each stroke as its best and final statement.

Lay in washes boldly, but put in impasto strokes slowly.

For brushstrokes think “power and variety”.

Use “markers” (line, shape, value, color) to keep track of where you are on the canvas without resorting to “paint within the lines”

Contrast tight areas with loose.

Use turpentine to thin, then wipe away with cloth

Hold brush very loosely


French gate demonstration by Ovanes Berberian

Pushing Color Harmony

First establish the value range, then you can bend the temperature any way necessary

To push color, keep the value and temperature, but the color can be any color. Shadows won’t be intense even when the color is pushed.

Connect hues throughout in ways which improve the design

Palette management is critical. Complements with a blended range connecting them are harmonious whereas unblended they contrast.

Harmony is created by limiting the color choices and blending.

Harmonize a painting by either adding a touch of the light color to each element touched by the light and add colors of the opposite temperature in the shadow, or have every color lean toward a common color direction.


“Gray Whale Cove” by Elio Camacho  

What to Think About

Should it be lighter/darker, richer/grayer, warmer/cooler?

Different plane = different temperature and different value. Don’t, however, lose the initial color/value structure.

Paint with your idea (contrast, moody, high key, what happens to the light?) Be consistent.

Rules of Thumb

Blending creates harmony,

Warm/intense comes forward,

Dull/grey recedes.

Use shifts in value and temperature to convey how the form turns, but not the color you see

“Mostly, some and a bit” is the basic formula for pleasing color schemes.

Use/invent a single light source.

Analyze, Don’t Copy

When in doubt, simplify.

Design, using severe grouping into 2, 3 or 4 values and 5 or 6 shapes. Initially, the two, three or four values are separate and distinct, but later there can be subtle value differences within each value range, with each plane having its own value and temperature relative to other planes within its value range.

“Last Road of the Day, Study 3” by Steve Huston  



Take care of patterns before any details.

Start with flat shapes. Just focus on accurate values and color temperatures.

Lay in the darks with variation between warm and cool darks with spots of great, pure color, yet surrounded by subtle grays. Blend a lot but keep the colors clean in spots. Look for opportunities for lost/found edges where shapes of the same value meet.

For as long as possible, focus on passages, no detail and no modeling

Search for the correct color relationships.


Blend frequently to get the correct colors and values. Later lay thicker paint on top with obvious brushstrokes where emphasis is needed

Refine shapes with temperature, not value.

Look for gradation and core shadows

Keep the lights as near the same value as possible; keep the mass that is in shadow, always in shadow, and make differences by gradations in color


“Rest in Harvest" by William Adolphe Bouguereau


“Paint the painting” purely to improve the design and enhance the effect

Make creative choices using the scene merely as a reference.

“Finish” is not more detail, but a little bit of enhancing and a lot of softening/subtlety.


“Backlit Flowers”, “Exuberance” and “Gonna Get Wet” by Keene Wilson


Further Reading:





Plein Air Painting Concepts and Techniques

Vision and Light

Artists Revealing Their “Secrets”