Guest Artist: Russell Black on Design – Using Shapes and Patterns

Guest Artist: Russell Black on Design – Using Shapes and Patterns


A problem that every novice plein aire painter faces is when the landscape is overloaded with “stuff” – too many shapes, too many colors, too many textures. We have a tendency to see too much and then we try to include all of this “stuff” into our painting. We know that we have to simplify, but all too often we end up with a painting that has issues. One way to avoid this problem is to follow a few simple principles of design.

The Problem

First, let me show you the problem…

Above is a picture that I took while visiting Zion National Park in Southern Utah. It’s late fall and this image doesn’t even begin to capture all of the colors and textures that I saw with my eyes. That is yet another problem between what we actually see vs. what a camera sees. Our vision is vastly superior to a camera’s, but that is another “can of worms.” The point is that this scene is full of “stuff,” a massive amount of varied shapes, colors, and textures, all of which can overwhelm our senses and complicate the painting process. I can see the rocks and all of their associated elements, the trees with fall colors ranging from greens to yellows to reds, plants and grasses with even more variations in colors and textures – in short, a visual overload of information.

For the novice or beginning plein aire painter, this information overload can lead us down the wrong path. If we try to paint what we see, without giving consideration to design principles, we can end up with a painting that has fundamental problems.

Above is the painting that I did on location. I gave no thought to design, but I did try to simplify the subject down to what I thought could be painted in a short amount of time. I tried to get the “feeling” of the place, but this painting fails on several fronts, mostly from simple design mistakes. Let me show you.

When we remove the color from the painting, we can see a fundamental flaw – the values are way off. The majority of the shapes are all in the midtone range, and that makes the individual shapes difficult to “read.” Color alone cannot save a painting. To fix this painting, we must reconsider the subject and what we want to “say” with the piece and then design the shapes, values, and colors to support that idea.

Designing the Painting – What do you want to say?

Emile Gruppé said, “The problem is knowing what you want to say in a picture…” The first step in the painting process is determining the “what” – what is it that you want to say or convey with the painting? Trying to “say” everything that you see is a common mistake. In this case, I cannot tell the entire story of canyon, rocks, trees, bushes, plants, river, sand, etc. It’s just too much. I have to simplify the story, or idea, down to something that I can reasonably paint on a piece of paper. The “what” needs to be defined first, and then I can work on the “how” that gets the job done.

To begin, I want to write down my ideas for the painting, and I like to write them down on paper. It gives me a list of ides that I can try out. If one idea does not work, another idea might be just what I need. Some of the ideas for this scene might be…

  1. The canyon in fall. This idea is not very specific as to the “what,” but it is a start. I could deal abstractly with just a set of basic, minimalist shapes, and then concentrate on the issue of making a statement about the fall colors. A realist statement could be problematic as the colors of the rocks are closely similar in value to the fall colors of the foliage. This was my initial problem in the current painting. Trying to paint the entire canyon can cause problems.
  2. Fall trees in Zion. This idea simplifies things down to just the foliage. In a practical sense, it eliminates the majority of information in favor of a simple statement that can be painted easily. By painting just the trees and their fall colors, I can concentrate on one specific subject.
  3. Canyon rocks. This idea excludes the issue of fall colors in favor of making a statement about the geological elements of the canyon itself. Rocks and their formations can make for an exciting painting, but I could use this idea at any time. If I want this to be seasonal, then I can save this idea for another day.
  4. Canyon light. This idea captures the particular lighting that was present at the time. Light in the fall is different than light in the spring or the summer. Fall light is softer, and grayer in most cases. The Impressionists made their statements about the quality of light on the landscape. I could simplify the shapes and then play around with the Chroma of the colors to recreate the early morning light of the scene.
  5. Use a different POV. The POV, or “Point of View,” is where we are standing relative to the scene. In this case, I was standing about ten feet (approximately three meters), above the river bed on a trail that runs parallel to the Virgin River. While standing, my eye line is about 5′ – 3″ above ground (the average height). In Linear Perspective terms, my “horizon line” is at that height plus the ten feet to the river bed. That is my POV when looking out over the landscape. I could physically alter this POV in a number of ways. I could drop down the embankment and stand at “river” level. I could choose to sit while painting, altering my POV to about three feet above ground, or I could even lie down on the ground and see the landscape from a “worm’s eye” view. All of these positions are physically within my power to achieve. However, there is one last possibility, the “imagined” POV. I could imagine what this scene could look like from fifty feet up in the air. No, I cannot levitate, but I can imagine what the scene might look like from a “bird’s eye” view, even if I cannot achieve that position physically.

There are more ideas to be found, but these will do for a start. When we begin to think creatively rather than just copy what is in front of us, we open up new avenues for our expression and new possibilities for our creativity. These ideas are like having money in the bank saved up for a rainy day. In fact, when the weather is unsuitable for outdoor work, I pull out my notebook and look through my stockpile of ideas. I do not work from photographs (I haven’t for over twenty years now). I use my “ideas” coupled with my on location sketches to create my paintings.

Once I have my idea in hand, I can then begin the next step in the design process.

Designing the Painting – the Whitney way

In my opinion, Ed Whitney was one of America’s greatest watercolor painters. His book, “Watercolor – The Hows and Whys” (currently reprinted as, “The Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting”), is an instruction manual on how to design a painting. It is more of a, “how to design a painting” book than it is a book on how to paint with watercolors. Whitney assumes that the reader has a basic understanding of watercolor techniques and concentrates more on how to create a good painting structurally.

Once the “idea” has been decided upon, Whitney makes it clear as to how to design the painting…

“Design the shapes first, fitting nature or objects into them. A synthesis occurs in the mind while thinking shapes. An awareness of the matter to be fitted is requisite, but shapes, space divisions, value, and color cords are your concern when creating pattern.”

There are two issues here, the first is the creation of “shapes” which will substitute, or stand in, for the actual subject matter. The second issue is the creation of a “pattern,” the underlying structure of the design.

Shape and Pattern

Whitney says to design the shapes first and then fit the subject (nature or objects), into the created shapes. He did not say to look at the subject and copy what you see. There is a big difference between those two statements. What Whitney asks you to do is to create a shape that can then be used to suggest the subject. The shape itself is more important than what the shape represents. The subject (a tree, rock, house, etc.), is secondary to the shape and how that shape relates to all of the other created shapes. Understanding this concept frees us from the self-imposed need to “draw things exactly as they are.” Once we remove the “requirement” to draw accurately, or to copy the photograph, or the scene as it appears, we can then begin to design shapes that work together to create a unified whole.

The other instruction that Whitney gives us is to create a “pattern” within the frame of the painting. This pattern, which is created by the shapes and values, is what we are ultimately after when we work. This created pattern is our primary concern. For Whitney, there were six patterns that he used on a regular basis, but I will tell you that there are quite a few more than that, depending on the type and style of art work that you are creating. Let’s review the six basic Whitney patterns…

  1. A piece of darker value in lighter values.
  2. A piece of lighter value in darker values.
  3. A small light area and a large dark area in midtones.
  4. A small dark area and a large light area in midtones.
  5. Gradation, in any direction, up, down, or across.
  6. An “allover pattern” as in textile design – an equal surface tension or visual strength throughout the rectangle.

The established pattern is the structure on which we hang the elements of the painting.

Design Process

The process for designing a painting can now be summed up in three simple steps…

  1. Step 1 – the idea, or the “what do you want to say?”
  2. Step 2 – choose a pattern that can convey this idea.
  3. Step 3 – design the shapes to suggest the subject, and arrange them according to the chosen pattern. This involves not only the elements of design (shape, value, color, and texture), but the principles of design as well (contrast, dominance, variety, and unity).

The end result will be what we call the “shape/value/pattern sketch,” or simply, the value pattern sketch. Once I have the value pattern sketch, creating the painting is an easy thing to accomplish.

New Design

Let’s begin to create the new design for the painting.

  1. Step 1 – since my original idea was to capture the fall trees along the canyon, I think that I will stay with this idea, however, I want to simplify and abstract the shapes and organize the values better.
  2. Step 2 – the pattern that I want to work with is the small light area and the large dark area within an overall midtone field. I will have to modify this pattern a bit and I want to split the midtones into at least two values.
  3. Step 3 – now I can sketch out the new idea…
the new shapes
left: the rectangle, right: the ground line

My first shape was the shape of the picture frame itself – rectangular and horizontal (blue). This format says “landscape” better than either a vertical rectangle or a square frame. If I were to try another idea, say the idea about painting just the trees themselves, I would use a vertical format. I have used a similar size ratio as my intended painting, a quarter sheet of watercolor paper at 11″ x 15″, so my sketch was made within a rectangle at 3″ x 4.5″, roughly the same ratio of 2:3.

Since the trees and canyon are vertical elements that sit above the ground line, I place this line (red), slightly below the horizontal center of the frame in order to give the vertical elements enough space. I will relate all shapes to this established ground line.

I simplify the shapes of the “things” (trees, rocks, canyon walls, river, etc.), and just use basic shapes for each. This is not a linear perspective drawing, but I do want to create a bit of depth and I do this by using the principle of overlap. Shapes sit either “in front of” other shapes or “behind” other shapes. The use of overlapping shapes is the primary way with which we create the illusion of depth on a two dimensional, flat piece of paper.

Notice, I do not try to explain each and every element of the scene. At this point, simple shapes do the job better and are easier to arrange within the frame. The “rock” shapes have the feeling of rock, in other words, they are angular and irregular. I do not have to draw every rock, just the major areas of rock. The trees are likewise simplified down to a “tree” type shape. I do not try to draw a specific type of tree (in this case a cottonwood), but a shape that can represent a tree. In a sense, these shapes are symbols. They are abstract representations of the subject at hand. I cannot paint a rock, or a tree, or a river, but I can paint a symbol and a shape that represents those items. Remember, all you can paint on a flat piece of paper are flat shapes.

Shapes should be carefully crafted. Whitney had some guidelines for what a “good” shape should be…

  1. A shape should have variety in its length and breadth dimensions.
  2. Its directional thrust being a dynamic oblique.
  3. It should have “incidents at the edges,” interlocking with negative areas.

Not every shape needs to be a “good” shape, but the majority should be. What you want to avoid are “static” shapes, shapes that are equal in size and direction, and those that do not interact with the other shapes. A few static shapes are acceptable, but a design made up with “poor” shapes will be boring to look at. When we create entertaining shapes that are fun to look at, we create a better painting.

Once all of the shapes are located, we can begin to place the values within the design. Since I am back in the studio, I can use the computer to assist me. On location, I would use either pencil or markers to create the value pattern sketch. Either way, I use the same process to create the value sketch.

add a light midtone

The first thing I do is add a light midtone to the entire sketch. Since I am a watercolor painter, when I create the value sketch I am also creating the sequence that I use to apply watercolor to the paper. This sketch designs the paint application as well. The light midtone will become the first wash on my watercolor paper.

establish the “light” shape

I also need to establish the reserved “whites” of the painting, or the light shape. This is critical to the success of a watercolor painting as we do not have white paint when painting in transparent watercolor. I have to leave the white shape when I lay down the first wash. In this case, I choose to leave the “river” shape as my light shape. There are other options, but for this example I am selecting the river to be my light shape.

left: the center midtones, right: the dark midtones

Since the trees and rocks in the scene are all midtone in value (the problem with my original painting), I am going to use the light midtone for the trees and a slightly darker, center midtone for the rocks. I then add the darker midtones for the background canyon wall and several key shapes in the midground and foreground. The changes in value separate the shapes and create the pattern that I need.

I will not add in the darkest darks or any details to this sketch at this time. I want to keep this value sketch simple and easy to execute. Making a complicated value sketch is not necessary. These value sketches should take about ten to fifteen minutes to make. Work out the problems of the design using the value sketch. If the value sketch works, then the painting should work. You may have issues with the techniques of watercolor painting, but you should never have design issues once you pick up a brush.

As an instructor, I tell my students to never paint without a value sketch, and as you can see with my original painting, this is good advice. With this new value sketch in hand, I can now make a better painting.

New Painting

With the value sketch in hand, I can now begin the new painting. The one thing that I did not do, as yet, is to pick my color palette. Since the idea is, “fall trees along the canyon,” I need to pick colors that will say “fall.” I will also have to choose a color relationship with complementary and discord colors. The color “yellow-orange” is the color that says “fall” to me. This is the basic tree color. I do not want to use just a single, mixed color, so I will use a combination of three colors from my palette for my first wash – Cadmium Yellow, Raw Sienna, and Opera (a bright pink that creates a transparent orange when mixed with yellow).

After transferring my sketch to a quarter sheet of 140 lb cold press watercolor paper, I mix up separate puddles of each color on my palette. Try not to mix colors on the palette. Allow them to mix on the paper and you will get better results. Over mixing in the palette is the main reason we get “muddy” color.

the first wash

I will follow the same basic procedure that I used to create the value sketch. I begin by wetting the paper on both sides creating a “wet” sheet. I place this wet sheet on my waterproof painting board and then I use a towel to “roll” the painting back to just barely damp. Since I need to cover a large area with my first wash, painting on a damp sheet makes it easier. My colors will blend together as the core of the paper is still wet, but my shape edges will hold as the surface of the paper is nearly dry.

Using my three colors, I paint the entire sheet except for the shape of the river, which is my reserved area of white paper. This creates a single, unified mass. The transparent layers of washes will be modified by this under-wash and it will keep the painting unified. The painting has to dry completely before I can continue.

the second wash

Once the painting had dried completely, I then mixed up a batch of blue color consisting of Cerulean Blue and Phthalo Blue, but more on the Cerulean side. I wanted a light blue, but I needed the staining power of the Phthalo color (it being a synthetic dye color). Using a soft brush, I apply this color to all of the shapes except for the trees and some of the rock shapes. I have to do this gently to avoid lifting the previous layer, so I do so quickly and I do not go over an area more than once.

This layer of color changes the painting from a dominant “warm” to a dominant “cool” statement. In order to show you the warmth of the fall color of the trees, I have to contrast that idea with cool colors. If everything in the painting is warm, then nothing is warm. You need to have contrast of temperature and show warm against cool, or cool against warm. That is one of the principles of design I mentioned earlier.

When you create contrast, or opposition, you have to resolve that contrast somehow. How we do this within a painting is by using dominance (another principle of design). I do not want an equal 50-50 balance of warm against cool. I need one temperature to be dominant over the other. In this case, since the trees and their color are my main idea, I push the rest of the shapes over into the cool side of things. This dominance of cool colors helps to accent the smaller number of warm shapes.

Another thing that this layer of cool blue does for me is to create some nice neutral colors. When you layer cool over warm (or warm over cool), you naturally create neutral colors, or grays. If you apply the paint carefully, then the resulting optical mix of colors will be clean and glowing. If you use your brush too aggressively, then you can stir up the previous layer of color and that can lead to a muddy mess. As long as the new layer of transparent color is applied gently, then your color mixes will remain good. You will get neutral colors without the mud.

This new layer has to dry again before I can move on to the next step.

the third layer

This third layer will separate the shape of the “sky” from the canyon. I’m using another cool color, a red-violet, that was mixed from Alizarin Crimson (a cool red), and Indanthrene Blue (a warm blue). The mixture leans towards the red side of violet and was thin enough to allow the previous washes to show through.

The image probably does not show the subtle range of colors in the painting, but they are there. I am working within the midtone range of the design. What I am trying to do is to establish the value relationships between each of the shapes based on my value sketch. Once I have established the pattern of shapes and values, I can then begin to deal with each shape individually.

During the entire procedure thus far, I have been using a 2″ wide flat brush to put down my layers. The use of a large brush helps me to lay in the colors quickly without a lot of fuss and bother. Do not use a small brush or you will spend too much time stroking the painting which could lift the under layers and cause you problems.

The use of the large brush has another benefit in that I am not getting finicky with my shapes at this point. If I were to use a small brush, then I would get caught up in trying to put in details too early in the process. I am trying to block the painting in and establish the large areas of value first. Once all of the major shapes have been attended to, then I can go back in and add the small bits and pieces that will tell a more complete story. This is one reason that I do not make a detailed value sketch in the beginning. If I had a sketch that has all of the bells and whistles, with every little detail drawn out, I would naturally want to include those in the painting. I would get ahead of myself and botch the job by trying to say too much too soon. This is where you have to trust to the process and have some patience. If you will do this one step at a time, the painting will take care of itself.

the fourth layer

The fourth layer is done the same way, picking out the shapes of the far canyon wall and foreground shapes. This was painted using Indanthrene Blue only. The blue is in direct contrast to the yellow-orange of the tree shapes. This completes the block-in of the painting. What I want to do now is check this stage of the painting with my original value sketch to see how things stand up.

left: the gray scale of the painting after 4 layers, right: the value sketch

Comparing the two, I can see that the dark midtones in my painting could be pushed a bit farther down the value scale. This is fine as I have some wiggle room to go darker if I need to. Now that the painting is close to what I want value wise, I can begin to work each shape towards completion.

the finished painting, “Fall Colors” by Russell Black

To finish the painting, I only have to add those marks, dots, and lines that complete the statement. For example, the trees required only a few lines to suggest trunks and branches along with a few dots to indicate leaves. The important rocks received a few marks and lines as well.

Since this was intended to be a somewhat abstracted statement, the “symbols” for each of the elements was simplified. You do not have to paint every blade of grass or every pebble on the beach in order to get your message across. Suggest rather than render and you will make a better painting.

I hope that you have enjoyed this instructional tip.

Happy painting everyone.

-Russell Black

Please note this is an article repost.
Original publish date overwritten.
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  1. Ken Roy

    Good, practical info. Thanks for posting.

  2. Francesco Gallarotti

    This article together with the one you just published are to be printed out and saved. Thank you both for sharing this level of insight which is way above my skills and yet which makes so much sense once I read through it… thank you!

    1. Glad to do it. Stay tuned for similar articles coming in the future.
      Thanks for leaving a comment

  3. Angel Villarreal

    How good is this? All that is needed to begin painting the proper way. Expert advise and wonderful presentation by Mr.Rusell as always. Indeed, we beginners struggle because of lack of good guidance and confussion created by thinking that painting is just putting colors down on paper. Very greatful to you Daniel and Rusell for providing this information… provides plenty of material to study, practice and apply in our paintings.

    1. Thank you for the kind words Angel. I am sure to pass them to Mr. Black.
      Stay tuned, more articles like this are coming in the future.

      1. Angel

        Thanks for having this platform and making it available to newcomers like myself Daniel.

        1. It is my pleasure Angel.

  4. Pavel

    Veľmi cenné rady Daniel – ďakujem že som si tieto info mohol prečítať a vidieť perfektnú výstavbu obrazu.

    1. Dobry den Pavel, som rad, ze sa Vam clanok pacil. Na mojich strankach ste vzdy vitany.

  5. Magdalena French

    Hello Daniel,
    I just stumbled upon you on YouTube, which led me to your website. Thank you for explaining in such detail this design and value process – which, being a novice to watercolour (and art), I have such trouble with. I have gained a much clearer understanding of these concepts through your explanations. I can see how you have applied them to your paintings and hope that I can begone to express myself in my paintings using these guidelines. Extremely helpful and informative. I am very much inspired by reading about how people came to watercolour and the paths they took and are taking to learn this wonderful medium – it fills me with hope. I would love to know your story.
    Magdalena French

    1. Hello Magdalena and thank you for visiting my website. I am glad you’re enjoying the content and I’m glad you’re finding it personally beneficial. I was not clear in this article about the author. This particular article was contributed by Russell Black, a great artist and friend.
      Please check out my other lessons, there’s a lot of information that can be helpful to you. Also I would encourage you to look at my new series “Think & Paint” that discusses things from a different perspective. These are just coming out weekly so you’ll have to check back every week or you can also subscribe to my newsletter to get updates directly to your inbox.
      I’ll consider putting my story into an article if you’re interested. I only have my artist’s statement available at this time, you can read it on the following link:
      Thanks again for your visit and please feel free to share these articles with your friends on social sites, means a lot.

  6. Debbie Abshear

    Very helpful article. I didn’t realize it was not written by you until the end where I saw Russell Blacks name. He is a favorite of mine. Although I don’t paint in the same style, I believe every painting needs to be designed first. This is an area I struggle with. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for visiting again Debbie. Russell is indeed a great artist and I’m honored to have this article of his here on my site. Sorry for the lack of clear information about the author, I fixed my meta tags, now you can see the author right below the main title.

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