10 Steps to a Successful block-in 2023

If you are having difficulties getting your painting off the ground, or deciding where to start, then these 10 steps to a successful block in with help you get going in the right direction.

Consider this post a block-in checklist you can return to every time you start a new painting.

As you follow these steps you will notice how they closely follow the steps outlined by A.W. Dow. You can review a recent post here.

Before you start make sure you have all your materials close at hand. Nothing is more frustrating than to be moving along at a steady clip and have to stop and run across the room for some paper towel or a tube of paint.

Now, with that out of the way let’s dive in.

  1. Lay out palette with plenty of paint. Don’t put tiny dots of paint on the palette. Be generous with your paint.
  2. Tone the ground very lightly if at all. (The ground is the surface you are painting on). As I mention in the next step, I tone my canvas with a very thin mixture of Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin crimson.
  3. Make a simple drawing of the big important shapes (elements) you want to include in YOUR Painting. Make it simple. Keep the shapes to fewer than 7. Block out the scene from the drawing with charcoal or directly with bristle brush in transparent paint. I like to use a very thin mixture of Ultramarine blue and Alizarin Crimson. Draw in straight lines; no curved lines. Get the BIG shapes right. Consider the four main planes of value: sky, ground, slanted, vertical. No more than seven big shapes across the four main value planes. Simplify the scene by flattening the big values. By this I mean have one average value for all the shapes in the value plane.
  4. “Decide” where the lights will go in each of the main value planes. In other words which plane is the lightest, then the next one and the next. If the sky plane is the lightest, then the next lightest plane could be the ground plane, next the slanted plane and the darkest could be the vertical plane. Here is an excellent discussion of Carlson’s Theory of Angles’ from the ‘Landscape Atelier‘. You decide the gradient of plane values depending on where you want the viewer to focus their attention. I usually put a number on the canvas that tells me where I have decided the lightest light will be. I use ‘1’ for the lightest light and ‘4’ for the darkest light. Always sure to compare lights to light and dark to dark. Don’t compare light to dark.
  5. Simplify always.
  6. After you “decide” your gradient of lights, lay in the Notan Structure (shadow pattern) in thin, transparent paint. I like to start with the background shapes and move forward. Tone all the shadows in your painting in the same tone. Shadow is what holds your painting together. When you define shadow, you are also defining the lights. Different artist use different methods here. Some make ALL the shadows one tone (usually the darkest value in the work. Other artist might tone their darkest dark in the darkest value, then use slightly lighter values depending on their gradient of dark values. The darks of the trees get more tone than the darks on the hills. You might think of the shadow pattern in terms of slight value differences and stroke direction. This will help to get the dark/light arrangement correct.
  7. With the shadow pattern in place decide on the gradient of darks just like you did with the lights. Generally the shadows in the vertical planes will be the darkest (trees, under bushes, below rocks, etc.) and shadow in the flat ground planes are the lightest, also cloud shadows. Again compare darks to darks. Mix local colors from the color wheel and apply them thinly to the shadow areas (dark green shadow for trees, umber under roof eaves, blue on a slanted roof. Blue on the ground. Again, you decide. Phil Starks instructs his student to not think about what color to mix to match what you “see, but instead to think what colors on your palette you can use to give you the proper value for the plane you are developing. Remember, this is only the block in stage. You will make adjustments as you move along.
  8. Soften the edges with a fairly clean brush. Edges may overlap and it’s probably a good idea to get in the habit of doing this as a matter of course.
  9. After the darks are laid-in, do the lights also in local color. Lights are applied more thickly than darks. Work dark (thin) to light (thick).
  10. STOP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Time to think a little and take a break.

This is a good place to stop. Good job. Now step back and evaluate what you have accomplished.

1. Did you keep the drawing simple – less than 7 shapes.

2.Did you choose your value scale – lightest to the darkest light and darkest to the lightest shadow.

  1. Did you use straight lines, no curves?
  2. Did you make sure to use a clean brush to blend your edges?

We’ll go over each of these steps in more detail in future posts. But for now, get these steps in place and you’ll be on your way to a successful painting.

Happy painting!!!

If you have any questions, or suggestions please leave them in the comments section below.

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