WIP ….WORK IN PROGRESS – watercolour – a tonal ‘notan’……WIP

I’ve been working on a large oil painting these last three weeks. A commission. It’s 130 x 81 cm – approx 51 x 32 inches. Bigger than my usual size. Good to be doing something different. A lot of work, which I’ll post as WIPs (work in progress) here. Thank you for all your comments. So many of them, makes me feel that internet is full of readers who care…

Large plein-air paintings require extra attention at the planning & conception stages, especially if they are a commission ie take into account of the customer’s wishes of what is to be included in the painting.

Here is the composition sketch:

I always do one of these for every painting. Knowing what goes where is a big big relief. Which takes the stress off somewhat so one can just concentrate on the painting, and panic less about the composition. Doing one of thee is visual thinking & can’t be replaced by assuming an intellectual idea of what goes where is enough. Note how it’s a ‘plastic’ process. The framing grows or shrinks to fit. Look & see how the frame lines go on last of all. I even had to fit on an extra page so as to make the size of the sky fit. Actually I went for a longer panorama in the end & not the more rectangular format of the above compositional sketch. The point is that my mind was now more orientated towards the painting & possibilities of how it might unfold.

The next stage is the tonal sketch. A ‘notan’. I say notan cautiously because a pure notan is in fact, a sketch for Japanese wood cut engravings aka Hokusai & not all the lovely subtle graduations of one tone washing into the other that you can get in watercolour. The point is to work out:

  • where are the major blocks of light & dark?
  • where is the centre of interest ie where do you want the eye to go to?
  • where is the light source?
  • what quality of light?
  • what is the incline of the sunlight?

You can click on the notan & tonality categories on the side of this page to read more.

see the finished painting

Watercolour by Candle Light/value study

waterclour of a converstaion around a table at night time

‘Conversation by Candle Light’
38 x 25 cm
watercolour & watercolour pencil
© adam cope

… and now for the candlestick, of course 😉


monochrome value study watercolour of a candle stick

32 x 24 cm
watercolour value study
© adam cope

w & n neutral tint….


great for value studies in watercolour


UNFINISHED STATE WIP work inprogress
‘Ilots, Pontours, Dordogne – 2’
Medium Size Oil on Canvas
70 x 33 cm
©Adam Cope

Actual Size Detail – to give you an idea of how the paint is applied

Palette of muted winter browns in weak sunlight. Bright ultramarine reflections of the sky on still waters. Running rapids broken bluish greys & browny umbers. Ominous deep shadows revealing the black underside of the river. Deep violet angerous depths, quiet capable of killing anyone who has the misfortune to falling in. Local legend has it that a dragon lives in the cliffs at St. Front, the next cliff downstream. I can believe it. Here the river crosses a flat bed of rock but with treacherous chasms of up to three meters deep. Dangerous places. The little islands – ‘îlots’ – are perfect bird sanctuaries.I’m still having difficulties with the top left corner & so reserve the right to work some more, when I can see what is needed. Any suggestions? What do you think?

Painting fast flowing water isn’t easy. Sometimes you have to look at it with the eye of a fisherman, studying the underworld beneath the surface. Other times with the eye of a draughtsman, holding on for dear life to the quarter tones. The long low shadows establish the surface plane, which should be more or less flat. Except in this case, where my eyes were bobbing up & down as the water reared up white crested over the rapids….


Look at this quarter tone cut out via photoshop to see how tone has to be exact.


Here’s the last painting which had a strong tonal theme of black tree-trunks/white blossom.

Here’s the same painting with the colour stripped out in PS via greyscale.

Here’s the greyscale is changed by darkening the mid-tone grey in PS.


Using Photoshop elements to help painting

It’s more stormy with the white blossom more dramatic. But it wasn’t exactly like that whilst painting ‘en plein-air’….it was more like the first greyscale…. sometimes it’s difficult to break off from copying ‘mes petits sensations’ (Cézanne – meaning enregistering the optical data for each little glance, each little staccato perception bounced back).

Do I have a problem getting my tonal values right?

As a colourist, I tend prioritise colour over value. Heighten, exaggerate the colour. I like very much the simplicity of what the english watercolourist Trevor Chamberlain, said – ‘I’m basically a tonal painter with colour laid over the top’. Could I say that I’m basically a colourist with a high tonal contrast laid over the top? This is probably too intellectual? The truth often eludes recipes & descriptions & I find that no two paintings unfold in the same way.

Or maybe it’s a badly exposed jpeg?

Maybe I should do some black & white oils?

Maybe I should use one eye for colour & the other eye for tone! LOL (in fact that’s morre or less what scientists are saying about rod & cone receptor cells in the eyeball).

Off to paint in the orchard now, with a nice bright but overcast light today, with no shadows & little tonal contrast. No more blossom.


‘Sunset : 21 December, longest night’
medium size oil on canvas
8 figure (46 x 38 cm; approx 18 x 14 inches)
© adam cope

oil painting of sunset on longest night

Something amazing happened yesterday. The grey skies that have weighed us under this last month parted & THERE WAS LIGHT. It felt like rebirth. Longest night has passed & thankfully now we turn back towards the light.

Winter silhouettes of black (trees) against a colour rich, bright lit sky of clear winter colours, reflections in the river Dordogne.

Black in Painting

You will not be able to see this but the black in the painting is actually dioxazine violet with lamp black laid over the top. Most photography doesn’t register this difference in the low end of the tonal range. My Cannon EOS 400 D certainly can’t; it’s a bad camera with too many digital distortions in how it writes its files. Systematically underexposes & gets the colour wrong. The violet is a fine colourist complement for the yellows in the sky & doesn’t muddy the colours as black does. Like most colorists, I have a somewhat schizophrenic relationship to black. I prefer to ‘ break’ colours with their colourist mixing complement rather than tone down with black, thus arriving at a high key brighter palette, more suited for the luminousity of plein-air. Some call it a ‘chromatic black’ because it’s colour friendly.


Yet black exists in the visual world, as a colour in its own right. It exists in my mind’s eye, in my map of colour… “Black Bible Black”. The marriage of ‘The Dark Partner’ to ‘The Shining Bride’ (white) is essential to a good painting. That’s to say that the black & white relationship is the base of a good watercolour. And even in an oil, the black scaffold gives structure & immediate impact to an image, which is essential in the quick glimpse, short attention span of the web. Some mistakenly call it ‘Notan’

Quatorze Juillet en Dordogne

14 Juillet en Dordogne…parties & fireworks. Hoping to get out painting tonight (teaching tomorrow) as it is a good paint. Next post is about the English in Dordogne & house prices… & here’s an expert from last year’s bloggy Jour de la Republique…

TONALITY : ’14 Juilliet – Fête de la Republique’

‘Quatorze Juillet, Beaumont, Dordogne’
28 x 38 cm (15″ x 11″)
Toutes Droits Reservés© The Artist.

“…Then later on, when the crowd had thinned out, white plastic cups & on-lookers & a few adolescents still eager to play the flirting, mating game. The white tressle tables & black silouhettes making a good tonal subject.”


The historic roots of provincial France

Anyone wanting to better understand the historic roots of provincial France outside of cosmopolitan Paris should read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France, which is a critical view of ‘La Patrie, La France, La Republique’ aka central government from Paris. For instance, Robb cites that, during the call-up for the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870’s, many men from remote farming hamlets in the Dordogne, didn’t even know their own surname, only their first name…they never had the need for their surname as they never left their hamlet of seven or eight houses… this is very different from the tragic First-World War memorials in every single village where whole families’ names are listed, annihilated by tragic war.

Watercolour of The Great Sphinx of Giza

DETAIL : ‘The Great Sphinx of Giza’
60 x 77cm
© The Artist.

28 x 38 cm (15″ x 11″)
Toutes Droits Reservés© The Artist.
Click on image to enlarge (& see without the blur).

Quatorze Juilliet in Beaumont town. Tressel tables, vin, grillade & frites. Everybody in town, including all the farming families. Disco, dancing, people watching, laughter & neighbours.

Painting in monochrome, using Winsor & Newton Neutral tint on Arches quarter sheet. Night time painting. ‘Sur la vif’, very much on the hoof as people moving very quickly, milling about in visual confusion, difficult to pick out a target, but I enjoyed the fun of the fair. Something about crowds & music that appeals to my painter-self.

Then later on,when the crowd had thinned out, white plastic cups & on-loookers & a few adolescents still eager to play the flirting mating game. The white tressle tables & black sillohouttes making a good tonal subject.

28 x 38 cm (15″ x 11″)
Toutes Droits Reservés© The Artist.


What I particularly like was the sweetie- candy floss stall. If I knew how, I would have painted this but then at half one in the morning, it was not long till the stall & tables would be packed away. The fifth repubique was saved & we all had a good time.

felt tip pens
© The Artist.

Sellers of tins of conserved duck at the french market place
Attack of the giant white trades vans!!

notan = design in black & white, tonality

NOTAN : ‘Poisson Frais du Marché’

15 x 21 cm. Felt Tip Pens on Paper. Notan study.
Tous droits reservés. Copyright – The Artist.
BTW, this was a demonstration piece of last week’s painting workshop here in france

French Market Places

The fish-monger’s wife was a cubist delight, a three tone design with a flip of a fin.

Market day is wonderfully animated with lots of commotion & visual complexity. Learning to concentrate under such lively conditions can be of great use to a plein-airist. Working ‘sur la vif’, sketching in public, on location, with people looking at you, these elements require a kind of opening oneself up to moving world of passers by, which can ,actually & surprisingly, be very inspiring. Rather than being a distraction, people’s curiousity can actually be a spur for inspiration. Here in France, most people reallly want you to succeed & paint a master piece!

Here’s a night-time ink drawing from Sarlat, where there was literally THOUSANDS of people milling about, watching the spectacles. All the fun of the fair, the world & his wife. Artist stay inside your bubble of concentration and gently sway with the commotion, remember you do not own the scene in front of you but like everyone else, are merely moving through – ‘du passage.’

‘Belle Nuit d’Été à Sarlat’
Encre chine, papier Moulin de la Rouzique.
Tous droits reservés. Copyright – the artist.