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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

2 Great Painting Tips from Kevin MacPherson

"Alfred" - underpainting in progress - oil 9x12"
Just got back from a fantastic workshop in San Francisco with Kevin MacPherson. He is not only a masterful painter, he’s a great guy. He is passionate about teaching, lots of fun to learn from, and really knows what he’s talking about. Super worth studying from!

Though most of what he taught was not new to me - it was like taking all the value study work I’ve been doing for the last few years, paring it down even more - and launching from there.

The Power of Black and White

I’ve worked with doing pre-painting value studies before, but always including a midtone. With Kevin, we started every painting by doing a value study of our subject using only black and white to create the pattern that is light, and the pattern that is shadow.

It’s super challenging to simplify to this extent. What’s needed is a big sharpie marker and a willingess to abandon detail in service of design.

Once you feel the sweet spot of this approach, you cross into a new world of possibility. You become liberated from the idea that detail is needed to tell a powerful story.

Photo from Chinatown - San Francisco

Value study of above Chinatown photo

The Essential Truth About Light and Shadow

Once you begin painting, the trick is to move back in the other direction without going too far.

The biggest thing I got from Kevin was this: the way to preserve the compelling design you just created is to honor a fundamental truth. White in shadow is darker than black in light. Everything builds on that, no crossing the line.

You can deepen your comprehension of this principle by putting a piece of white and black cloth side by side in a direct light source - sunny window for example, and then casting a shadow across them. Now squint down and compare the values and you’ll see it. I've posted a photo as an example, but it’s great learning to do this yourself and see it live.

Cover everything except the white in shadow and the black in light and squint. You'll see that the black in light is lighter than the white in shadow.

What to Consider As You Bring Color Back In

The next thing is to decide if your painting is about the light or the shadow. A good place to explore when considering this is to ask which takes up the larger part of your picture plane.

Once you decide if the light or the shadow will be the star player - put your richest colour there.

If it is the shadow, then you have to create enough light in it to see the colour, which means you need to add a lot of white to your lights (to keep them lighter than the shadow) - and adding that white will be at the expense of pure colour.

On the other hand, if it is in the light where you want to have your richest colour, you will have to darken the darks to get the shadow family where it belongs, again at the expense of rich colour.

"Doorway" - underpainting in progress - oil 12x9"

Try this approach, stay out of the weeds of detail, and see what happens when you let strong design and skillful use of color become a foundation of your work.

Photo reference for "Alfred" painting at the top of the post.


  1. Liz, Thank you for reminding me about the value of values! I know this (as I know almost everything...ha) but seeing it posted as you have done is an inspiration. And lucky you for studying with Kevin! I recommend his books to all my students. Love how you've taken a photo and transformed it to a powerful image of Alfred.

  2. Liz,
    This is a great blog post - so informative and well explained! Thank you! Hope to find your post on Facebook and share it.

    1. Dorothy, there are links for sharing the post beneath it, and in the right hand side bar, and thanks so much for wanting to share!

  3. Thanks for sharing Liz...very informative!

  4. A very informative blog. The first picture of street scene, I though this was from UK and the object in the center was a mail drop which turned out to be a trash can ! Thnaks for posting. I just subscribed to your blog and will explore it leisurely for the pearls.

  5. Yes, I too like your blog....and I like Alfred just the way you posted says it all.

  6. What a great and informative post. Kevin is a great guy and although I have never taken from him I have seen him demo. Amazing stuff.
    Love your painting and you really stuck to what he was teaching. Great to see it work so well, but hey, to my mind your work was already really good.

  7. This concept has never been described better. I have book marked this page for all time.

  8. Thank you so much Liz, for the extended time it took you to write this important blog. I love Kevin MacPherson's work, and have one of his books. Yet, I don't "think" through my process in the way you mentioned even though, like you, I know it. Your work is beautiful.

  9. You really expressed this idea so clearly...and illustrated it beautifully. Thank you so much for sharing!

  10. A superb post and lesson to learn and re-learn...thanks!

  11. Hi Liz,
    I just heard Kevin talk about this at the Plein AIr Convention...the light never crossing into the dark..and at the time I didn't know exactly what he I do! Thank you for this wonderful post! I can't wait to do some value studies with just two values.

  12. That photo of the paper towel is great. You did a wonderful job explaining and your paintings serve as excellent examples for the lesson. :)

    1. Thanks Celeste! Actually that's my yoga mat on my living room carpet, but I can see how you thought it was paper towel. :-)

  13. Thanks for the lovely comments everyone! So glad that this post helped to illuminate a tricky and super important painting concept. I first heard of it 3 or 4 years ago, but it took this long for me to really get it.

  14. I had heard the black and white principle described before, but never explained so clearly. Thanks, Liz!

  15. Liz, Thanks for the great reminder. I keep the value study I did in your class in Freeport, Maine, on my studio table where I can always look at it before starting a painting!

  16. I am so excited to apply this new learning. I now understand and thank you for sharing!