Mass Notans of Paintings By The Old Masters

Getting better at something means practicing, a lot. Strategic practice achieves the best results – it helps you to recognise flaws in your work and focus on areas to improve with each new project. This is one of the aspects that Barry John Raybould teaches in his Virtual Art Academy course.

One aspect of strategic…

Getting better at something means practicing, a lot. Strategic practice achieves the best results – it helps you to recognise flaws in your work and focus on areas to improve with each new project. This is one of the aspects that Barry John Raybould teaches in his Virtual Art Academy course.

One aspect of strategic practice is to “copy” the masters; they have achieved what you want and you are aiming to learn from them. In this post I am exploring four paintings by master artists and analysing the values that they have used in their work by creating a mass notan.

If you want to learn more about creating notans then you should definitely check out the Virtual Art Academy. In fact this post has been strongly inspired by just one of the hundreds of lessons that the course covers, all aimed at teaching you to be a professional artist.

Alfred Bircher

This is the painting Dory on Dana’s Beach, painted in 1879.

Dory on Dana's Beach by Alfred Bircher
Dory on Dana’s Beach by Alfred Bircher

The values are fairly easy to determine in this painting. The sand and clouds are obviously the lightest values, as well as the top of the boat and some highlights on the rocks. Since this is a mass notan I will ignore the hightlights on the rocks entirely. Secondary values (the mid-grey) is the rock cliff and some of the sky area.

I just noticed that I included the trees on the far right as a dark value, when these should have been mid-value. Noticing these things is a benefit when you review your work.

William-Adolphe Bougureau

This is a portraiture of Gabrielle Cot, painted in 1890.

Gabrielle Cot by William-Adolphe Bougureau
Gabrielle Cot by William-Adolphe Bougureau

This is another fairly easy painting to convert values for due to the strong contrasts. The white of the dress is the lightest value, with the darkest value being the background. Since we are doing three value mass notans, that means that the skin will fall into the mid-grey value.

Asher Durand

This is the painting Scene From Thanatopis, painted in 1850.

Scene from "Thanatopsis" by Asher Brown Durand
Scene from “Thanatopsis” by Asher Brown Durand

This is a much more complex painting and much harder to break down into various values, especially with all the subtle shifts of tones throughout. Since I am making mass notan sketches and not contour or detailed studies I have tried to break this painting down to the largest shapes. Coincidently, those large shapes are defined by the contour of the land and established with atmospheric perspective.

The background and sky merge together in the lightest value. Getting closer to the viewer is the mid-ground, matching the mid-tone. This area subtly jumps to the foreground and to our darkest value.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes

This is the painting View of the Covent of Ara Coeli with Pines, painted in 1780.

View of the Covent of Ara Coeli with Pines by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes
View of the Covent of Ara Coeli with Pines by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes

The final master painting that we are looking at today is by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. This is another relatively easy painting to break down due to the large value contrasts and the atmospheric perspective.

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