Australian Fine Artist

Leoni Duff

Venue: Pastel Society of Victoria, Australia

Topic: Composition Focussing on Using Photographs as References

Leoni Duff spent many years living in rural NorthEast Tasmania in the tiny hamlet of Herrick where she developed her unique style, drawing on influences from her study of the history of art. Her background and training as a classical musician at the Tasmanian Conservatorium gives her a deep connection with the history of the arts and she is particularly drawn to the Baroque themes and methods. Duff sees her art as visual music, striving for the sense of dignity and composure, passion and control, beauty and honesty, form and content of the Baroque composers. She has won several awards over the past decade and is sought after for workshops and lessons. Her students are taught the principles of fine art and encouraged to use them to develop their own styles and subjects.

The topic for the evening was accompanied with a video presentation to help us understand the sometimes complex theory of composition. My own version of shorthand is limited so I ask forgiveness if I missed something in these notes.

Getting back to the basics of building up a painting or drawing, composition is the foundation that you build on. Like a house, if your composition isn’t working the rest isn’t going to either. You can not fix a poor composition with clever use of colour, tone or subject and it is very disappointing to get half way into a piece to suddenly realise that it is falling into a heap because you didn’t take the time to plan your composition in the first place.

So, how do you design a work that will attract viewer’s attention and hold their interest – and works?

  • Put a lot of thought into it before you start
  • Research
  • Go through the process of making sure the image you have in mind will work
  • Check the balance of lightest lights against darkest darks
  • Check the tonal values of mid tones
  • Check the balance of warms and cools in the colours of your intended image
  • Work out what you will do with any changes in the above to make it work

The above can be completed through the production of black and white (we call them 1 bit images for computer use in Photoshop for example) or by drawing the scene with just black and white and no tone. You can then produce a tonal version (8 bit monochrome) showing the various shades.

Draw up a colour version changing the colours if you have decided to do so, to check how they will work before you commit to the final painting. Keep in mind that you are producing an artwork not a photo. Your goal is a work that will be seen and attract viewers from across a room and keep their attention when they arrive.

Have a look at your subject, does it have the following:

  • Dramatic lighting
  • Glorious colour
  • Subtle lighting
  • Tugging the emotions
  • Simple concept
  • Textures
  • Balance of shape

Note what attracts you to an image, then:

  • Work out the size you will produce it in
  • Work out your division of areas (uneven big shapes of darks and lights)
  • Test the image in black and white and greyscale
  • Make sure you don’t have any two intervals (segments) the same size
  • Make your colours varied. Balance the quantities of warm against cool and darks against light
  • Make the spaces between objects random and varied
  • Make sizes varied
  • Work out where you will have more detail (lost and found edges, simplified modelling)
  • Use proven methods of dividing up your image area, the Golden Mean (division of an area into thirds) for example. See the work of Sorolla, a Spanish Impressionist painter for his method of dividing up the area of a painting.

Darks need to be linked and flow through your work even if only by a sliver. This will help guide the eye through the composition.

So that when you look at a photo how do you find values (tones)?

Check the percentages of darks against lights, your mids tones. How much there is of each and where they fall. The light area is where you should find your colour and texture, your mid tones and detail. The dark area, away from the light is where lack of detail should be. Classical drawing lessons teach students to build up images with three tones. Light, mid and dark. It is a traditional method which was even used by the Impressionists. The old masters used tones of brown and with the invention of more colours for artists to use, more colour was introduced to the method. Plein air painting brought in at about the same time, gave artists new light to paint by, as they painted directly from nature. They still needed to know where their darks, mid tones and lights fell, but had more colour to use. See Monet’s beautiful haystacks and have a close look and the shadows.

Look for the following:

Hue: the pure colour
Value: (Tone) the relative lightness or darkness of a colour
Chroma: the saturation of a colour as a measure of how intense it is

Working out these things in advance will help make a successful artwork. This is something that we can practice in our studios. Remember to think about more darks than lights or more lights than darks and similarly with cools and warms. The word “Notan” came up was the artist’s version of the graphic designer’s 1 bit image. This is a very useful tool that can be done manually or on the computer and well worth a try.


For the demonstration part of the evening, Leoni called on Rembrandt as a landscape painter instead of the portraiture we know him best for. Her photo was from an Australian scene, so the methods of the old master were proven to be transportable to a very different landscape to that of Europe.

Like oil painters build up a painting traditionally, the pastel was started by blocking in all the darks with a brown. This “Brown School” method relies on starting with the correct dark brown underpainting for an Australian theme. Turner used similar methods in his landscapes from England and parts of Europe.

The procedure Leoni used for her painting goes basically as below:

  1. Draw in your composition
    Work out the proportions of light and dark
    Make changes from the original photo to suit the area you are working in and for a balanced composition
  2. Block in the darks
    Largest area – cool darks
    Smaller area – warm darks
  3. Start applying mid tones in background
  4. Place some higher key points into the darks (blues)
  5. Overlay mid apricot and pale blue/mauve allowing each colour to show through for sky area
  6. Apply low key green in lighter tones as the lighter parts of the background trees
  7. Apply mid and dark colours to the river banks working towards the foreground
    (watch your colours as they work against each other on the artwork, they will look different when applied than they do in your hand)
  8. Low key (less saturated) lighter/mid colour to areas where the light was touching the background trees (yellow ochre)
  9. Colour values were bumped up in the focal point area
  10. Lighter high key (high chroma) colours were placed in the front area
  11. Mid blues (about three blues) were used in the river out of the shadow areas.

From here you can push the painting to be as “complete” as you like it. You may want a more impressionist feel or want to try for a more realist approach, using these methods allows for your individual style based on methods that have been used by masters for hundreds of years.

Leoni was unable to finish her work on the night, but the goal of any demonstration is the passing on of valuable instruction, which I think was very much achieved on this occasion. My thanks to Leoni for her hard work on the night and for such an informative session. I only hope my notes have done her justice!

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