Australian Fine Artist

Workshop Number One of Five 2016

Tutor: David Chen

Many of us tend to continue attending workshops that teach us in the subjects that we enjoy the most or that we are best at. Whilst that is enjoyable, and can help us to keep improving in areas that we like and get the most out of personally, it doesn’t help us to become more well-rounded as artists. Plus by taking on subjects that we are weakest at, we have the opportunity to discover where we really need to make improvements, as we are not calling on well-practised habits. There is, of course, the other aspect of taking on our weakest subjects and methods, and that is that we don’t always know what are good or bad habits that we have used for months or possibly years.. This leads me to the reason why I am doing a series of portrait workshops this semester. The human figure is probably my weakest subject, I avoided it for years and thought that I could get away with doing nearly any other subject. Then I went to Chisholm, and one major subject was life drawing. After which I decided that one focus of my emerging arts practice would be to teach drawing, so how can I be a good teacher if I don’t practice what I preach? I hope readers will enjoy this series of painting workshop blogs, and get some valuable information from them. As always I defer to my tutor David Chen if readers would like to follow up by attending workshops to learn more about what I am covering. His contact details are at the end of this blog.

Local Values

What do you think of when you hear Local Values? It isn’t the same as local colour, although it is related in a way. Local values refer to how you see colours as they are affected by the local light source. For example, if you have a warm light on to a still life or a model posing for you, any colours on or around the subject will be altered by that warm light. The same goes for a cool light source or a neautral one.

The first thing you need to learn is the difference between one light and another. If you haven’t purchased light bulbs or fluorescent lights you may not be aware that they come in a variety of Watts, Lumens and temperatures (cool white, daylight, warm white and neutral white for example). Normal fluros cast a green-yellow light which changes every colour they shine on. They also affect the shadows. So when you look at a subject in a room, you need to consider the lighting and how it is altering the light, mid and dark areas.

When you paint plein air, you have the same sort of problem to consider. Sunlight changes during the day. It is cooler in the morning, more neutral at midday and warmer in the afternoon-evening (generally). Keep in mind the time of year and weather as well.

So briefly local values are:

  • How you see colours as they affected by the light in a certain place
  • How highlights, mid tones and shadows are affected by local lighting conditions

Local Colour is:

  • The colour of major objects in your composition unaffected by changing lighting conditions
  • Colour unaffected by shadows, highlights or reflected colour or light.


Decide on which area of your subject is dominated by the most prominant colour. For example, in our workshop the model was wearing a near black top and pants. The top had a brownish cast so was a warm black, and the pants had a blue tint, so were a cool black. The most dominant colour was the warm black so that became my local value, a dark warm black, which was also affected by the warm light source shining on to it. The light and this base colour gave me the local vlaue and colour to start with. I was then able to create lighter tones for the modelling to create the sitter’s form. I also used that colour to touch into other colours for a more unified palette.

Neighbouring Colours


Remember that painting tonally, as I was for this work, creates the form of your subject. I was also trying to keep the brush strokes simple and clean. Impressionist style painting means that you don’t put in every little detail, but work with colour to create something that pulls together in the eye as you move away from it. This means you use neighbouring colours and tones to create the impression of form and depth. Having local values and colours will take your painting to the next level by giving it a unified look, every colour and tone relating to the other, pulling the composition together.


  • Try to have at least 8-10 steps of graduation in your values so that you are not jumping from too light to too dark in one hit, removing the graduation that will give your subject its form.
  • Try to have the darkest area in your lightest colour lighter than the lightest area on your darkest colour. By that I mean that the shadow area on a white item, for example, should be lighter than the highlight on a neighbouring black jacket.
  • Remember where your focal point is. This is where you must put the most detail, strongest contrasts and sharpest lines. As you move away from here you can reduce all of these factors.

Remember also: to keep practising. These are not easy concepts to master, so don’t be disappointed if it takes time. You may also find, as I did, that parts of your painting look great and other areas obviously need a lot more work!

Below is my effort for this first workshop. I am very happy with the hands and legs, and some of the head, but lost the plot when painting the chest and upper arms. That is where David made suggestions for me to work on. I have since worked over a few of his marks, but there are still areas where he has painted for me to look at later.

chen portrait workshop 1

For more advanced classes refer to David’s website details below.

Please note that David does not allow photography in his workshops. Students may photograph their own work at home after the sessions, but any alterations by David should be acknowledged.

David Chen’s workshops are in very high demand and many are booked out in advance, but you can go on to a waiting list as sometimes spaces open up. If you would like to go on the waiting list, you can contact David via his website:

Please mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.

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