I think I’ve learned my lesson by now… before I paint, I need to study my subject. And, what’s the point of doing all these studies if I don’t take the time to reflect on them to better evaluate what I’ve learned by doing them? That’s the purpose of this post – I want to explore this composition, and spend a lot of time thinking about what I learn about this image with every study. Then, I’ll be better prepared to paint what I picture in my head – and fortune favors the prepared.

Oooohhhh. A barn. How unique.

I want to paint this picture that I took of a barn in Walhonding, Ohio.

But, before I can hope to achieve a satisfactory painting, I need to do some thinking. As much as I want to paint this right out of the gate, I can’t. Maybe if I were more experienced, I could, but I doubt it. The problem is, there are just too many unknowns. If I just start painting, I have to discover what those unknowns are, then I have to identify the problems they create, then I have to figure out how to solve those problems, then I have to execute those solutions.

The act of painting is that very last step. If I jump to that step, and try to just do the other things while I’m at it, my painting will be an exploratory mess. I’ll be figuring out values, composition, edges, focal point, purpose, color harmony, brush work, and everything else, all at once. The resulting image will become a patchwork of discovery and solution; worse, these discoveries will overlap one another on the page. It’s the equivalent of getting an orchestra into a room and saying, “Play something beautiful.”

So, before I paint, I have some work to do.

First Things First: Why?

Before I do anything, I need to answer why I’m painting this. I have already decided what I’m painting (that photo) but I need to answer why I’m painting THAT photo.

In this case, I want to paint that photo because I want the audience to imagine the farmer taking the boards, and carrying them down the path to repair the fence. It’s cold, and the farmer was working on it yesterday but didn’t finish, so the boards are still leaning in the corner waiting for him to come back and finish today.

Answering this question helps to answer what the focal point should be. (The boards.) It also helps answer why the other elements are there.

The sky needs to be clear, and it needs to tell us that it’s cold outside.

The trees are needed to define the location, and to further describe that it’s cold. They need to be covered in ice. The farmer needs a place to go, maybe even needs a place to have found the boards. I need those trees to set the scene, but they don’t need to do much.

The fence needs to be there, so there’s something for the farmer to fix, and it needs to drive the eye into the distance, where the repair will be made.

The barn needs to be there to tell us about the farmer. It’s a functional building, not decorative.

The boards themselves are functional as well, not decorative. They need to be somewhat haphazardly placed, and they have to become the focal point. This painting is going to be about the boards.

Step 2: What?

Ok, I know what this painting is about, and why each element is there. Now I need to study those elements and figure out how they’ll do the things I want them to do.

First, I sketched the image with a pen. I decided to use a pen instead of a pencil because I never use pen, and I wanted to explore how it might help define values. I learned a few things here. Most importantly, I learned that the boards need more contrast in order for them to stand out. In this sketch, they don’t. Everything in this sketch is very flat, and I blame the trees. They are the same value as the barn, and though the line used to render them is organic (in contrast with the straight lines in the barn) those same organic scribbles are used in the foreground. This pulls the trees forward and marries them to the barn as well as the grass in the foreground. As a result, the background is in the foreground, and the image is flat.

I also learned that the most important part of the pen sticking out from the barn are the rafters, and specifically their white ends.

I learned that the lower window is bossy. It takes the focus from the boards.

Finally, the side of the pen that faces us needs to be darker than the face of the barn. This helps define the light, but it creates a problem – that dark field needs to somehow be distinct from the boards in order for them to stand out.

While this sketch isn’t fabulous, it is enlightening. I learned a ton by drawing it out.

Step 3: Composition – Notan Studies

Composition is by far the biggest struggle for me. So, before I paint, I really need to figure out the composition. I know more about the individual elements, and some of the pitfalls. Those trees need to be far away. The boards need to stand out. The pen needs to be constructed from those rafters.

But every one of these things needs to exist together in a pleasing way. So before anything I need to study the composition some more.

I recently stumbled on this blog by Stephen Berry. The blog is an absolute treasure trove of information. I need to spend a LOT more time reading through his posts. I’ve been looking for something like his blog for a long time, and I’m grateful to have stumbled on it.

He writes about something I’ve never heard of called Notan. I won’t pretend to know enough to explain it, you can visit his blog to learn more than I could tell you.

Instead, I’ll show you some of the Notan Studies I did, and what I learned from them.

This is the first Notan I’ve ever made, so bear with me. From doing this I learned that the boards need to be distinct from the other objects. In this Notan, the boards and the pen are constructed with the same types of lines, and as a result the boards don’t stand out enough.

I also noticed that even though the distant trees are very dark, they still appear far away here. I probably need to darken the areas between the fence posts on the right in order to make it look like we are seeing those distant trees beyond the fence.

Here I see that the boards are distinct from the dark side of the pen. This definitely helps the boards stand out. But, I wouldn’t say they are the focus. Also, adding detail to the distant trees brings the eye to them, and flattens the image. They worked better as a solid shape. Lastly, I need to find a way to use the lines in the rest of the image to point to the boards.

Out of curiosity, I tried to draw an inverted Notan, thinking this would help me learn more about the negative space. It really was very helpful, and it was pretty difficult. One of the hardest parts about negative space for me is accidentally switching over to rendering the positive shapes. Comparing this inverted Notan was a really great exercise in better understanding the negative shapes in this image. Interestingly, this is perhaps the best composition of any of my Notan so far, I think because I was able to point the path at the boards. I see how important the path is, not just in terms of composition, but in terms of telling the story I want to tell. The path takes us from the foreground straight to the boards, and then out to the trees. It’s exactly what I want to say – look at these boards, imagine someone carrying them down that path to repair the fence beyond the horizon.

I also learned just how important the rafters are. They don’t just help explain the building, they tell us how it’s built, which does more than describe I it’s shape, it tells a story of its own about how the pen was built. It’s a ramshackle add-on to the barn, built with overly strong rafters and beams. I imagine it was constructed so robustly because cows make their home here in the winter, and the walls need to be able to withstand thousand-pound bodies jostling up against them.

In this next one, I tried to emphasize the lines pointing to the boards. I invented a board in the window to draw a line to the boards on the ground. I used the shadow in the distant trees to point to the boards. And I used horizontal lines in the foreground on the right, and vertical lines on the left to point to them. In the end, I just ended up with a big X through the whole composition. I think the X is the fault of the shadow line in the trees, something to think about.

So, I played with this Notan some more, adding more darks.

I ended up trying to pull focus to those boards by darkening everything around them. This didn’t succeed in pulling the boards into focus, but I do like how the trees are two separate shapes. I want the trees on the left side to be white, and the trees on the right to be black, which would give me a nice S curve instead of a big C. But, I also need to find a way to separate the bright roof from the trees. So, I think I’ll need to try another Notan.

Man, I really could do these all day. Each Notan takes about fifteen minutes, it’s a very quick exercise, and helps immensely in understanding the composition. But, it does have limits. I can’t use the Notan to describe depth – which makes perfect sense. That’s absolutely not the goal – the goal is to understand mass, and visual weight (I think), as well as to better understand the overall composition. Ok… one more – these are fun.

I did three more.

I tried to keep the trees near the roof white, I don’t like how it ended up. Now, instead of a C, I have a giant Pac-Man eating the fence. Nope.

I tried to zoom in… I like this one a lot in terms of composition, but it doesn’t look like it will afford the amount of space that I want to convey, I think that is needed in order to make this feel like it’s a moment at rest. Zooming in like this gives it more immediacy than I want.

Last one, I tried to reduce it to the absolute bare bones. There is something that I like about this. I made all the distant trees black – if you look closely you can see the shapes that I tried before deciding to just fill it all in. This resulted in a composition that I quite like, and I think it’s a good example of how the Notan is not a value study. I won’t paint the distant trees black – but that’s not what I learned from this Notan. What I learned is that those distant trees aren’t important. I can almost do whatever I want with them, as long as I try to keep them quiet, don’t let them upstage those boards.

Finally… I Paint

Next, I painted a test version. The goal here is to experiment with technique, and value. I tried to keep the color palette very limited, because my goal isn’t to render the colors I want to use in the final painting. Trying to nail down technique and values is already adding two variables simultaneously, if I worry about color as well, I’m going to have a truly tough time identifying valuable lessons.

First I laid some paint down. I’m mostly just trying to block in some changes in value, and block in the largest shapes here. Sky, trees, barn, foreground.

Here, the light is coming from almost everywhere. I remember the sun was rising behind the barn, but after all my Notan studies, it’s almost like I’ve shifted my light source to come from the right instead. I need to either commit to that new light source, or (better) go back to the original light that I remember.

I like that the sky is a flat light wash.

I don’t like the way the foreground is rendered. The patches of white in the path don’t say anything coherent about a light source, I’ll need to work on that.

I got more detailed than I should have here. Next time, I’ll lay that initial wash even more loosely. Before I try again though, I need to think about the direction of my light source.

Next I blocked in some of what will becomes the darkest darks. I particularly like the complete lack of edges on the trees on the right. Of course, I then went on to completely ruin it, so I’m glad I captured this image before I screwed around too much. The way those trees are rendered here tells me that I’m right about them – keep them loose, abstract, distant, soft.

I then played and played – and when it started getting muddy, I played some more. Why? Why do I always keep going when my brain says to stop?

It’s ok though, this is a study after all. Let’s think about what worked here, and what didn’t. Then I’ll try a second draft, and focus on trying to capitalize on what was successful, and fix the failures.


  1. I got the S-curve I was after in my Notan studies, though the leg at the horizon should be thinner, and more horizontal to better allude to the perspective.
  2. The soft feeling of the distant trees worked well. It feels like early morning to me.
  3. The path is clearly defined. It should taper and flatten near the horizon in order to describe the perspective better.
  4. The board in the window worked well. Not too obvious, but still there.
  5. The trees behind the barn worked well. Just enough of an illusion of detail to read as trees, but not so much that they take over.
  6. I like the calligraphy lines in the foreground.


  1. The boards. Oops. This painting is supposed to be all about those boards, and they look like they were cut and pasted from another painting. It’s probably largely due to their coloring – and I’m not focused on color here, so I won’t get too worked up about that.
  2. The tall grass in the foreground. Man is that stuff bossy. I should consider ditching it altogether. Maybe that will give the foreground some more room to breathe.
  3. The mid-values on the pen didn’t work. I should make them the same as the distant trees so it looks more like we are seeing through the pen. Right now it looks like the pen was wallpapered with mailing envelopes.
  4. I can’t tell if the fence is a success or a failure. Because I can’t clearly consider it a success, I’ll call it a failure – in my source photo that fence is just one segment… I’ve extended it in order to give us a road to walk down, but maybe I should keep with a single segment near us, and the rest all going down the hill – that way I can describe how the fence is constructed, and use the segments going downhill to tell my story.
  5. The hill on the right. It’s clear I don’t know why I’m painting this so dark other than “because I want a dark value over there.” Dark values don’t have to mean shadows – they can be saturation too (I think) so maybe I’ll play with that. Regardless of what I do, it needs to soften, and I need to try to avoid working it to death next time.

Ok, that’s all for now. This is stupid long already, I’m going to move on to the next draft.