April 21, 2023

Take Risks with Color!

 Authored By Lisa Larrabee

Value does all the work, but color gets all the credit.  That phrase gets thrown around a lot, but what does that even mean?  

We love color!  Colors can be subtle or dazzling.  Colors are powerful and can be used to get our attention or to communicate feelings.  However, value relationships are often the foundation of a drawing or painting.  Values can be essential to providing structure and creating the illusion of light, form, and depth.

Organize Colors by Value

If you want to experiment and take some risks with color, it can help to begin by first considering your values.  In the example below, I started with a black-and-white photo reference with a full range of light, medium and dark values.  I selected the colors randomly based on what looked interesting and made sure to have some light, medium, and dark values.  I then sampled the colors on my gray-toned paper from dark to light.  

Recently, I was inspired by Viktoria Maliar's drawings. Her bold mark-making and color choices remind me of exercises I did in college when I studied the mark-making of Vincent Van Gogh's portraits.  I approached this study similarly to others I did in the past, experimenting with a variety of colors, including some unexpected choices that may not be traditionally associated with the subject.  I focused on placing values where they belonged regardless of whether it made sense for the local color of the subject and with zero regards for lighting color or temperature.

I began by putting my lightest color (yellow) where I saw the lightest value.  The second lightest color (blue) was used to block in the second lightest value.  The teal and mauve are very close in value, so I made artistic choices that helped me clarify different parts within the value range.  I used burgundy more for drawing accents than to create dark-value shapes.  I never added my darkest value (brown) because I felt the drawing was finished.

If you look at this drawing in grayscale, you will see that there is order to the values.  That does not mean that the values are accurate to the reference.  The original photo reference had much bolder, darker shadow shapes.  I chose to stay in the mid to light value range with the dark color as an accent.   Still, you can see a sense of light and form in the subject due to the values that have a sense of order and observation.  The value tones are doing the work while the color has all the fun!

Artist Tip

Viewing your work in grayscale is simply a tool that will help you see your artwork differently. It can also be used to abstractly analyze your overall composition or design.

Looking at your work without color will help you identify how well you are grouping the shapes by value. If you take a digital photo of your work and switch it to grayscale, you may discover areas to improve the value relationships. This will show you where the value relationships may be out of context and help you see where color may have deceived you when you rendered the light or dark shapes to depict the representational light, form, or depth. 

It is also important to note that your artwork does not have to "work" in grayscale to successfully use color. Many exceptional paintings rely on color and temperature shifts and stay within a reduced value range. This can sometimes make a piece appear flat in grayscale yet be mesmerizing in color. 


Play with Color

There is no wrong way to play with color.  Try various color combinations to see what you are drawn to and how the color choices affect the piece's overall mood.  Choose colors you think look pretty together.  Choose colors you think are hideous.  Which colors feel happy, peaceful, or melancholy?  Use any colors you want, but place them based on their values.  

I digitally replaced colors from my drawing in Photoshop to show an example of how much the artwork would change with different color choices.  The subject, mark-making, and value placement are the same, but the drawing feels entirely different.  Creating similar multiples provides an opportunity to analyze the differences.  For example, there is more unity in the digital variation because I used analogous colors (colors next to each other on the color wheel).  

The light blue accent has more color contrast than the pinks and purples but is less saturated, so it feels less jarring.  In the original, the yellow highlight against blue has significantly more color contrast because yellow and blue are further apart on the color wheel.  The digital version may also feel more comfortable because the pink tones feel more true to realistic skin tones than light blue and teal.  (My family thought I had drawn a character from Avatar!).  This does not make one version better than the other or right or wrong.  It's an opportunity to examine how different color choices affect our experiences, so experiment and have fun!

Art Challenge

  • Choose a simple subject.  I recommend a black-and-white reference so you aren't influenced by color.
  • Ensure you have a good range of value shapes from light to dark.
  • Draw or transfer your subject onto your white or toned drawing paper.
  • If it is helpful to you, lightly map outlines around values shapes.
  • Select colors that include light, medium, and dark values.
  • Order your color choices by their value from dark to light.
  • Use the color that corresponds with the value from your reference.
  • Create the same subject multiple times to contrast the differences. 

You can mix and match whatever color combination you want.  Start with simple combinations and add bolder choices as you feel comfortable.  

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at

March 27, 2023

Start with Color

Authored By Lisa Larrabee

Why start your drawing or painting on a color?  A background color can set the mood for your artwork and unify the elements from the start.  It has the power to neutralize or enhance the colors layered over it.  Certain background colors can add or reduce energy, affecting the entire piece.  When a single decision has so much influence, it is important to take the time to explore the possibilities!

Effects of a Background Color

There is much to consider when choosing a color to build upon.  Think about how much you want the background color to show through.  You can draw or paint in a way that lets large areas of the background color be visible, or you can let little bits of color show through between the marks or brushstrokes.  You may choose to layer or blend the medium so that the color shows through subtly.  Depending on the medium, you can also cover areas opaquely to hide the color underneath.  How much you choose to reveal the background color will affect your piece's overall style and mood.

Profile on Cool (Whisper) & Profile on Warm (Promise) - paintings by Lisa Larrabee

These two examples have much in common, but each painting captures a different mood.  Both portraits are from the same model. Each has soft edges, reduced detail, and high-key values.  The portrait on the left was painted over a cool lavender background.  The portrait on the right was painted in a warm orange pink.  It can be very helpful to analyze the effect of a change when other elements stay the same. You can think of it as a scientific experiment where you keep most variables the same to best identify the effect of the change.

Color Considerations

  • Temperature refers to the relative warmth or coolness of a color.  We can simplify the color wheel by dividing it in half by temperature.  Red, orange, and yellow are on the warm half.  Green, blue, and violet are in the cool half.  (Temperature is relative, but that is another discussion.)  Choosing to begin on a warm background versus a cool background can set the mood before you even begin.  Warm colors, like a sunny day or a cozy fire, can feel comforting.  Depending on the hue and intensity, they can be passionate or aggressive.  Cool colors can feel refreshing, tranquil, or even melancholy.   The color itself won't create the mood but will affect it. 
  • Contrast: We often think of contrast in terms of value (light and dark).  However, contrast is simply a noticeable difference.  The further two colors are from each other on the color wheel, the more different and contrasting they are. Complimentary colors are opposites and create the most color contrast. Color contrast is effective for drawing attention and creating energy between colors. Choosing a background with low contrast (a color similar to your subject's color) allows you to smoothly block in your subject without resistance.  Imagine painting a portrait over a warm neutral base color.  The background color helps fill in the gaps, and you can add both dark and light values without the starkness of starting on white.  Now, imagine choosing a background color that has high color contrast to your subject.  For example, a soft, warm background can create stunning color contrast underneath a cool, snowy winter scene. 
  • Chroma is the strength or intensity of a color.  You can reduce the chroma of a color by adding white to create a tint, gray to create a tone, black to create a shade, or compliment to neutralize the color.  Choosing a background color with less intensity will make it easier to add colors because it is less demanding of your attention and will have less influence over the added colors.  Working over light blue-gray is very different than working over a soft orange tint or a tan base.  However, working over a high-chroma red or brilliant turquoise is an entirely new challenge.  The more intense the background color is, the more control you must have to make it work.  The colors will do unexpected things!

Color Agency

Color is an incredibly powerful element of design.  It can create a feeling, add energy and pull the viewer's attention.  It is important that you don't give up your agency to your colors.  To use color with "agency" means to have a feeling of control over your color choices and their consequences. Making bold color choices can sometimes make you feel like you lost control and the color took over.  Colors can play tricks on us.  High chroma colors can fool our eyes into thinking that color is lighter in value than it is because our brain perceives it as bright.  We can also get distracted and let colors pull the focus away from what we intended.  

Here are some tips for getting control of your color choices:
  • Limit your palette. Get really familiar with fewer colors or color combinations before you add more.
  • Photograph your work and check it in grayscale to see if you kept control of your value relationships.
  • Create simple studies that let you experiment with color choices without self-imposed pressure to make a great piece.
  • If working over a bold background color, block in large color/value areas immediately to subdue the background and create context for the other colors.

Painting stages - Chasing Light, oil on panel, artist Lisa Larrabee

In my painting, Chasing Light, the glow of the sun and the light on the landscape needed to be dominant. I began with a yellow background to allow the warm, luminous color to show through the brushstrokes.  After blocking in the sun and sky, I wanted to make sure to bring down the values and adjust the temperature of the landscape so that the sun would feel like the brightest object without competing with the yellow in the field.  I had never chosen yellow as a background color before, and I was mindful of how easily such a bold, bright color could dominate if left unchecked.

Choosing a background color can be a game changer, so don't be afraid to try out a wide range of possibilities and see how much it can impact your art!

Art Challenge

  • Choose a simple subject. I recommend a black-and-white reference, so you aren't influenced by color.
  • Ensure you have a good range of value shapes from light to dark.
  • Draw or transfer your subject onto different colored backgrounds.
  • Use limited color choices over a variety of colors and create small, quick studies.
  • Draw or paint the same subject multiple times to contrast the differences. 

  • On the left, I used black, white, and yellow-orange on gray-green paper.
  • On the right, I used black, white, and light blue on warm tan paper.
In these examples, I chose a warm color on a cooler background and a cool color on a warm background.  You can mix and match whatever combination you want.  Start with simple combinations and add bolder choices as you feel comfortable.  Keep values in mind as you explore color. 

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at

February 23, 2023

Setting the Tone

 Authored By Lisa Larrabee

What do you consider before starting a drawing?  An obvious choice would be to start with your subject.  Then, maybe consider the composition and how you want to place your subject.  What you want to include versus what you might choose to leave out.  Which medium do you intend to use, etc.   How much thought do you put into selecting a background tone?   You may miss an opportunity if you are not thinking about these options.  

Adding white pastel to a charcoal drawing on gray-toned paper - Lisa Larrabee.

Choosing a Tone

A tone refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color.  


When you choose to work on white paper, you begin by adding values in one direction of a value scale.  The lightest value is already established. You can only add in darker values.  Working on white can give your artwork a light and airy quality if you let much of the white remain.  It can also allow you to build luminous colors or a full value range from white to black.


Working on a mid-tone allows you to develop your artwork on a value scale (from the middle out) in two directions.  Blocking in darker shadows or adding brighter, lighter values will help you quickly establish a sense of light and shadow.  Working on a mid-tone can also act as a unifier if you allow the tone to show through different areas of the artwork. Note that drawing on a mid-tone gray paper will feel very different than creating the same drawing on a mid-tone tan or warmer-tone paper.


When you begin on a black surface, you can only add values in one direction of a value scale (i.e., by adding white).  Black absorbs light rather than reflecting it, which may desaturate your colors or darken the values of your medium.  To see how opaque your medium may be, create a test sample to see how light the values will be over the black.  This will help you establish the range of values you are working in over the black surface.

Value Traps

Since value relationships are relative, be on the lookout for traps!  Working on each background tone has its own surprises (or typical mistakes).   It is important to establish some general value relationships to provide context before adding detail.  Our brain will subconsciously adapt to the values that we are currently working within (even when we consciously know that we have not yet added our darkest shapes or brightest highlights).

When starting on a white surface, block in the dark and mid-tone areas first.  If you focus on the details too soon before adding in a dark background, you may find that all of the values in the subject are too light.  The reverse can be true when working on black.  

When starting on a mid-tone, it is essential to establish the value range that you want to have in the finished piece.  For example, if you wait to add in all of the highlights at the end, you may have to go back and adjust any subtle value relationships. Your brain may have interpreted the mid-tone as a lighter value against the darker values because you did not have any lighter values for context. 

Consider your medium.  If you are working in graphite, you won't have the full range of dark values that you would have if working in charcoal.  Explore what your value range is from light to dark using your chosen media on your selected background.  If you want your drawing to be high-key (limited to lighter values) or low-key (limited to darker values), establish how dark and how light you want to go and then build value relationships within your chosen boundaries. 

General to Specific

I recommend developing your artwork from general to specific so that you are building shapes and values in relationship to everything else. 

Drawing stages from general to specific by Lisa Larrabee

In this example, I used graphite pencils on white paper.  After blocking in my initial sketch, I immediately began establishing the values over everything that was not my brightest light.  This is a similar approach to toning the paper before you start. This allows you to preserve the white of the paper where you know values will be lighter.  Note that if you tone the entire paper with graphite or charcoal, you will often not be able to fully erase it back to white.

Art Challenge

  • Choose a simple subject to draw.
  • Ensure you have a good range of value shapes from light to dark.
  • Draw or transfer your subject onto different values of paper.
  • Draw from general to specific.  
  • Establish your darkest and lightest values and keep the value relationships in mind as you develop your drawing.
  • I recommend drawing the same subject multiple times to contrast the differences.

Demos of a mouth cast using different drawing media and paper choices - Larrabee

From left to right:
  • Black and white charcoal pencils on Strathmore Toned Gray paper.
  • Vine charcoal and charcoal pencils on drawing paper (white).
  • Graphite HB pencil and white pastel pencil on Toned Tan paper.

Experiment with toned papers or tone your own with graphite or vine charcoal. Check out my previous post for more examples of working general to specific from a toned background:  Drawing General to Specific: Graphite vs. Charcoal.

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at

January 23, 2023

Negative Space (Why It's Such a Big Deal)

Authored By Lisa Larrabee

If you do an online image search for "negative space drawings," you will find many examples ranging from traditional academic exercises to very creative design solutions.  Variations of negative space exercises exist at all levels of drawing classes (whether or not it is explicitly labeled as such).  So, what is "negative space," and why is it such a big deal?

Negative Space is a term used in art to describe the Space around or between an object or multiple objects.  You can think of the object as the "positive" form you can typically touch (like a houseplant).  The "negative space" is all the space around the object you cannot touch (like the spaces around and between the leaves).

In this example, the positive form is a clipping from a fig tree.  There is a lot of detail that you may focus on if you were drawing, painting, or simply observing this subject.  There are overlapping leaves creating lighter and darker values and different shades of green.  There are subtle details like the veins along the surface or the textures of the branches.

When I blackout the positive shapes, we lose the previous detail.  The focus is still on the subject, but the emphasis is now on the unified shape created.  It is like a silhouette with flattened shapes.  This is an example of simplifying the figure-ground relationship.  Our figure-ground perception allows us to group visual information as foreground and background.

Creating an inverse of the black and white places more emphasis on the negative space.  These dark shapes carry more weight visually, making us pay more attention to them.  In the previous example, the negative shapes were white, which allowed our brain to dismiss these negative shapes as "nothing" in order to focus on what our brain perceived as "something."

The Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin developed the most recognizable example of the figure-ground relationship. When shown the first version (left), we notice the two profiles in silhouette because they carry the visual weight.  When the image is inverted (right), what was the negative space now has the visual weight, and we can more easily see the vase in between the faces.  The figure-ground relationship is flipped.  The vase becomes the "figure," and the profiles become the background.

Why Is Negative Space a Big Deal?


Negative space is equally as important as positive space.  You cannot draw an object accurately if the negative space is inaccurate.  If you develop your ability to focus on the negative space, you can use those negative shapes to more accurately draw the positive shapes.  The focus becomes less on what the subject is and more on the relationship between the shapes.  Viewing the negative space as simple shapes also makes them easier to draw.


Consider balancing the design elements between the positive and the negative shapes (or the figure-ground).  How you place and/or crop your subject can create interesting negative shapes within the boundary of your artwork.  You can comfortably balance the relationship between the positive and negative shapes or emphasize a greater amount of positive or negative space to support a mood or narrative.  It's your choice. There are also opportunities to play with the figure-ground relationship that create surprising illusions (like Rubin's vase).  Many examples of drawings, paintings, and graphic design use the positive/negative figure-ground relationship to great effect.  Search figure-ground illusions for some incredible examples.


Do not underestimate the power of editing.  Selecting what information to leave out is just as important as deciding what should be included.  Our natural tendency is to focus on the positive subject and ignore the space around it because our brain filters out the space as less important or "nothing."  There are so many interesting details in a subject (light and shadows, colors, textures, etc.) that it can be difficult to focus on the negative space.  However, you can reduce the details in your subject and emphasize the interesting shapes and variations within the negative space.  Creating artwork with dynamic negative space opens up so many many incredible possibilities.  You are missing a huge opportunity if you have ignored or neglected the negative space.

Emphasizing Negative Space

In this example, you can see that I began my painting by blocking in colors in a range of mid-values (nothing too light or dark).  I also layered pigments and built up some textures.  Once the surface was dry, I sketched some of the important shapes of the tree and the figure with paint.  There is very little detail in the primary or secondary subjects.

Spring Renewal -early painting stage, artist Lisa Larrabee

I created the strongest value and color contrast when I painted the negative spaces around the tree.  Nothing within the subject was painted equal to the light value of the sky.  I added very little information to the tree.  Mostly the landscape was painted around it.  I developed the figure to a degree but also left out much information.

Spring Renewal, oil on panel, artist Lisa Larrabee

People have often commented on the "pink flowers in the hair."  This is an example of the figure-ground relationship playing tricks in your mind.  Without the figure, the light pink daubs of paint read as the sky shows in between the gaps in the tree's foliage.  They are negative shapes that are part of the background.  However, if you focus on the figure, the painted daubs connect with the subject and become interpreted as flowers in the hair.

Art Challenge

  • Choose a  subject that has interesting negative shapes.  Look for examples with closed shapes (negative space surrounded by positive form).  
  • Organic shapes (like plants) are more forgiving.  Structured inorganic shapes (like a pair of scissors or a chair) will help you identify mistakes more easily.
  • Do NOT sketch in the guidelines of your subject. Try to hold the positive form in your mind, but do not draw it.
  • Draw the outline of a negative shape. "Jump over" from the positive form to the next negative shape.  I like to begin with a closed shape (like the examples in violet).

There are many variations to try.  I have students begin by toning paper (either with vine charcoal or graphite).  This is very forgiving because you can blend away mistakes into the tone and try again when needed. Once the negative space is drawn, you can either erase the tone from your subject (which emphasizes the negative space) or erase the negative space, which will reveal the positive subject.

You can also draw your negative shapes in pencil and color them when finished.  Have some fun adding color or whimsical patterns.  In school (at KCAI), I did numerous negative space studies using India ink and a brush. I couldn't go back to fix most mistakes, but the results were very graphic and bold.

Be prepared for your drawing to get off track because you aren't sketching in any guidelines.  That's expected.  Make the corrections and keep going. 

If you find it too difficult to draw only the negative space without any of the positive, give yourself very light guidelines, so you don't get lost.  Don't get discouraged.  The more time you spend concentrating on the negative space, the more your brain will get used to "seeing" it rather than ignoring it.  With practice, you will develop better drawing accuracy and make more interesting designs and composition choices that incorporate the positive and negative shapes more intentionally.

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at

January 3, 2023

Why Make Studies?

Authored By Lisa Larrabee

Artists often create studies before beginning their artwork.  A study can be a detailed drawing or painting that allows the artist to observe a subject thoroughly and learn more about it.  Studies can also be quick, simple images that let the artist work through various options before committing. Each type of study could be its own article, but the following list is a summary:

  • Composition Studies focus on how different elements are placed within the boundaries of the artwork.  Many guidelines can help you make strong compositions, such as using the rule of thirds, a pyramid/triangle composition, an "S" composition, a circular path, etc.
  • Value Studies help to plan a value map within your composition.  This is an opportunity to group similar values to create larger unified shapes and contrast in areas of interest.  You can also establish a mood by exploring whether your artwork will have a high key (light value range), low key (dark value range) or whether it will include a full range from dark to light.
  • Color Studies should be based on your value study.  Experiment with various color choices to see how they impact the overall feeling of your piece.  Consider whether to use a limited or full-color palette.  You can also use color studies to create emphasis through color.
  • Detailed Studies are often more about observation and accuracy.  The purpose is to spend time with your subject and get to know the structure and form.  Studies may be done from different perspectives either to consider which angle is preferred or to better understand the subject.
  • Style/technique Studies can be used to explore which techniques you want to use or what options you have to stylize, exaggerate form, introduce textures or patterns, etc.

If studies are so helpful, why are so many developing artists resistant to doing them?  One reason that I hear the most is that they just don't want to spend the time.  They are excited to start and don't want to lose their initial energy or momentum.  Many artists jump right into their artwork and allow the challenges to be resolved through the process.  However, this has its risks!  Taking time at the start to explore your options through studies allows you to contrast what works and (just as importantly) what does not. 

It creates opportunities to resolve problems before they come up in your artwork.  This can save you from wasting time trying to resolve a problem on a larger piece that could have been addressed in a quick study.  Studies also allow you to explore some ideas you hadn't considered when you first started that may be more interesting than your initial plan.

Quick Study Demo

Reference Photo
Reference Photo

Let's look at some simple composition/value studies and the thought process I used when making changes from one to the next.

I took this photo hiking with my family.\x26nbsp; I thought the old, abandoned miners\x27 cabin looked quirky and had some interesting angles

It is important to identify what drew you to your subject.  It may be the shape, the lighting, the textures, or the mood.  When you are clear about what you found interesting, you can consciously use that information to guide you through the many choices that will present themselves.

These studies are small and quick (about 3-4").  I used a pencil to mass in simple value shapes and a sharpie to add the bold contrasting shapes.

Study #1

The first version on the left looks like the cabin is an isolated dark shape stuck to the side of the composition.  I darkened the value of the foreground to create a more integrated larger shape.  The change creates a more interesting division diagonally.  The lighter top shape is mirrored by, the darker bottom shape.  Still, the overall design looks boring.  Most importantly, it does not communicate what I found interesting about the subject.

Reference Photo
Study #2

With the second study, I chose to zoom in on the doorway.\x26nbsp; This allowed me to play up some of the funky angles of the cabin and give a glimpse into the angles inside that I found interesting.

As I sketched this study, I paid more attention to the stacked logs.  I realized there was an opportunity to play up the repeated pattern of the circles while also emphasizing how the building was falling apart.

There were still problems to address, but I felt I was getting closer to something interesting.

In the third study, I cropped out some of the heavy dark roof and adjusted the values to make the interior more visible.

Study #3

It is important to include the boundary you are designing within when creating your studies.  It is also important to leave extra space around the border.  This serves two functions.\x26nbsp; First, it creates a visual separation between each study so that the compositions don't run together.  Second, it allows you the room to extend the boundaries if you choose to.

Study #3 has three versions.  I wanted to lengthen the door and exaggerate the shape, so I extended the boundary at the bottom of the image.  However, I felt the door was too centered.  I also really enjoyed the irregular edge of the corrugated roof that had been cropped out of the picture.  By extending the boundary on the left side, I enhanced the diagonal pattern of circles and created a more interesting negative shape that echoes the triangular roof shapes.

Creating studies is all about exploring your options and problem-solving.\x26nbsp; Each study I did gave me new information.  I analyzed the study to identify what I felt was working and what wasn't working and then created another version based on my analysis.  The studies were quick and messy, but they gave me all the information I needed to create an image that captured what I found most interesting about the subject -the quirky, irregular angles inside and outside the cabin.

It would have been mediocre at best if I had skipped this process and jumped right into completing the finished piece.   All the techniques in the world cannot save a weak composition.   Most importantly, it would not have communicated what I found so exciting about this old cabin.  Take a little time to explore your options with some quick studies.  You may be surprised where they lead you.

Art Challenge

  • Choose your subject.  Ask yourself what it is that drew you to it. Be specific.  It will help in your decision-making.
  • Select from the list of studies (composition, value, color, detailed observation, or style/technique).
  • Explore your options.  See how each decision you make affects the outcome.
  • Choose the option that best communicates what you found most interesting about your subject.

Exploring your options through quick studies allows you to try things you wouldn't usually try.   Some will work, and some won't.  Learn from your successes and failures to determine what you want the piece to become.

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at