Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Block In - The Foundation

 Creating a Solid Foundation

 The more I paint, the more I have come to value the Block In stage of my paintings. In fact I've come to refer to it as the Foundation. I think that more accurately describes how important it is to your painting!

Here are the stages of a painting:
  1. Composition
  2. Drawing
  3. Block In - Foundation
  4. Development
  5. Finishing

When I began painting I didn't do a Block In at all. I would have a vague idea of composition in my mind, sketch in my image on the canvas, and then proceed to fill each space with finished color and detail.

What often happened is I ended up with something that didn't achieve the realism I was going for, and I didn't know why!

Then I began to learn about VALUES. How values are really the key to realism, light, depth and form. And how difficult it is to train your eye to see them! We tend to see color and shapes and detail instead. Focusing on the detail, without keeping the whole picture in mind. 

I learned that many artists add a step after the sketching stage - the BLOCK IN. In this stage they would cover the canvas with the large, simple shapes of the painting. So I decided to give that a try.

In the Block In you are looking to establish:

  • The placement of the large basic shapes
  • Correct Values of those shapes
  • General color harmony
  • No Detail at all
  • The general mood
This is so much harder to do than it sounds! I used to rush through this stage, impatient to get on to what seemed like the real fun, seeing the finished painting emerge.

I wouldn't take the time to really be satisfied with the values and colors and shapes in this stage.

Huge Mistake!

There I was, eating my spinach, doing my Block In, and still I was not happy with the painting!

Why? Because I was just covering the canvas without taking the time to be sure my foundation was good. And in the next layers I would just paint over it, ignoring the work I'd done!

Now I spend more time with my Block In than any other stage of my painting!

And probably half of that time is spent just looking and contemplating!

A good painting is an expression of your reaction and experience with the image, not just a perfect rendering of your reference.  And that takes time to develop!

During this stage I might change my direction completely. This is the point when the CREATIVITY really flows. I may start out with something very close to the reference, but as I interact with it, with the shapes and colors, it will start to change and develop. I'll begin to really understand the image and why I am painting it. What my story is.

Things I think about in this stage

  • First I go for accuracy, trying to get as close as possible to the values and shapes in the reference.
  • Then, I stop and consider, and react to what is before me.
  • At this point I spend more time looking at the painting than the reference. I squint my eyes, step back, look in my mirror, and contemplate my reaction to what is there. Do I like it? No? Then I change it!
  • It's easy to make as many changes as you need at this stage, don't hesitate to try something!
  • Stop yourself from doing any kind of detail! Just big shapes
  • Use a fairly large brush - depending on the canvas size. 
  • Can I see the depth?
  • Do the colors sing together?
  • Can I see the light?
  • Is my focal point clear? Does it draw me in?
  • Are my supporting elements just that? Are they competing for attention?
  • Have I created a mood?
Once the image is developed this way, the finishing is easy! All you have to do is just break up those big shapes with smaller ones, staying withing the color and value harmony you have established! A few bold brushstrokes and there you are!

So, take some time to create a solid Foundation for your painting, you'll be happy you did!

P.S. This painting, "Winter Morning" is the subject of one of my Online Classes. More info here. 

Have you tried a Block In - Foundation Stage? How does it work for you?


  1. Excellent blog post Karen. I typically block in the darks and shadows then get at the painting. I am what you described; anxious to see the finished painting. I love the reference, blocked-in and finished piece you used as an example. You did a great job of painting a picture of what you were describing.

    1. Thanks Micki, it is kind of a different way to look at the block in. You are not alone in using it for just the simplest of darks and lights. Everyone finds their own techniques to suit them. There is no right or wrong in art :)