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Artist at Work: Color as Shape

with Mary Jane Begin

Video: Introduction

Break an image down into its basic shapes and learn how to effectively compose a drawing or painting.
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  1. 1h 9m
    1. Introduction
      2m 56s
    2. Establishing shape
      5m 45s
    3. Highlights
      11m 17s
    4. Color blocking
      23m 28s
    5. Color blocking the face
      11m 1s
    6. Adding final details
      15m 5s

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Artist at Work: Color as Shape
Video duration: 0s 1h 9m Beginner


Composing an image is like solving a puzzle; if you can imagine your elements as a group of colored shapes, you can make all the pieces fit. In this course, Mary Jane Begin shows you how to see shape before detail and develop a portrait step-by-step, using reference images, a color composite, and foundational shapes. The course will review color balance, color blocking, use of diagonal shapes for dynamic compositions, tension between edges, focal points, space, and hierarchy of shape.

Mary Jane uses the following materials in this course:

  • Arches 140 lb hot press paper
  • Tube watercolors- Winsor & Newton Cotman brand
  • Paper stumps for blending
  • Pastels- a variety of stick and pencil forms (including Conte pastel pencils)
  • Short, fat, fine-bristle Winsor & Newton #2 and #4 brushes (for scrubbing color off)
  • Sceptre Gold II sable/synthetic blend #3, #6, and #10 brushes
  • Winsor & Newton Cotman brand 25 mm/1 in. flat brush (for washes)



I'm Mary Jane Begin, and this is Artist at Work: Color as Shape. Designing an image, like solving a puzzle, requires looking at a composition as a group of colored shapes that fit together. When the pieces fit, the whole image becomes clear to see. I want to help you to see shape before detail as a basic to designing stronger compositions. I am going to be paining a portrait of my son, Liam.

I'm using his senior portrait as a reference point, and I'm going to turn him into a young nobleman. And my point of reference for this will be Renaissance paintings. And the reason why I chose this is because A, I love the Renaissance period, and B, the shapes involved in these portraits are really clear. Although there's light involved, some light and shadow, it's mostly about designing with shape, and these are articulated in a very clear fashion.

So these are references I'll look back to when designing this image. I also created a kind of color composite. Which is, sort of a way for me to help myself understand how I'm going to break down the shapes. Now you can see if you go back to the photograph that I was working from, my composite is really quite different. And the reason why is this. When I translated the photograph into a black and white version, I could see that the trees behind the head were too close in value to the hair, and that would be a problem.

I also wouldn't represent what I was looking at, the Renaissance paintings. So I changed it. And, in making imagery, you should also remember that you should be editing out the information that's extraneous, things that don't help to serve your purpose. I looked at this image, in particular, because I liked the sky behind the head, and that was a common device used for these kinds of paintings. So I made a few changes in my composite, and as you can see, there's sky behind his head now to help emphasize the shape of the hair.

Otherwise, the hair would not be the shape that it needed to be to focus on the focal point, which is the face. I also changed the outfit, so that it would be more to period. And I used some color shapes that will lead the eye to the face. So I'll keep referencing why I made these choices, but the fundamental issue here is designing with big overall shapes to get to the final end result. I also do something that I think is really helpful when I'm trying to decide how to compose an image.

Is I look at the piece I'm making, throw my eyes out of focus. Or even you could use a tool in Photoshop to create just shape, or a blur effect, so that you're not looking at the details of the image. You're just looking at the basic, foundational shapes of your picture.

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