Seven Simple Steps to Success, Debra Huse

Seven Simple Steps to Success: Work small to get BIG Results

Comfort, Study, Plan, Design, Lay in Big Value Shapes, Refine & Stop


When I first started painting on location I was completely overwhelmed by all the information and how to get everything onto the canvas (before throwing it in the trash). Have you ever felt like this? The way I overcame this frustration and moved more quickly from frustration to enjoyment was to stop working on bigger canvases and start to work on small 6x8’ panels. It can work for you too if you always follow these SEVEN SIMPLE STEPS.

You see, it turns out there is a lot to think about when painting. Many artists just set up and begin painting everything they see. Guess what? Without a PLAN making a good painting is very difficult and maybe impossible. Working small helps one to focus on the big ideas like design and values, without much room for too many details.

Simple Step One is COMFORT

This will help you be calm and enjoy your experience. Make sure you have all of your supplies and whatever makes you comfortable. If on location, look for shade. Bring your favorite easel, chair, umbrella, favorite tea or snack, favorite brushes and your 6x8” panels. Working small brings big results. I suggest trying linen panels as they are more enjoyable to work on. They are not so absorbent and have a great surface to lead to success.


Choose your subject. Study the light cast upon it. Where is the light and where is the shadow? Look for the big value shapes. Find the darkest, middle and lightest values. For instance, in a landscape or seascape, often the upright trees (or the wave) get the least light so they are often in shadow and the darkest value. Next maybe the mountain or hillside that is slanted to the sun. It will appear as the next value, a step lighter. Lastly, study the sky and land or water. Which is lighter? Often the lightest value is the sky but not always. I like to count the big values to help make my plan of attack and to remind myself of the strategy for success.


It is fun to look for a focal point that has great light and behind it is a dark area to show it off. Or maybe keep rich color in the focal point and everything else is more muted or greys. Maybe add shadow to the foreground to help the overall design. These kinds of strategies make for success in a painting. But you do have to THINK :) A Notan is a great way to strategize. This is a simple black white grey study of your subject to help with your design and value placement plan.


I am a big fan of having focal point or a Star of the Show. Make your painting about ONE THING and let the rest be supporting cast. 

Resist temptation to paint everything you see as if it is the star of the show. You are the director here. You must choose what shines and what is quiet. Maestro! begin your painting by composing a great DESIGN! Design is very important. You, as the director and composer, must DESIGN good shapes on your canvas. This starts by choosing where the focal point goes. Mark 1/3rd on all sides of your canvas to help you make a great design. Put your star of the show where the 1/3rds intersect for better design. This is often where the darkest and lightest values should also be. (Not sprinkled all over) Mark 1/3rd on all sides of your canvas to help you make a great design. Do not put your star in the middle or way to the edge, top or bottom of the painting. Avoid having anything line up with 1/2 way point. For instance the land or water, by making the horizon at the 1/3rd line (high or low) it will help you start with better design.  

SS Five is BIG Shapes

Design each shape and begin by getting those shapes laid in - in the correct value- before any detail is considered. For a landscape for instance, get the vertical trees, mountains, sky and land all in. Easy right? Start simple and get those values right. Lay them in without going over and over the brush strokes. Paint it once keeping it simple.

SS Six is Refine

Ok after getting the big shapes, you will be able to refine each shape a bit by adding a color of value change to part of it, or adding a little _oh I hate the word- “detail”. But do yourself a favor and do not keep adding more and more info unless it is in the focal point.



If you find yourself futsing, (-the F word-) put your brush down and step away. Really. You are done. Don’t fiddle (-the other F word-) with it until it is ruined. Leave it alone. You did it! Sign it Maestro.


Debra Huse is an award winning painter. Click here
to learn more about her and her work. 

Lori Putnam1 Comment