Lesson 9: Getting the BIG Shape

I do not believe that there is a right way to draw and paint; nor is there a wrong way. Either the painting is beautiful or it is ugly and fails to engage.

That said, however, there is a fundamental criteria that all good and great paintings share. That fundamental criteria is a compelling BIG shape. Every thing else -- drawing, color, composition, etc. -- is subordinate to the BIG shape. The BIG shape is the marquee that attracts and draws the viewer into your narrative, the painting.

Shape is essentially reduced to Proportion (how wide by how tall) and the Angles. If you can tell time, i.e., 2:15 as opposed to 2:20, you can get the angles.

Not learning how to strike shape is tragically the failing of many beginning artists' training. It isn't their fault, of course, it is the failure of their teachers and the curriculum of most art schools and academies.

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Portrait drawing exercises

Michael Britton, Minh, 2021, Oil on Panel, 11 x 14"

In portrait drawing and painting the tried and true traditional process is to work from the outside in. That means you begin with the BIG shape, the arabesque.

This is where the likeness and emotional context is first established.

And the real tragedy is that the solution is very simple: It takes only a short time to learn how to accurately and consistently strike shape!

No one is born with this skill. You must acquire it. And once acquired your development as an artist will accelerate and deepen significantly as you develop a sound knowledge of color, composition, design and anatomy.

From the BIG shape one moves onto Big Form Modeling.

The pursuit of shape remains with the painter throughout their career. Beginners begin with the BIG shape; master painters pursue concordant fractal rhythms of shape and color. It never ends. That is the beauty and deep wealth of the painting life.

The common factor in every accomplished painter is that they had a good teacher who guided them with a steady hand. A good teacher, plus perserverance, dedication and, yes, luck, being in the right place at the right time, are the key ingredients to a successful painting career.

I don't factor in talent. I have seen many 'talented' artists peak at thirty and thereafter wither on the vine. I have also taught many mature students, late bloomers, who progress with great strides and create deeply engaging works.

As a teacher I see myself as the custodian of these critical skills and my duty is to impart these skills to you and train you to both see and paint as an artist.

The following video lesson is an extremely powerful exercise that will train you how to accurately and consistently strike the BIG shape. However, be warned! ... acquiring this skill will propel you at least five years forward in your drawing and painting development.

Striking Drills

Upcoming 2021 Virtual Art Classes via ZOOM

Painting Portraits in Oil | Foundation to Bravura

Oil painting art class

Michael Britton, Monique, Oil on Panel, 11x14", 2021

In this five-session workshop you will learn how to paint a dynamic portrait in oil from a photograph.

The language of the photograph is different from that of painting. In this workshop you will learn the process of how to translate the photographic image into a painting that is much more than a mere copy of the photograph.

You will learn how to accurately block-in the big shape before fixing the facial proportions to establish both your composition and the likeness.

Learn how to construct value structures to render three-dimensional form and the practice of spotting color notes mix accurate flesh tones that breath life.

The full course description and materials list.

Materials List

Saturday, 10:00 - 1:00
Pacific Standard Time
September 18 to October 16, 2021
5 Sessions


'I've learnt more from your online workshops than I have from my previous face to face courses combined and at a fraction of the cost. Your teaching is comprehensive, yet clear and engaging.'

P. Delaney
Sydney, Australia