Rusty Jones is not a raging iconoclast. But he readily abandoned a traditional method of preparation for a painting when his iPhone offered an alternative.

Lead Image: The scene as manipulated by Rusty Jones’s iPhone using the Mono function

For many artists, a painting starts with a value sketch, a thumbnail of just two or three values, usually done in graphite or marker. Sometimes three or four compositional ideas are worked out, quick and dirty, before the canvas is even approached. Many consider it a crucial step, and they refer to the chosen value sketch occasionally during the painting process to ensure a good design and prevent the artist from chasing the light.

His notan sketch on location
His notan sketch on location

But now there are several apps for smartphones that convert a photo to black-and-white on the spot, and some apps even simplify the values into big shapes to aid in designing a composition. Jones tried using his iPhone a while back to create a value sketch as a preliminary step to painting, and he was impressed — impressed enough to write a blog post about the experience for Oil Painters of America.

Jones talked to PleinAir Today about his exploration. “Like many plein air artists, I have used notan sketches as my starting point to evaluate and compose a scene for about a decade,” says the Texas artist. “One day in the field I just started playing around with the photo app on my iPhone. I was on a five-day painting trip. By the end of the trip, I was using the phone exclusively to do the notans because it gave me so much more information in a shorter amount of time.

Jones’s finished plein air piece, “On the Way to Big Sur”
Jones’s finished plein air piece, “On the Way to Big Sur”

“The main benefit is the ability to return to the notan photo as the sunlight changes. Because it is on a small screen, I squint at the image and the value patterns are very apparent. Plus, if there’s a major shift in the weather that forces me to stop painting, I can return to the notan photo in my studio and retrieve much more information than if I were looking at my sketchbook. The ability to compose, edit, and filter the image gives you so many options when making decisions about a scene. I have retired my felt pens forever.”


  1. I use Procreate a lot. I have always had trouble getting my value and tone from going cartoonish crazy. I take digital pics a lot because I don’t always have the time to get outdoors. I can’t post the pics of both but maybe I can email it to OP.


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