What Is a Study?

September 9, 2019
My proof of concept sketch. Doodling on a piece of newsprint with a marker that’s drying out, and thinking about what I would want in this portrait of a dog I found on Sktchy.



Artists often make “studies” of a subject before they jump into working on a painting or detailed drawing.

Why is it useful? Why is it important?

I think a study is a notion of the bright sparkly possibilities ahead. 

When we look at a subject we recognize something and try to get that on paper before familiarity settles in and breeds contempt—before we no longer really look at something.

As artists it’s important that we are always looking with fresh eyes.

A study in ink wash on Nostalgie paper. Thinking about how I want to capture the texture of the surface and whether or not I’ll do it in ink.

A study to me is important because successful or not it stands as a reminder of what first captured your interest. (If it isn’t successful it still stands as a reminder of what you need to learn to capture next time.)

A study serves as a proof of concept before you get too far into a quagmire. This might be a realization of what scale you have to work in, which medium you need to use, or a thousand other things.

The “proof of concept” might even be “Can the subject hold your interest for the amount of time it will take to do the finished work?” 

Color study made in a Fabriano Venezia Sketchbook as a classroom demonstration. I wanted to paint opaquely with gouache on the textured background. (I didn’t pursue this subject to a final standalone portrait outside my journal.)

I’m notorious for losing interest in something; for working quickly and wanting to move on. If I’m going to spend time on a painting everyone who knows me realizes the subject needs be a dog, bird, rock, or man with a beard.

That’s the full list.

Insects, bugs, and creepy crawlies used to be on that list. I’m past that now.

Yep, that’s a full list.

Oh, and peppers. I seem to have an unlimited amount of patience to sketch and paint Bell Peppers.

Lastly for me, a study is an opportunity to speed date alternative approaches before you marry yourself to one approach (or medium) for the duration of a multi-hour, multi-day, -week, -year project.

The simple act of making a study can boost your productivity by eliminating hours of work you might have spent wandering around trying to make something unworkable work!

And within a given medium a study gives you the opportunity to explore different mark making possibilities. For instance the texture of fur versus the texture of the bow-tie in the color study in today’s post. 

Of course a study provides the opportunity to nail down a color approach and palette.

I think studies stretch us to look for other possibilities than the first answer to the question “What do I see?” Through studies we look again at something everyone else might think is stale. Through studies we find what interests our eye.

If you keep a journal as a workbook you already understand the power of studies, because your whole life with your journal has been about creating them.

    • Tina Koyama
    • September 11, 2019

    Nearly every workshop I have ever taken, especially when it covers composition, includes making thumbnail studies, and it took a long, long time and many books and instructors hammering it into me, but I finally get it. I enjoy making thumbnails now to consider options for compositions. Often I like the thumbnails better than whatever “finished” sketch I ended up doing. Sometimes I lose interest after I’ve done the fun part in the thumbnails and don’t move on to the “finished” one. Good thing I’m not a painter. 😉

    1. Reply

      Tina I’m with you about liking thumbnails better a lot of the time. I think it’s because we see our sketches as observations in the flow of life and not necessarily finished, so we get what we “need” by doing the thumbnails and studies. And then we get to move happily along to the next thing! I think it’s a good way to be.

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