What Exactly is a Painting Study?

Ok, so I hear this sort of confusion frequently, and I admit the term “study” sounds pretty stuffy and academic. It smacks of homework, research and other stinky school tasks many of us prefer not to revisit. However, in art it is very misunderstood.

Practice? Aww, Do I have to?

First off lets address the old joke: a study is any piece of art that failed. Yeah I know, ha, ha, ha! But not so fast. Truth my friends! Yeah, practice really is that simple. Try, fail, try again. I mean seriously, how many pianists have you heard of that can play through a totally new piece of music the first time without a hitch (pros and Mozart-like prodigies notwithstanding). One of my daughters was a college piano major and she would practice a single piece of music repeatedly in preparation for a performance. First few times was for technical mastery, that is, playing all the correct notes. The more she practiced a piece the more she concentrated on subtleties, changes in volume, tempo and style nuances that turned a collection of notes on a page into a beautiful, personal rendition.

The Talent Myth

So, why is the myth still floating around that a really talented artist can paint a picture right the first time and if YOU can’t, well you better cash in your art chips, honey, cause you ain’t got it (depression ensues). Is that even remotely true or do really accomplished artists practice, plan and work at producing really sensational art? You bet your sweet sketchbook they do! Yeah, I know some artists “get it” quicker than others, but substantial improvement is within everyone’s reach regardless of skill level or talent. Bottom line – why does improvement matter? It increases your joy and satisfaction in the results. If art is a hobby for your enjoyment (in other words you’re not a professional artist trying to please clients or an employer), then improvement is for you and you alone. You need not improve or set your art goals for anyone else. In the end improving for someone else’s sake is a set up for constant disappointment. Never the less, enjoyment increases with every improvement you make and thats 50 years of art experience talking ladies and gents.

Discovery Baby!

Oh, but now it seems we’re back to that stuffy, boring “study” task again. Or are we? If your goal is to draw and paint and that brings you joy and relaxation, then by doing studies, I just gave you an excuse to draw or paint much more often than you did before, and with very little pressure to turn out anything more substantial than a few rough brush strokes or pencil lines. Pardon me for saying so, but isn’t that the sort of fun we used to have with art projects in elementary school? Remember when the idea of a set of crayons and a blank piece of construction paper held nothing but promise and joy? No pressure, no unrealistic standards to follow. Just play and discover! HAH…wait a minute! Did I just possibly define what a study could be for an aspiring adult artist too? Why yes, yes, I believe I did. So back to the question. What exactly is a painting study? Why, playing and discovering of course…while adding the slightly more mature goal of honing skills which in turn fires up your enjoyment of the process. Sweet!

Here are some tips to take a more “studied” approach to drawing and painting.

  1. Draw, draw, draw – All artists should draw…a lot! Duh, right? Its the most basic type of study. Only one problem and I see it again and again. Artists somehow feel like their sketchbook should also be a work of art. Every page! WHAT?! Thats like hitting tennis rebounds against a practice wall and having someone photograph every swing for a photo album. I don’t think I have to point out the hesitancy that approach will generate. And then, as if thats not enough, artists go out and buy these beautiful, hard bound, leather-embossed, gilded edge volumes from the book store.  At first you’ll think, “now THIS beautiful book will get me drawing again.” Actually the opposite is usually true. Gorgeous sketchbooks make you even more apprehensive about sketching in it until you have found a worthy subject and then only if you’re confident enough to draw it. Buy the most basic, cheap sketchbook you can and just doodle. Doodle a specific subject from life when possible, but doodle and doodle often. Don’t concern yourself much with the results. Put it in a secret location and don’t show it to anyone if it makes you feel better. The goal is to get more comfortable with drawing period. Think of it as a book that you could happily toss in the trash and not think twice about.
  2. Go ahead and do a painting – If you’re confident enough to paint a subject fully from the start, by all means go ahead. If it fails, simply review the particulars and what needs fixing. Congratulations you just did your first study! Leave the pressure and feeling of failure in the waste bin. Take Thomas Edison’s more positive approach of discovering 1000 ways NOT to make a light bulb. “Hey, look everybody, I just discovered how NOT to paint a tree, yippee!” Make notes about it if you feel you’ll forget what you’ve learned. If you come away from a painting with nothing more than the idea that you failed, you missed an incredible opportunity. Go back and find at least ONE THING you learned from doing the work. Did you find one? Ok, look again, maybe there was something else.
  3. Get familiar – Do a study as a rough dress rehearsal for your final painting. Studies are great ways to get to know the subject in detail. They force you to look at every nook and cranny of your subject, thinking through all the particulars and asking questions as you draw and paint it.
  4. Address specific confidence issues – If you don’t feel confident enough to launch into a full painting then address the specifics. Is drawing the main subject of the painting intimidating? Draw several views of that subject until you feel more comfortable? Not sure what colors to use? Work that out. Have fun doing it. No pressure. Once again judge your studies more by what you learn than by the results. Do it again. Do it differently. Work on improvement.
  5. Set your own study goals – What do you want to fine tune? Value? Color? Composition? Scale? Perspective? Set that as your goal for a particular study. Do the study simply and roughly in a thumbnail if you prefer. Remove decisions from the final painting process that will just add to the confusion and stress. Its really amazing to me how even a good compositional thumbnail, for example, can increase the fun and enjoyment of doing the final painting.
  6. Study whenever and whatever – Don’t have a particular painting in mind? No worries. You don’t need a reason. I often have an idea come to me in the shower or in the middle of the night and it could be as simple as, “what does the shape of a nose look like from a high perspective.” I don’t need to be thinking of a painting. I just want to explore a simple idea. So I get out my sketchbook or paints or both and tackle the problem (no, I don’t do that in the middle of the night).
  7. Ask what-if questions – Studies can start for all sorts of reasons. You could be trying out a new brush or wanting to mix up a color you’ve never mixed before. Come up with some of your own “what-if” questions. What if that subject was lit from the other side or what if I mixed all my browns for the foreground instead of using browns from a tube. Then set out to learn the answer by doing it.

I hope this is a help. This is what studies are all about. For me, at least, studies add tremendously to the joy of the art process. The biggest benefit? Studies turbo-charge the learning experience. Just try it and see if it isn’t true.