A Blog About Oil Painting

Why Do Artists Think Preliminary Studies Are So Important?

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Study of Tootsie, charcoal on paper by artist Simon Bland

Study for Tootsie. 11x14, charcoal on paper. 2017

 As the artist Barbara Jaenicke recently wrote, studies are basically explorations of a painting idea.  They are a way to distill an almost infinite range of possibilities down to a small number of choices, leaving you with a better understanding of what can be accomplished. In short, they are a way to try something out before you mess up on an expensive canvas.

But there's actually more to it than that. A preliminary study is important for several reasons, including:

1. Efficiency

When I start a portrait I want to make sure I use my time effectively, and it's incredibly helpful to know how I'm going to design a painting before I actually start. I think it's well worth spending 30 minutes of my time creating a value study if I can potentially save days of wasted effort on painting a failed design.

2. Big Picture

A study lets me see the work as a whole right from the get-go and helps me to start thinking about the painting not as a portrait of a dog (or a landscape, or whatever the subject happens to be), but as an abstract shape within the borders of the canvas.

If I skip this step my mind-set would almost always be on the dog rather than the larger picture, and many of my painting decisions would be driven by the subject, not by the whole. It's particularly important in this case because if I painted straight from the reference photo I would likely end up with a dog's head floating around freely on the canvas; when working on this study it became obvious that the head needed to be anchored in place with an area of darker values to avoid that very problem.

3. Layout and Positioning

It's altogether too easy to start a portrait with the head too close to the edge of the canvas. Because I start the study with a series of gestural strokes and the big shape outlines I'm more easily able to correct for it. With the head position established in the study it's easier to start the portrait in the right place - no matter what block-in method is used.

4. Focus on the Big Things

Charcoal is a clumsy medium so it naturally makes you take attention away from the features and places it more on the big forms and shapes. That happens to be a great way to approach the design. Once you start to "paint" rather than "draw" with charcoal it becomes much more useful.

Working with a medium like charcoal helps me to think about the composition of the picture without the distraction of color, and makes it possible to approach the design in an incremental way. When I was starting out I wasn't very good with this medium - I tried to use it like a pencil and often failed to produce anything worthwhile. For that reason most of my early studies were done in pencil. But as I've become more experienced with charcoal I've come to appreciate just how useful and versatile it can be.