Why Make Studies?

by Lisa Larrabee

                                                                                                      Artists often create studies before beginning their artwork.  A study can be a detailed drawing or painting that allows the artist to observe a subject thoroughly and learn more about it. Studies can also be quick, simple images that let the artist work through a variety of options before committing.  
Each type of study could be it's own post, but the following list is a summary:

  • Composition Studies focus on how different elements are placed within the boundaries of the artwork.  There are many guidelines that can help you make strong compositions such as using the rule of thirds, a pyramid/triangle composition, "S" composition, circular path, etc.
  • Value Studies help to plan a value map within your composition. This is an opportunity to group similar values to create larger unified shapes and create contrast in areas of interest. You can also establish a mood by exploring whether your artwork will have a high key (light value range), low key (dark value range) or whether it will will include a full range from dark to light.
  • Color Studies should be based off of your value study.  Experiment with a variety of color choices to see how they impact the overall feeling of your piece.  Consider whether to use a limited or full color palette.  You can also use color studies to create emphasis through color.
  • Detailed Studies are often more about observation and accuracy.  The purpose is to spend time with your subject and get to know the structure and form.  Studies may be done from different perspectives either to consider which angle is preferred or simply to better understand the subject as a whole.
  • Style/Technique Studies can be used to explore which techniques you want to use or what options you have to stylize, exaggerate form, introduce textures or patterns, etc. 

If studies are so helpful, why are so many developing artists resistant to doing them?  One reason I hear the most, is that they just don't want to spend the time.  They are excited to get started and they don't want to loose their initial energy and momentum.  There are many artists that jump right into their artwork and allow the challenges to be resolved through the process.  However, this has its risks!  Taking time at the start to explore your options through studies allows you to contrast what works and (just as importantly) what does not.  It creates opportunities to resolve problems before they come up in your artwork.  This can save you from wasting time trying to resolve a problem on a larger piece that could have been addressed in a quick study.  Studies also give you the freedom to explore ideas that you hadn't considered when you first started that may be more interesting than your initial plan.  

Quick Study Demo

Let's look at some simple composition/value studies and the thought process I used when making changes from one to the next.  

I took this photo hiking with my family.  I thought the old, abandoned miners cabin was quirky and full of interesting angles.  

It is important to identify what it is that drew you to your subject.  Maybe it was the shape, the lighting, the textures or the mood.  When you are clear about what you found interesting, you can consciously use that information to guide you through the many choices that will present themselves.

These studies are small and quick (about 3-4").  I used pencil to mass in simple value shapes and a sharpie add the bold contrasting shapes.

The first version on the left looks like the cabin is an isolated dark shape stuck to the side of the composition.  I darkened the value of the foreground to create a more integrated larger shape. The change creates a more interesting division diagonally.  The lighter top shape is mirrored by the darker bottom shape.  Still, the overall design is pretty boring.  Most importantly, it does not communicate what I found interesting about the subject.

With the second study I chose to zoom in on the doorway.  This allowed me to play up some of the funky angles of the cabin and give a glimpse into the angles inside that I found interesting.  

As I was sketching this study, I paid more attention to the stacked logs.  I realized that there was an opportunity to play up the repeated pattern of the circles while also emphasizing how the building was falling apart.  

There were still problems to address, but I felt that I was getting closer to something interesting.  

In the third study, I cropped out some of the heavy dark roof and adjusted the values so the interior was more visible. When creating your studies, it is important to include the boundary that you are designing within.  It is also important to leave extra space around the border.  This serves two functions.  First, it creates a visual separation between each study so that the compositions don't run together.  Second, it gives you room to extend the boundaries should you choose to.

Study #3 has three versions.  I wanted to lengthen the door and exaggerate the shape, so I extended the boundary at the bottom of the image.  However, I felt the door was too centered.  I also really enjoyed the irregular edge of the corrugated roof that had been cropped out of the picture.  By extending the boundary on the left side I enhanced the diagonal pattern of circles and created a more interesting negative shape that echoes the triangular roof shapes.

Creating studies is all about exploring your options and problem solving.  Each study I did gave me new information.  I analyzed the study to identify what I felt was working and what wasn't working and then created another version based on my analysis.  The studies were quick and messy, but they gave me all the information that I needed to create an image that captured what I found most interesting about the subject -the quirky, irregular angles both inside and outside the cabin.  

If I had skipped this process and jumped right into a finished piece, it would have been mediocre at best.  All the techniques in the world cannot save a weak composition.  Most importantly, it would not have communicated what I found so exciting about this old cabin.  Take a little time to explore your options with some quick studies.  You may be surprised where they lead you.  

Art Challenge
  • Choose your subject.  Ask yourself what it is that drew you to it. Be specific.  It will help in your decision-making.
  • Select from the list of studies (composition, value, color, detailed observation, or style/technique).
  • Explore your options.  See how each decision you make affects the outcome.
  • Choose the option that best communicates what you found most interesting about your subject.

Exploring your options through quick studies allows you to try things you wouldn't usually try.   Some will work, and some won't.  Learn from your successes and failures to determine what you want the piece to become.  You can't fully know the potential for a piece without spending some time considering the many choices available to you.

~ Lisa