Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Just as a tiny version of a future full-size drawing is referred to as a thumbnail sketch, the term study is often used to refer to a smaller, quick, “warm-up” or practice version of a future painting.
If memories of sitting in your school library reading textbooks in preparation for a final exam come to mind with the use of the term, you’ve got the right idea. Artists’ preliminary studies are exactly that: a chance to recap the ideas and memorize the information before embarking on the final challenge, in order to ensure success. It’s a professional artist’s studio practice dating back hundreds of years, becoming a necessity for many artists as they began to undertake works of monumental complexity and extreme precision.
The practice of completing preliminary studies wasn’t something I undertook until I started painting larger dimensions a few years ago. I had always found that the time and work involved in painting at extremely small sizes didn’t warrant a practice run beforehand, as the potential mistakes to be made at that scale would themselves be smaller in scale–and able to be corrected in a reasonable amount of time. Essentially it seemed like I’d be completing the same work twice.
But as I took the plunge into attempting larger scale paintings, I suddenly realized the larger scale problems that could occur, costing days or weeks of time, money in expensive materials, and frustrated energy backtracking and correcting. It was time to take up the age old tradition of completing a practice run to head off any potential problems before they occurred. At first it seemed like a hassle–an extra step preventing me from diving right into the joy of spreading those first layers of fresh paint on a new surface. But now that I’ve gotten into the habit, I really savor the opportunity to “prime the pump,” get familiar with the subject matter, acquaint myself with its nuances and palette, work quickly, intuitively and loosely…and most of all, make mistakes as I work out any ideas I may have.
I’ve found that the painting process following these studies goes much more smoothly, resulting in works accomplished in less time with less hair-pulling moments of indecision or bewilderment. As I’ve written before, the degree of meticulous patience and strategizing that goes into the thin layer buildup of my paintings is crucial for their success. Thus, anything that allows for more opportunities to plan and prepare, such as completing one or more preliminary studies, in turn allows for more complexity and refinement of the final illusion, which is the ultimate goal.
The studies you see here were completed in around 5 hours or less, and are actually way more refined than a preliminary version needs to be. They can potentially be completed in minutes, and can be incredibly sloppy. As long as you figure out what you need to do in the final version of the painting, the study has served its purpose.