Solve Problems Early With Study Sketches Before Your Final Painting!

Painting should be fun, but when it starts looking bad, the joy rapidly dwindles.  What if with a little preliminary work, you can ensure a more enjoyable process and a better piece of art?

This post is a continuation on the process of creating a self portrait and finishing it in time for the Jerry’s Artarama Self Portrait Contest

I’ve gone over painting quick study sketches in the past.  You can read about it here: 30 Minute Painted Sketch (opens in a new tab).  This is a little different though: this is about studying what you are going to paint, and working out problems before they come up once you’re laying down the final paint.

Painting the Self Portrait: Matt Abraxas

Matt painting Matt, 1999; photo by Jason Frinchaboy

Putting thought into what you want to create prior to applying the paint is essential.  For many experienced artists, this is second nature.  I’ve been painting for over 20 years, and still there are times when I run into a problem and wish I had made some studies.  Once you’re neck deep in paint and canvas, it can be torturous to wipe the canvas clean in order to start again.

Of course, preliminary study won’t iron out every wrinkle, and you still may have to wipe an area clean, but it cuts the risk considerably.

In the process of creating a self portrait, I started with a very simple composition sketch.  In fact, too simple.  As I found once making my color sketches, certain compositional qualities showed up that my composition sketch didn’t reveal.

The lesson there is to take your time.  Consider what you’re seeing.  Read the signs you’re being presented with.

If you do still come up with problems as I did, recognize it and trust that the next time will likely be better.  Every mistake we make, in art as well as all of life, is a learning opportunity.  To become a better artist, you absolutely have to be open to learning, and to learn more so from your own guidance and instinct rather than what anyone else can tell you.

Enough of that rant – Moving On!

Taking the Time to Pave the Way for a More Enjoyable and Successful Piece of Art

study sketch for oil painting

Study for ‘Visit’

Once you have an idea of what you want to paint, now is the time to pay close attention to what you’re about to invest your time and focus on.  A quick composition sketch is helpful to give you some rough ideas of how the overall image comes together.  You can read more about this process here: Composition Study

Usually, I skip the composition sketch and jump straight into a quick painted study sketch.  This will work as a composition sketch as well, but it does take more time and effort.  The composition sketch in pencil or charcoal has the advantage of showing you compositional strengths and weaknesses within a few minutes.

The painted study sketch requires a lift more investment, but if you maintain loose brushwork and focus on not painting details, it can benefit you greatly.

The Painted Study Sketch is a Painting Rough Draft

Think of the simple composition sketch as an outline and the painted study sketch as a rough draft.

What I look for at this point are the color harmonies.  Checking and double-checking the color temperature in my light and dark areas, the tonal gradation (darks to lights), and hue values.

I’m looking at the whole image at first, working out the color harmonies from a very basic level.  This is a point where you will benefit from squinting down.

Quick Note On Squinting:
Squinting is best when you are trying to decipher where the shadow ends and the lighted area begins: the tonal gradation.  Squinting is not great when evaluating the color.  The exception to this is when you just want to get the general color of an area.  Once you’ve established the tonal gradation, squint and assess the dominant color of particular area (dark, mid-tone, light).  Then, look at your subject clearly to see the nuances of color.

At this stage, I begin making decisions about how I see and how I want to portray the subject of my painting.  I consider how I want to handle the background or ambience.  I test the style, more or less.  I start working out if the painting will be more loose or tight, more high key or low key, more chiaroscuro or not.

Naturally, the subject determines this, but a painting can be manipulated to express your own vision as well.  So, you can oversaturate or raise the lighting contrast as you see fit.  In the study sketch, this is the best time to work these things out.

In my self portrait, I found that the light in my studio was directly hitting my painting, causing a reflection in every brushstroke.  My best solution was to move my easel and mirror around, which I did.

Color Study Details: Testing and Learning About What You See

Once I’ve completed an overall study sketch, I may make another more detailed sketch.  Sometimes, in complicated paintings, I make several.

At this point, I know more clearly about the direction my painting is headed in, but I want to work out a few more things that may come up as problems later.  For portraits particularly, this is very useful.

When working on commission portraits, I make several of these.  I also make several drawing studies as well, just to get familiar with another person’s face.

In my self portrait, I’m already very familiar with my own face, but I did want to establish the color temperatures and tonal gradations of my face in this particular lighting.

I discovered an interesting issue of two sources of lighting, one cool and one a bit warm.  This causes the contrast in the shadows, which creates an interesting effect where the warm shadow turns into a cool shadow.

I also discovered some issues with my original composition once I moved my easel and mirror around.  These were minor, but enough to show me that often, one quick study won’t show you every problem.

As I get working on the final painting, there is sure to be more hiccups and discoveries.  But, if I use what I’ve learned in these preliminary studies, the whole process will be a much more enjoyable one.

If you are working on any studies as well, please share your experience here or on my Facebook page here.

I hope this is helpful, and stay tuned for the final self portrait.

~Matt Abraxas