All artists should practice their craft by creating simple studies to teach themselves the fundamentals of art. Because the studies are very small and lack detail they can teach the principles more clearly and with less frustration than a full piece would. In particular studies are useful for understanding color, but they are also useful in understanding form, pose, balance, composition, line, tone, lighting, and all the other fundamentals. Here are two simple studies I did last year in watercolor with sinopia pigments that helped me understand the use of color. The first is a pomegranate which I did with yellow ochre, green umber, and if I remember correctly, raw umber. I sketched it quickly and went to color immediately without working out any tone. The result of that palette was a cool hued painting only about four inches in size. I liked it and I have in on my wall today. The second I did loosely without any detail to the face or hands but this time I stuck to a warm palette of only two colors using the wash to control the tone. The palette was nothing more than burnt sienna for the darker reds (the color swatch on the left) and raw sienna for the orange-reds (the swatch on the right).
It’s important to understand the difference between doing studies and doing commercial work. When you are producing work for a client you have to be accurate in every respect of the art, even though it takes a considerable amount of time to work that way. You have to be willing to tell the editor to take a hike if he’s pressuring you to work faster than you can while still doing great work. There is nothing more insulting and disrespectful to an artist and his family than an editor who sets an artificial deadline for you when he knows the work doesn’t have to be done until a time well-after that thinking that it will motivate you to work harder and faster to make himself look better at his job. If you are self disciplined to work hard until the work is complete you don’t need an editor at all except as a help in coordinating the work between artists and catching errors that you missed. Self discipline to work until it’s done is how you have to work to be successful and meet the real deadlines. Because a study distracts from your commercial work but is absolutely necessary for improving your art when you are doing studies for yourself you can ignore accuracy in many respects. For example if you are doing a color study then the drawing isn’t all that important. The goal is to understand the color in your hand and how to use it to render form. If you are studying drawing you can ignore color. If you are learning about lighting you might want to pick up a camera instead of a pencil. If you are learning about composition (and don’t have allergies) get outside of the studio if you can and visit a flower shop. I’m sure your wife will appreciate the gift.
The reason that a lot of artists have a hard time improving is that they don’t study correctly. They either try to only accomplish a masterpiece every time or they do silly little drawings of mice all day every day with the same type of pencil from their imagination only. They draw the mice because they already know how to do it and so it’s enjoyable for them, but they never go on to other subjects or try their hand at pen drawing and so never learn how to move their tool deftly and the former type of student gets frustrated and hates everything they do because it never looks they way they want.
The solution is to break up your study time into understanding the elements that make great art. By studying line, color, form, composition, light, texture, depth, presentation, graphics, calligraphy, etc., all separately you will learn much faster and be able to incorporate what you have learned into your commercial pieces. You won’t be frustrated that the drawing didn’t look excellent because you didn’t waste your time on that. You can tell yourself, “That’s alright. Drawing is tomorrow. Today is composition and that looks pretty good.”
I’ll be posting a study that I’ve done of a Rembrant painting illustrating his extremely limited color palette and some of my thoughts about it another time. Until then I hope you enjoy these studies.