Art Term Tuesday: Artist Study

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

What does it mean to study? You’re probably thinking of textbooks, calculators, book reports, and endless memorization from your school days. Artists study too, just in a different way.

Sketch vs Study vs Drawing

A sketch is something created with an improvisational spirit, an idea quickly conveyed with no intention to be displayed as a finished creation.

A study is a concentrated step in a process to create a complete idea. It can be of the entire idea or a particularly tricky part. The artist is investigating the different ways to create the complete idea compositionally, with color, or even material. A study can appear to look like a completed idea but the artist has the authority to define their work as they like. Some studies can look like a completed drawing, a finished piece, and others might see it as such. However, the artist is the authority of their work and can say “Yes, this is a drawing” or “No, this is only a step in my creative vision.” Defining what is and isn’t a study can be fluid, especially if the artist has passed and not clearly defined their work, leaving others to do so in their place.

A drawing is a complete piece in and of itself, meant to be displayed as a finished work. More often a drawing is tight and precise, perhaps in ink or a more permanent medium. There might be another work after this drawing, like in Chuck Sperry’s silkscreen prints, but this step in the process of creation can be the end goal.  

Chuck Sperry’s drawings for “Worlds Within” in the exhibition “All Access: Exploring the Humanism in the Art of Chuck Sperry”. Notice the multiple hand drawings, what part was Sperry trying to perfect? Photographed by Shaun Roberts.
The final work: “Worlds Within” by Chuck Sperry. Photographed by FWMoA. Chuck Sperry, American, b. 1962. Worlds Within. Silkscreen on birch panel, 8 layers, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist.

Sometimes it can be easy to define what is a sketch, like these sketches in Bob Cross’s exhibit Stream of Consciousness.

Bob Cross, American, b. 1956. 5,000 Drawings. Pencil on paper, 2018, collection of the artist. Photograph by Bob Cross.

They are quick, improvisational, impressions of time, with little color or well-defined composition. They have many short, staccato pencil marks that overlap as Cross works to transfer his idea quickly to paper. There could be many similar sketches, with small adjustments to each which a layperson might not notice but the artist understands. Splashes of color in certain areas help remind the artist of their color ideas and composition. Studies aren’t only done as drawings! There are color studies, compositional studies, figure studies, and for sculpture, maquettes! Before chipping away at a nice marble block, it’s a good idea to build a less expensive model in clay. Before putting all that blue paint down for a sky, it’s a good idea to see if the painting should be a sunrise or sunset scene, and will have more pink or purple tones. Before presenting a commissioned portrait, it’s a good idea to make sure they have the correct number of fingers on their hands!

Studies and drawings in Chuck Sperry’s “All Access: Exploring Humanism in the Art of Chuck Sperry.” Photo by Shaun Roberts.

Here are some examples of studies versus drawing in the recent Chuck Sperry solo exhibition, All Access: Exploring Humanism in the Art of Chuck Sperry. The two framed pieces on top are completed drawings, done in pen and ink that are complete pieces in and of themselves. Beneath them are the preliminary studies. Look closely and compare the top left and the middle bottom, the drawing verses the study. The key visuals are the same: head back, arms outstretched, hair loose and flowing. In the study, though, there are chaotic lines, soft and rapid, that only give the impression of hair, of flowers, of the crown. Chuck Sperry had yet to decide on what the arms would do or where they would be placed, so there are additional lines to describe where they come back towards the torso, like she stood in the power pose with hands on hips. In the drawing on the top right and the study in the bottom left, there are many more apparent changes. The double lei is replaced with a single lei, but a delicate hand rests atop the flowers in the drawing. Her “come-hither” expression is the same, her square jaw defined, and her crown expanded into full bloom. None of the studies show hands but the final drawings, and even the final prints, feature delicate hands, lightly caressing their flowers.

So look in your sketchbook – are there many drawings of the same thing with slightly different outcomes? Have you drawn a hand again and again and again? Perhaps you have a page of thumbnails as you tried to figure out the best composition for your class assignment. If you’re a painter, do you have a stack of canvases of the same landscape at different times of the day, trying to capture the correct light and color? If you’re a sculptor, do you have a collection of little figures only a small fraction of the size of the final piece? These are all studies! Just like with math, practice makes perfect and isn’t it exciting to see how your practice helps create something fantastic!

Leave a Reply