Study Light, Study Right

I was a good student when I was in school. I loved learning. I still do. I enjoyed reading assignments in history, social studies, literature, science… whatever. Fortunately I also had a good memory. I was able to grasp the concepts quickly and keep them in mind. As a result, I never had to “cram” at exam time like so many students do. Sometimes during classes I would take a few notes, but mostly I was able to listen and “retain info” just the same as I did when reading.

For me, the whole idea of “studying” was rather foreign. How did one do it? Did one simply read and re-read the same pages over and over again? Did one sit down and write out possible “quiz questions” and look for answers? Did one compile a list of terms and topics and then research each? I really never understood exactly how one was supposed to study.

Fellow students — and teachers, too — often threw out the phrase “Study long, study wrong,” which, honestly, made no sense to me at all. I mean, seriously, if studying was supposed to be a good way to learn, wouldn’t more study mean more learning? Was it possible to study too much?

Along with “Study long, study wrong,” there was an opposite phrase that I made up. “Study light, study right.” I can’t say that I believed in either of these two expressions, but it didn’t matter. I read, I listened, I made good grades without needing to study.

So when I now come across the idea of studies in art, there’s a part of me that is still a little unsure of what I’m supposed to do. Time after time, I read about making quick landscape sketches in preparation for an oil painting, or doing a series of quick drawings of a subject. Delacroix, for example, visited the zoo to make drawings — pencil studies — of lions.

I had a hard time grasping what studies were really all about. I often do a lot of practice pieces, as I call them. Maybe this, too, is a form of study in art, but practice pieces and studies really aren’t quite the same thing, at least not as I’m coming to see them. A practice piece is exactly that — a drawing or painting I make in order to practice a specific technique or try a new concept I’ve learned relating to color theory, or composition.

study on the other hand — as I’m seeing studies now — is more like taking notes. It’s looking at a still life set-up, a model, a landscape scene or whatever else we’re planning to draw or paint, and trying out different versions. We’re not practicing techniques. Maybe we’re playing with color theories a bitbut mostly we’re considering various elements of art and deciding how we could use them in a finished drawing or painting.

I really have Joy Ting to thank for this new understanding. I’ve loved her “Daily Practice” in “Color Play” on Creative Bug. Day by day, I’ve watched as she’s made quick colored-pencil drawings, mostly contour drawings, and then added in bits of color here and there with oil pastels. She’s talked over and over again about freely changing what we see, moving elements around if we want, and focusing on specific areas of a reference.

This is how we “study” in preparation for drawing or painting. This is how we make notes about what we see and about what we want to do when we’re ready to create a drawing or painting. Our studies aren’t works of art in themselves. They’re like visually jotting down our thoughts so that we can choose the right answers when we’re at our easel.

In many ways, you know, art is a multiple choice examination! Which color should I choose: A, B, C, or D? Which value should this be: A, B, C, or D? There are always so many choices and decisions to make when we draw or paint. Doing not just one, but a series of studies can help us see the best choices before we even begin.

A recent “daily practice” session focused on still life studies. This is where it all came together for me. This was that moment when the whole idea of study clicked in my brain. I watched as Joy looked at a reference photo for a still life, then chose three different areas to focus on. With colored pencil, she quickly sketched the basic elements for each possible composition. Later, using her oil pastels, she added bits of color. Each of her quick sketches — each study — was a little different.

Then, it was my turn. I pulled up a still life reference photo and then found three different ways to use it. With a colored pencil, I created these very quick sketches. I’ve darkened them here to make it easier to see the lines.

I really liked the first study, even though it’s compositionally weak. The second study was selected because the vase on the left had a marbled appearance. I wanted to explore possibilities for creating that effect. The third was the least-interesting, I felt.

Perhaps I should show you the original reference photo I was working from. You’ll notice that — just as Joy Ting suggests — I’ve moved things around here and there.

You might say, “Wait! Your drawings don’t look anything like this.” You’d be right, but the point in doing these studies wasn’t to copy a reference photo. It was to take inspiration from a single photo and develop it in three different ways.

After completing my initial colored pencil sketches, I used my Pentel oil pastels to add color, not in a finished way, but only as “visual notes” for what I might choose to do with each of these still life ideas.

Here, I was “studying” different possibilities. I chose a peaceful blue for the vase in Study 1. In Study 2, I had fun playing with my pastels to try out a marbled effect. In Study 3 — the one I really didn’t care for — I tried out a primary color scheme, just to see how it might look.

After “studying” this still life reference by looking at it from different points of view and trying out different colors, my next step will be to choose one and create a larger, more finished oil pastel still life painting from it.

I’m undecided!

I’m happy though that I understand what it means to study a scene. and I’m no longer puzzled about how simple or how detailed a quick sketch needs to be. That was always one of my questions. I can see that it just needs to show what’s important to you as the artist. It truly is visual note-taking. It’s taking the different ideas in my head and putting them down on paper, not in words, but in lines, shapes, forms, and colors.

If I were to spend too much time on a study like this, I would really defeat the whole purpose! So, it’s definitely true with art studies that if we “study long” we “study wrong”. Instead, I’ll keep on making very simple, very quick sketches. Call it “studying light”, if you will, and yes, I think doing this is a way to “study right.”


Please share your thoughts!



  1. My school learning and studying was just like yours and the best thing I learned with art is to say, “what if….?” So ‘what if’ your marbled vase reference had just a bit more of the plant showing…that study is the most interesting to my eyes! Have fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Judith,
    If I must choose, it will be the three vases in study 3!
    I needed to hear/read these words today. I have to “lighten” up. My studying every day has grown longer and longer until even my dog is fed up. Fannie thanks you. 😆❤️Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I bought three pears yesterday when I was at the grocery store. They were close to the cash register and grabbed my attention so I grabbed them They are sitting on the dining room table with my sketch book open… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. i can’t wait to see! my art teachers would always tell us to think of the possible outcomes and also have that “what if” mind set

    Liked by 1 person

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