• Shawn Dell Joyce artist

Color Studies May Just Save Your Life!

Ok, maybe not your life, but they will save you time!

Many of the people who take classes with me roll their eyes when I mention studies-either value studies, or color studies usually. I used to feel that way too.

One eye-roller remarked "studies are a total waste of time, and I work, so already I have so little time to paint! Why would I waste it doing a study?"


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Because, you will save yourself even more time, aggravation, and a ton of money with a little forethought and planning.

There's a common misperception that artists just walk up to the canvas and unleash a torrent of brush strokes, then voila, there's the finished piece. That only happens on Instagram and YouTube...



What usually happens is the artist gets an idea for a painting, makes a quick thumbnail sketch (usually in pencil, 3x5 or smaller and takes less than 15 mins) to work out several key problems before painting:

  1. Composition-the thumbnail is usually in the same format (aspect ratio) of your paper or canvas so that you have an idea of how your idea will fill the canvas.

  2. Value-the sketch is a quick black and white sketch that shows the pattern of darks, lights and at least 3 other values in between. I usually do 5 values in a sketch.

  3. Focal Point or Edge-last concept is what is the most important edge, or focal point. Your default focal point is always where the lightest light meets the darkest dark. You can manipulate this by moving it or changing the values in a specific area.

These are the main questions for the painting, once you have done this sketch, you should have the answer to these questions. Now You could take the same sketch and go one step further and turn your value sketch into a color study, or you could do a totally separate color study---which is what I do.


Plein air palette with sketchbook showing a value sketch and color study


The main reason I do a color study is it's cheaper and quicker to experiment with color and techniques on a small scale-and make small mistakes-then on a larger, finished painting. I use expensive materials for the finished paintings and want to make sure I know exactly what I'm doing when I paint with them.


A color study is crucial for working out these key problems with a painting:

  1. What is the complementary palette I'll use for this scene, or what are the two main colors that really attract my eye here and how can I play them up?

  2. How am I going to use these colors to create the illusion of depth? ex: Should those distant mountains be blue-green or blue-grey?

  3. Lay out my palette from dark to light (Value 5 to Value 1) so that I can methodically work through my colors (laid out by value on my palette)


Value sketch shows me how the composition will work, color study helps me break up the buildings from the trees.

Once I have the value sketch, I have my plan for painting the scene, once I have my color study, I have my palette laid out and am ready to begin.

This may sound like a lot of preparation, but really only takes about 20-30 mins during my set up stage of painting. I do this process before every successful painting. It's the reason for the painting's success.

If I get lazy, frustrated or choose not to do these preliminary sketches, I almost always regret it because I make novice mistakes...

  • tree winds up in the middle of the picture

  • trying to fit too much in the picture or suddenly running off the picture plane

  • the perspective is wrong

  • no clear source of light or pattern of darks

  • totally accidental focal point


Notice that I changed to figure and the composition based on the value sketch. The color study helped me work out what the finished piece would look like.

Do those things sound familiar? When they happen, it's usually after you spent all your time painting and don't really have time to go back and correct it. How frustrating! Another half-finished work gets stacked on the pile and forgotten.

What could happen instead, is all of those problems I listed could be easily avoided by taking the time to do studies. Don't take my word for it (no one ever does-we all learn the hard way!) Try two paintings, one with preliminary sketches and planning (value sketch and color study) then one without, where you just dive into the canvas and see what happens.

Please feel free to post your findings below. I'd love to see what you do. Also, keep in mind that what works for me, may not work for everyone else. My goal is realism, and my training is in alla prima painting techniques so that's going to be a bit different than someone who paints abstractly, or minimally, etc. So keep that in mind.


finished piece; "The Male Gaze" 16x20 Pastel see how both sketches helped to inform them finished piece?