Creating Studies

Studies for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome, 1913, Michelangelo Buonarrati. Print Collector/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What do you do when you have an idea for a painting? Do you immediately get out the paints and canvas and start painting, or do you take out the sketchbook and do preparatory sketches and drawings to develop your idea? While there are those who prefer the more immediate approach, most artists at one time or another, or as a regular practice, create a study for a final piece as they work on developing their ideas.

Studies are essential in art as a way to sort through visual problems in preparation for a final piece. Artists create studies as a means to try out different compositions, understand values, and experiment with color and shapes.

Throughout history artists have used preparatory studies to practice and plan the elements in their finished paintings. Artists of the Renaissance throughout Europe, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albrecht Durer, to name a few, spent much time doing preparatory studies for final works, as do many artists since that time.

Just as a student studies other subjects, such as math and science, to gain knowledge, and writers create multiple drafts as they refine their writing, so, too, the artist creates studies to gain knowledge about his or her subject. Studies come in all varieties and there are no hard and fast rules for them. They can be in the form of a sketch, a drawing or a painting, and also include written notes.

They can be diagrammatic Notan studies of only black and white, or detailed renderings of a particular feature. They can be any size and include gesture studies, value studies, color studies, anatomical studies, and studies to determine the shape of the canvas, or format.

Here is a study done by Michelangelo of the Libyan Sibyl for the Sistine Chapel.

 According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art description:

"This is the most magnificent drawing by Michelangelo in the United States. A male studio assistant posed for the anatomical study, which was preparatory for the Libyan Sibyl, one of the female seers frescoed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Vatican Palace) in 1508–12. In the fresco, the figure is clothed except for her powerful shoulders and arms, and has an elaborately braided coiffure. Michelangelo used the present sheet to explore the elements that were crucial in the elegant resolution of the figure's pose, especially the counterpoint twist of shoulders and hips and the manner of weight-bearing on her toe." (1)

See more studies on by Michelangelo for the Battle of Cascina, the finished painting of which was never actually realized, and the Creation of Adam, part of the Sistine Chapel.

Sometimes a study is fresher and more energetic than the final piece, which may end up being labored over, but the practice of doing studies and developing one's observational skills and knowledge of the subject will most of the time make for a more powerful final painting.

View this video What is a "Study", anyway?

More: POP 8: Journeys in Art: from Idea to Finished Piece of Art



1. Heilbrunn TImeline of Art History, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto); Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a Small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso), 1508–12, 
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), Metropolitan Museum of Art.