Why I spent 30 days painting small studies

Why I spent 30 days painting small studies

Studies are small, quick, rough paintings. They are typically done on thin panels or bits of paper. They are little explorations, often slap-dash and haphazard. They might be scribbled out in the middle of the night or hiked down from the high alpine. And they aren’t usually worthy of the gallery wall. So why bother?

Artists have to face a choice: do we paint to sell or do we paint to explore?

If we’re lucky, perhaps we can do both! But often it’s easier to do the riskier, exploratory painting as small studies. Try an idea, learn from it, move on.

A collection of winter studies

30 Painting Challenge

The holidays were approaching and I had a stack of giant canvases lying in wait against my studio wall. At the same time, I was working on my annual business plans and trying to puzzle through what projects and collections and when and where and… ahh! Too much analysis. I couldn’t bring myself to start working on a larger canvas when I didn’t know how it was going to fit into the bigger plans. I needed something else to focus on.

So studies. I whipped an 8×10 study off in 60 minutes, breathed a sigh of relief, and decided that was all I was going to do for the next month so I could paint while planning, without painting what I was planning.

The challenge: a daily 8×10 study completed in 60 minutes or less.

Painting in Triplets

It’s hard to decide what to paint every day, so I decided that I would allow myself to paint variations of the same painting. And therefore let these variations be ways of exploring different tools, techniques, or subject matter. These variations ended up being organized into triplets as by the time I had explored something on 3 different levels I was very keen to move on.

This set of studies explores style, moving from realism over to abstract geometry

Bonus: I developed a lot of reference material for future workshops. Painting all of these variations gave me tons of examples to help illustrate ideas and concepts.

Luminosity study. From left to right, these paintings have 70% titanium white, 30% titanium white, and 0% titanium white
Tools study. From left to right, these paintings were finished with a brush, a palette knife, and a spatula.
Shapes simplification study. This one looks at how much detail is needed to show a scene.

Using AI Image Generators

I have a huge photo library of reference material, but I was also keen to explore the new Artificial Intelligence image generators that are supposedly going to take jobs away from artists. I worked with Midjourney AI to generate a bunch of reference images and then painted away. I thought we worked together rather well. The AI technology is really good with colour palettes and pretty good at compositions. Not so great at the finer details, but hey, that is something we all struggle with.

Three studies all painted from AI generated reference images. Using Midjourney AI was a shortcut to generate reference material and quickly get down to the business of painting.

It’s good to take a break!

It’s even great to take a break from the pressures of regular studio work. At the end of the 30 days, I’d completed 39 studies and had:

  • explored so many ideas that had been on the back-burner for months. Years.
  • pushed myself to try new techniques and subject matter.
  • experimented with my tools and gotten to know my pigments a lot better.
  • built up a reference library for future teaching.
  • gotten ready for an exciting year of painting!

And some of the paintings are pretty decent too! I’ll be making this work available in a Sliding Scale Study Sale. It’s a bonus to be able to offer this work at a big discount and empower new collectors to get something original.

Mist study. This set tried different mist effects with acrylic mediums.

Are you an artist who wants to do a study challenge?

It can be so rewarding to take a break from big, focused paintings and just explore! Painting in triplets is a great way to practice new techniques and ideas with small variations – it might feel repetitive, but it allows you to really focus on the variation rather than starting from scratch each time. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Paint the same painting 3 times with a different underpainting or ground colour each time.
  • Paint the same painting 3 times using different sets of primary colours.
  • Paint a set of studies that are high-key (light values), mid-key (mid-tone values), and low-key (dark values).
  • Paint with a new tool like a palette knife, spatula, or old credit card.
  • Paint from memory, imagination, or with help from AI.
  • Paint the same painting 3 times, but one emphasizes foreground, one midground, and one background.
  • Paint the same painting 3 times in different seasons or times of the day.
  • And so many more things to explore!
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