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Doing formal studies and serial studies of both live subjects and other artists work is a core learning tool! The goal is to have fun while systematically refining our skills and broadening our visual vocabulary.

Related: Exercises like pattern work and gesture studies.


Subjects of study can be anything. Art by existing master’s’ compositions are a classic subject to do this with. But anything that turns you on, or challenges you is more than fair game. Yes it’s ok to copy other artists work in the name of study, just ALWAYS identify your sources when you do, don’t take credit for more than you did. Traditionally we sign this kind of work, “after” [artists name here].

Study your own past as well out of the moment of doing, and with time to take note of our errors and issues we wish to improve with a bit of distance on the doing. And then often repeating or re-mounting the work, making a series of it even, to improve, experiment and explore.

Drawing things over and over for a bit, doing a series, is extremely educational and can be a lot of fun if you treat it like an exploration rather than worry too much about getting it “right”. Don’t copy each time, refine, clarify, and even be a bit fearless trying new things from time to time too.

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TIP: When studying your own drawings, or even while doing them, stop sometimes to look at them in a mirror to see things you will miss otherwise! After working on a piece for so long, your eyes grow accustom to your mistakes.

Flipping it make them POP. So make it a habit to look at your piece through the mirror so you can continue with an accurate understanding of what changes could be made to improve it.

TIP: I also suggest NOT erasing things you feel are a mistake first. Instead, take a lighter color pencil than the line you have been working on, and start sketching in LIGHTLY, the change you want to make from the existing line.

If you erase it first, you’re much more likely to repeat it, than if you leave it as a guide for what you DON’T want to do. Once you have the line or form you do want roughed in on the page, then clean out the errors carefully and draw in the correction fully.


I’ll be adding new proposals for exercise constraints here over time. A lot of professional art is built on the process mechanics we’re studying here. Like much of the work I do in making comics, everything from illustration to concept art consists of a formalized work flow process, that at times resemble aspects of what you will find here. Many of these exercises are essentially ways of learning by reverse engineering compositions we find pleasing, looking to understand some of the things that make them work.

Study series example: Read ‘Composition in Drawing: Art Technique’ by Benjamin Blankenbehler!

Video of a series study based on a photo of Margie Gillis leaping.

Long series studies!

Random once off studies are good, but I also suggest doing longer series studies.

The is a very old tradition, and an effective way to squeeze every bit of learning out of a single composition that you can. Historically done from master works and still life compositions, today we can employ photos too. Those you have taken yourself, or by others. Just don’t take credit for work you didn’t do. Always sign and date your work, and for studies that are copies write in “After/Après” [name of original artist of photographer]. As a form of study, copying is a invaluable learning tool! The entire visual world should be considered fair game for it.

Claude Monet's Rouen Cathedral Series
Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral Series

Claude Monet is a great example of a painter who became known for his longer study series, doing large sets of the same subject to at first capture fleeting changes in light, and then later to explore and refine ideas he found in the initial work. His work including painting of haystacks, bridges, and the famous The Rouen Cathedral Series.

Another artist who I’ve found some nice examples of their use of study material, is one of my favorite painters, Edward Hopper. He did many, but this set is specifically for his famous painting of ‘Nighthawks‘. Here’s a short interview clip where he talks about his formal practice of study. This slightly longer clip covers it as well.

For our project we’ll scale down a bit from that, starting by choosing an image. First copy it, do both freehand gesture sketches, and directly trace it using tracing paper or as I sometimes do, print them lightened to a ghost image and draw directly over them.

This makes it fast to do many initial studies. But don’t let the reference “correct” you! This study series is meant be open to happy accidents as well as other forms of discovery. Sometimes “mistakes” are better than what we indented to do. The trick is to know when to edit and when to leave it alone.

Don’t take overly long with studies. Instead favor many more versions, doodles rather than any large masterpieces. See how Hopper did just enough to understand the detail he was studying and no more. These are quick studies with different media, and different interpretations.

Try to break down the composting in a few different ways. And keep in mind you can reframe it and even dramatically change it, taking elements from the reference material and reshuffling them like a collage. Indeed making a copy of the reference material and cutting it up to reassemble with scissors or in photoshop is a great way to explore this exercise.

Shown in the gallery: Gestures studies of a building, and bending space for the same subject. Play with distorting some objects individually. Simple line tracing with ballpoint to think out the structure. Loose Ink and brush sketch drawing over photo of flowers thinking out the strong compositional elements of the photo. Multiple colour value studies of a composition. Braking the form down to some basic colour forms in exaggerate hues of the one’s you see, to make them stand out even more. Value and Notan studies in B&W, to examine, or build structurepattern and form into your compositions.

Do many of these things to one image, get to know it, really really well. Drop compositional grids over them, the rule of thirds, diagonals, the golden mean. Study it and think about why it works, or how it could work better?

A former student, Jordan Wieben, pointed this blog post out to me, “How to Paint an Oak Tree by Stephen Taylor“. A great example of an artist using an exhaustive study series to develop their painting.

For our classes exercise, once you’d done at least a dozen or more analytical study sketches, put away the photo or original first image. And using only your studies and notes, start composing a new drawing based on them. if you’re feeling adventurous. Do this over and over and over.

Each time changing some basic rule or working in a different medium. Remember, nothing is against the rules, and everything can be changed. In your artwork, you are ‘god’. Don’t be restricted by anything about the original image. Play with it, break it, and put it back together again!

Questions to ask yourself when looking at your drawing or painting.

1. Proportions. We can distort and stylize, but do your forms and shapes feel right? Intuitively, you’re minds eye will know sooner than you hand can render, how a thing should look. Just think of the times you’ve looked at them before. You haven’t look at this before?Then do that by all means! Educate your eye! Use reference of course where needed to practice proportions and specificity. 🙂

2. Values. Are the lights, darks, and middle tones if you have them, balanced effectively? Do you need more contrast or less? What sort of forms are created by the blocks of the values, is it broken up too much or is there a strong sense of form and depth given with them? Is there enough drama? Too much? Try varying the contrast locally or globally in the composition. And do the values come from solid blocks or mottled texture? More contrast to make things pop, less to have them set back, flatten, or harmonize more.

3. Edges. Have I clearly defined my contours? Am i’m using lines for them, or tones? Both? Have I got any stolen tangential lines causing problems? Am I missing the opportunity to use tangents to strengthen my composition? If there is one, is the line itself drawn in an effective way to best describe this edge? How could it be more clear, or expressive? Values are not just for big areas of tone, but also line. Is is clean, rough, flat or sinuses in width and direction? Which of each best describes a given form, and which used against type, adds an interesting level of visual metaphor to the composition?

For many of these it will help if you have access to Photoshop, a printer, and/or a traditional light table.

You can make yourself a cheep portable light table using this great instructional a fellow comics jammer showed me on FB.

But I find working on light tables hard on my eyes. I prefer myself mostly to do draw directly on top of it instead, simply print your images lightened by 50% to 80%, and on draft mode to save ink and make them faint enough to be able to clearly see when your drawing over them your own lines. I often drop a blue screen over them to make it really easy to work over!

Also you can use images scanned from or cut out of magazines, books and newspapers. Try different styles of pictures, simple and busy, people and things. You’re looking to break the images down into geometric shapes, abstract forms, and lines. Looking at light and dark values, and considering the proportions.

Look for the negative spaces, and think about rules of thumb like The Rule of 3rds – the golden meanLead roomGeometry and symmetryRule of odds; & Simplification!

Brownie points: Review “Imposing the grid and thumbing it” and on this page you will find a few sets of illustrations with compositional grids applied over them so you can consider how they might have informed the original artists ideas about composition.

Here’s three kinds of Exercises to try.

Draw a study of a subject or photo, in freehand [not tracing]. Build it out of loose geometric shapes that it resembles.Refine the contours some but finish the study session rough. Think of this as constructive anatomy for objects! You can build anything out your own sketching

Print out a face two or three times on a piece of paper. Once normally to ‘read’. Next to it on the left if you are right-handed, on the right of it if left handed, so your drawing hand won’t cover the ‘read’ image. Print it again once or twice filtered in light blue.

Use colour pencils or pens to draw over it – the colors are used so you can make a first simpler pass in a lighter color, then another in a darker one, separating out the different structures.Don’t press to hard or fill it in or over work it.

Think about contours and edges. Here in the example with the young boys face, I’ve done a proportion grid in orange, and sketched a linear version loosely in red pen.

Print or cut out photos, draw over them of freehand sketch to break them down into abstract shapes by drawing over them and cutting them up. Try collaging the pieces later too!

There’s a strong S curve found in Marilyn in the sample sheet. How might we use that to abstract a drawing of a woman like her?

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