When I was first introduced to the concept of painting a small, preliminary study which would later serve as a guide for a finished painting, I did not fully understand the reasoning behind it. I questioned why an artist would spend valuable time on a study when they could be working on the finished painting instead. What was the purpose in painting multiple pictures when only one needed to finished? I have since come to appreciate the importance of this planning stage and have found that preliminary studies serve as vital tools when it comes to both learning and communicating.

As a commissioned portrait painter, I have found that preliminary studies help to better communicate with my clients. These small paintings give others a much clearer idea of what I had in mind for the final painting as far as pose, composition, and color. In addition to painting a finished portrait, I will also prepare two small preliminary studies (usually 10” x 8”) to show a client before beginning any work on the final piece. The reason for presenting two studies is to give the client a choice as to which pose they would prefer for the final painting. This also provides an opportunity for the client to voice any concerns that they have or changes that they would like to see in the final portrait. It is much easier to incorporate these changes when first starting on the final portrait than having to go back and paint them at a later stage.

Example of two preliminary studies (left side) and the final portrait (right side)

Example of two preliminary studies (left side) and the final portrait (right side)


The time that is spent working on these studies is well worth the investment. From a client’s perspective, there are no sudden surprises when the final painting is delivered because the initial idea has already been established beforehand. From the artist’s perspective, the study serves as a platform for working out difficulties in composition, color, etc. If you run into a problem while painting the smaller study, then you are likely to run into a similar situation when working on the final painting, but on a larger scale. I have found that taking the time to work out problems in the studies will actually save me time in the end when working on the finished portrait. I can refer back to the study and then duplicate the solution to the larger canvas.

In many ways, the study serves as a blueprint for the final portrait. During the initial block-in stage I will try to match the same values and colors that are in the study in order to quickly gain a sense of volume and atmosphere. The study also allows for the experimentation of different techniques and gives me the freedom to be bold without having the pressure of wondering if the client would like the effect or not. If one or more of these techniques works well in the study then I will often try to mimic that same effect in the final commissioned piece.

Whether you are drawing, sculpting or painting, preliminary studies can play an important role in the success or failure of a work of art. Preparatory work, in the form of preliminary studies, is as relevant and useful to artists today as it was a century ago.