Sunday, April 5, 2015

Master Studies – The Practice of Champions

One thing I consistently tell myself (wrongly, I might add) is that I didn’t go to art school.  I’d give myself the excuse that, no I didn’t have at least 4 structured years dedicated to becoming an artist, that no, I didn’t have any guidance from established and experienced artists and that, no doors were opened for me at the end of those four years and why didn’t I get any of the opportunities that they had?

Then I tell myself “shut up, stop complaining, keep moving forward.”

Even if those things were true, I could just as well craft a “curriculum” of sorts to mimic the education others received at an established art school.  Many other artists even downplay the importance of art school, calling it wildly expensive and offering other low-cost alternatives.  So while I still have to think about whether or not it’s worth paying for classes, tutorials, lesson plans, etc I can still do some learning on my own and, more importantly, not make any excuses for myself.


One of the educational tools available to me (and everyone) are master studies. Master studies are often touted as great ways to learn the skills of creating art.  Many established and great artists have pointed to this method as a way to improve one’s self on color, perspective, composition, among other things.  Noah Bradley has a great long video on the benefits of master studies (while doing master studies!).  David Rapoza and Chris Oatley have also a lot of good things to say about how master studies help develop a lot of the visual skills and techniques illustrators and artists need.  

But first, what is a master study? Essentially, it's the practice of copying an existing piece of art. This can be done in a variety of ways and to study a variety of things. You can do a black/white study or value study, where color is ignored and only light is reproduced. A color study takes much longer and is done for accuracy's sake. You can even simplify things and do shapes - quick studies where the composition of the piece is studied. One thing I have heard, is that tracing a master study is MUCH less helpful than if you're looking at it and working on your canvas.

So, I started doing them.  All of the ones I'm showing you today came from the book ‘The Art of the Old West’, a book I found from a street book vendor (one of the better things about New York City). The book was a mix of history and anthropology, mixed with various art and drawings of the North American West as colonial America expanded.  I picked a few interesting paintings and decided to do some master studies.  One thing I'd like to note is that I mainly used these studies for both compositional, landscape, and color learning. I used very little lines in these studies and mostly worked in large blocks of color, then small blocks of color to refine them. One thing I want to avoid in these master studies is working on the piece too much. Getting as close to the image from a medium distance away is my goal. I'm not looking to replicate every brushstroke, shadow, or highlight. It's almost an art in itself in realizing when you've gained enough from your study and when you're essentially just doing busy work. 

Before I show you my studies and try to express what I learned through them, there is something to be said about this process of learning is that it's somewhat muscular, intuitive, and thus, very hard to put into words. There are some paintings where I may not be able to specify exactly what I'm learning but I am learning, through experience. In some way. Theoretically. 


Study #1

Study #2

There's a slight difference between these two studies and the ones later one and it's a very technical difference. I used different brushes. At the same time I started these studies, I bought Kyle's brush set (which are GREAT). I used a specific oil brush which made for some really nice effects such as the clouds/sky in study #2 and the center of the waterfall in study #1.

Study #3

However by study #3, I wanted to use my own brush. I like Kyle's brushes and I 'll probably play around with them more but I love my brush's texture and I plan to develop my voice/style using my own brush. 

Quick aside: I've talked about brushes and some of the technical aspects of Photoshop before. I may write a blog post on it, but honestly, I don't think it's that interesting, important, and I know very little about it.

This was probably my favorite painting I studied from and I didn't do it justice. However, I was starting to understand the use of color in this painting, how the light (or lack of light) affected certain objects and overall I felt my brain evolving towards a more ingrained understanding of things. At least, that's what I think my brain was doing.

Study #4

It was at this point where I started to feel REALLY comfortable with things. When before I would be pretty proud of myself for making such great-looking clouds, it was quickly becoming second nature. The horses were a bit of an issue, but I thought it would've been much worse. To get to a point of satisfaction with study was a much quicker process and I felt more accurate with my color choices and relationships. Even looking at this now, it's good to see the painting look "right" from a far-away view.
Study #5

This was my favorite piece to do. While the amount of horses and people were both daunting and, to be honest, a little chore-like - the sky, the colors, and the center encampment were all a lot of fun to do. This wasn't perfect - I had issues with the floor and its shadows but it was very helpful getting into all the minute details of what horses looked like in shadow, in the light, far away, and close up.  

Study #6

At this point, I started playing around with my brush, my color and my choices. I stopped trying to directly recreate what I saw and in little places I just worked on what felt most fun to me. To me, that meant it was time to move on from master studies. I've heard that you're never really "done" doing master studies, but I do think it's important to note when you're not getting as much out of your studies as you were in the beginning. And that's probably a good thing. Because it means you're learning. After this study, I took a break and I will be starting studies from a specific artist (I have two done already). Plus, this is great practice, but I also need to just work on my own personal material.

I did learn a lot and paid attention to light and shadows in ways that seem obvious but are almost never things I think about (such as how figures cast a shadow directly under them). I'm also SUPER comfortable sketching out a horse outline now. Most importantly, landscapes and skies are now very familiar to me and I don't always have to go to reference or feel like I'm completely lost on how to start a landscape painting. 

Also, this was a lot of fun and I highly recommend master studies for anyone and everyone who wants to be a better artist. 

Thanks for reading.