Master Studies – A Different Approach

I took a composition class at Fullerton College with Marshall Vandruff last fall and was introduced to a more analytical approach of studying masterpieces. Instead of making a copy, we did value studies, and took closer looks at the use of patterns, directions, rhythms etc. in composition.

For me, the value study is the most valuable. Many artists recommend doing a value sketch before any painting, but I was never clear about what I should look at and work on in this step. As a result, I either skip it, or simply map out the light and dark in my reference. In the class, we were asked to turn some master pieces into two tones, three tones and four tones, and see if they still work. And that’s the key! A good painting should work at every stage, and a value study is make sure that the black, white and sometimes grey shapes are well designed and interesting. Why? because when someone look at your painting from afar or as a thumbnail, those value shapes are the ones that call attention.

Here are some examples of the studies I did for the class:

Two-tone (notan):



Movement Studies:

Colored Studies:

A few notes:

  • I used to do master studies by copying the entire painting. I find it very helpful, especially in appreciating the whole process of creation. Sometimes, however, when I am trying to get all the details right, I overlooked the big pictures. Single out certain elements of a masterpiece and study only that helps me go deeper in that direction.
  • Most of these studies are no bigger than a business card. They are not easy to do but still much faster than copying the whole painting in details. I could study a lot more masterpieces this way. I think these small studies are complementary to the detailed studies.
  • In theory you can go up many more levels in tonal studies, but as you can see, a 4-tone study is already very close to the final identifiable shapes. I personally find two-tone is the most important. That’s the first impression. Three and four tone studies help you work out more complicated and subtle designs.
  • The colored studies should also have a focus (such as temperature), and should still focus on big shapes.
  • Another thing these studies did to me it enhances my sensitivity to the design elements in a painting, and now when I am looking at an artwork, I find myself doing mental notans and arrows!

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