The Value of a Color Study


Color studies. Are they really all that important?


Because of laziness, hectic schedules, or overconfidence in my painting skills, I don’t always make a color study for an illustration. But after devoting myself to doing them, I’ve been able to create images faster, more easily, and of better quality.


Solving Problems

Art takes a lot of brainwork, and the better you organize your thinking, the easier it will be to paint. When you make a color study, you are thinking about specific issues like lighting, harmony, and mood. Once you reach your final painting, the process will be less stressful and easier because you have already solved most of your visual problems beforehand.


Completing a good, solid color study gets me excited about the final painting and I’m motivated to finish it. I get more work done. On the other hand, if I struggle with a study, I put the project aside and don’t waste precious hours on a weak painting.

Completing a color study also means spending less time fixing mistakes. For example, I was making my color study for a painting of witches stirring a pot of evil brew. My first instinct was to make the brew orange and give it a nice, warm, fiery glow. When I tried it out, however, it didn’t have quite the effect I wanted. With a little experimentation, I discovered that it was much more effective and creepy to make it bright yellow-green. It was a simple problem to solve with a few scribbles, but it would have been a pain to change if I was already hours into my final painting.

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My Process

Keep It Small

When painting, I keep the study no larger than a thumbnail sketch. On the computer, I work at a low resolution and try not to zoom in too much. This will help me concentrate on the overall shapes and patterns the colors are making.

Keep It Simple

Some of my studies get really detailed, but that is only because I had big issues I was trying to work out. I only go so far as I need to, then move on. Most of the time, I will end up with a blobby mess, but they always give me a solid direction for my final painting.

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Focus on the specific problems at hand. Try not to worry about the details and rendering – those are problems you can worry about in the final painting.


I always try to make at least two or three different color studies for a project. I don’t want to be limited by first impressions or preconceptions. Sometimes a slight color shift makes the image a little more sophisticated; other times, totally wild and crazy colors give the image a stronger mood that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

In fact, I’ve learned that my first instincts are usually NOT correct. Color studies have saved a lot of my best illustrations from being merely mediocre.

First impression: Colorstudies10 After experimenting: Colorstudies06

Close-up (check out those scribbles and googly eyes!):

Since my studies are small and simple, I can easily try out several different directions without taking a lot of time or effort. It’s especially easy in Photoshop, where you can manipulate the color at the touch of button.

Make the Commitment!

They seem like a hassle and not always necessary, but I would definitely encourage you to create a color study for every painting you make. I’ve learned a lot about color just by becoming more aware of my choices. And in my own body of artwork, I think the extra effort really shows in the pieces that I’ve done color studies for.

How do all of you plan and prepare for your own paintings? What tools do you use and how detailed are your studies? I would love to know your thoughts…let me know in the comments!

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