What Turns a Study Into a Painting?

6 Jan 2014

A couple of months ago I posted some outdoor watercolor painting sketches of my Finland trip in the Artist Daily Member Gallery. One of the comments I received was from Harry R. Gray, in which he wrote: "...and giving watercolor its full respect, I would refer to your work not as sketches but "paintings." The expression, sketches often means this is a study for something that comes next (perhaps they do being 4 x 6) that is of greater importance. Well these stand strong on their own thus calling them paintings. Perhaps a good topic for discussion."

Then I promised to introduce a "discussion" from the topic, so here it is.

When I drove through Turku (a city in Finland) in August this year, I made a quick watercolor sketch of the Turku Cathedral. In the photo below you can see me sitting in view of the main cathedral entrance, across the river, with my sketchbook in hand. That original watercolor sketch was 8 x 5 and took about 15 minutes to create.

Creating a watercolor painting sketch of the Turku Cathedral, which took about 15 minutes.
Creating a watercolor painting sketch of the Turku Cathedral, which took about 15 minutes.

Later, at home, I made several other studies from my trip sketches and photos like this one, below. The size of the study is 6 x 4, making it even smaller than the one made en plein air. It took about 15 minutes to complete as well.

Watercolor painting study made in the studio from my plein air studies and photographs.
Watercolor painting study made in the studio from
my plein air studies and photographs.

I did not plan to make other more formal or finished paintings of this subject. So it was nothing that Harry calls "...something that comes next." From that point of view, it should be considered as a "painting." But let's look at another of Harry's statements: works that "...stand strong on their own." Hmmm, I would not say so. But let's look at this study (or painting?) in two different contexts, as a sketch in the studio and as a framed "finished" piece:

Sure, it's a watercolor painting study... Oh, it's definitely a watercolor painting.
Sure, it's a study... Oh, it's definitely a painting.


So, I know what turns a study into a painting! A frame! And putting it on a shelf between flowers. No one could call it a "study" after that. What do you think makes a study a study and a painting a painting? Leave a comment and keep the discussion going!

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corsetti wrote
on 7 Jan 2014 10:23 AM

More than once I have done a 15 minute field study, then completed the30 hour "masterpiece" which was over worked and labored, went back to the field study which was better because you could feel the Emotion, the wind, the love – sigh???

edlebel wrote
on 7 Jan 2014 1:14 PM

I  often overwork things. Then it is a frantic effort to pull it out. Quite often I save it. Sometimes not. But there is a large population that thinks a work is only good if they can see a lot of detail. And see the genius of simplicity only in an accepted or known artist.

Jay Babina wrote
on 9 Jan 2014 4:51 PM

Your Study came out real nice and worth framing. I paint with a lot of plein air artists and we always joke that when a painting comes out terrible, it's a "study".

Jay Babina

Branford, CT USA

Greylady333 wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 11:11 AM

I have the privilege of teaching Art to grade nine and ten students: eager, learning, but so hard on themselves!  I actually had a student ask me if I was being sarcastic when I praised her first attempt at atmospheric perspective...

What makes them see how good they actually are is slapping a matte on their work and holding it up at a distance.  Nothing quite like a frame to level the playing field!  What we see in galleries and homes and museums usually is framed....and that is what we compare our work against.  

Nothing levels the playing field like a frame!

on 11 Jan 2014 11:54 AM

I agree that a "formal" study is usually something that is done in preparation for a larger/more complex piece to work out some of the details such as color or value relationships.  That said I have seen some top artist recently selling their studies - they even show the finished painting that came from the study.

However, I too have done "studies" with nothing in mind except practicing my technique or just for my own enjoyment.  In the end they turned out well enough that I framed them and made them finished pieces.

Here is a link to one such study that organically turned into a finished piece that I did recently:


Marque Todd

San Diego, CA

wendygoerl wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 12:06 PM

I've seen other discussions about "study" vs. "sketch" vs. "painting" and I can't agree with your friend. A "sketch" is like an outline, jotting the major parts in brief to get an overall impression for later use. A "study" is a rendering of the subject to understand it, sometimes having MORE detail than a finished painting, often focusing on a specific aspect such as composition/pose or detail, but not really trying to make balance all the aspects that go into a painting. Your first rendering definitely fell into the category of "sketch," recording the major stuff but not really having the detail to be considered a "study." In your second, you have made artistic choices to alter and simplify details, qualifying it as a "painting." If you decide to do a larger version of it, it would qualify as a "sketch," or possibly a compositional study, for the larger painting.

1ofjoy wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 2:02 PM

When I first took a watercolor class, the instructor emphasized that we should aways purchase the very best paint, brushes and paper that we could afford because one would never know when a painting would become a personal masterpiece.  I've always maintained that mindset and seldom destroy what I consider to be an unsuccessful work.  If put aside for a while and returned to later, a work can be seen with fresh eyes and inspire a new way to make it successful.  I have several works that I love that are now in frames that used to be "bad" paintings.

mbeckett wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 2:20 PM

studies are experimental. i like the term experimental because it gives you the freedom to try new things and be more expressive.

when doing the 'good version' of the painting, that freedom is sometimes lost because now you have added pressure on yourself to make it 'good' and you are not truly being yourself.

the study always includes a good dose of the artist's heart, and isn't that what art is about? :o)

on 11 Jan 2014 3:26 PM

I agree with the idea of checking with a mat. If you've said all there is to say, the sketch will work as a painting once it's presented "formally" in a frame. Even that "overworked" piece may turn into a gem once viewed in a mat and frame!

Kate Aubrey wrote
on 12 Jan 2014 6:36 PM

For me, "study" is just a category for how I'm thinking of what I'm doing. It means I'm approaching it a little like I approach brainstorming: it's something that could work out real well as is, but I rather suspect that it will more likely lead to some discovery or a "painting".  Sometimes it is loose and free, sometimes very carefully rendered, depending upon what I'm investigating.

A "painting" is something I approach with an idea, emotion, and/or experience firmly in mind with the hope that I communicate it on the paper. I expect a lot more from a "painting", like excellent composition, color usage, emotional content, etc.

Some "studies" end up being much more than I intended. Cool. Frame required. Sometimes they don't. Cool. I learned something. Sometimes it's like God took my hand and used it. Way cool. Those get frames for sure.

Some "paintings" don't live up to my requirements no matter (or because of) how hard I try and never receive a frame. Cool. I learned something…sometimes several somethings. Sometimes I achieve what I was going for. Cool. Frame required. Sometimes the God experience happens…way cool…frame for sure.

I'm pushing 4 decades of painting, now, and the real difference just seems to be where I've filed it in my head, which affects when, where, and how I approach the piece.

artist39 wrote
on 15 Apr 2014 6:09 PM

I agree, mostly.  It is a bit like what is art? or beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  That is, many opinions, and all correct.

For my part I offer a look into a recently uploaded work -- at

www.griffinartstudios.com/great-falls-study-24x30.html -- of the Potomac River at Great Falls.  I never finished this nice initial draft, and now, years later don't intend to.  I consider it a study, even though is looks fine in a frame.  Fimed it might be "finished" to another's eye.

Why a study?  Because of the "errors" in the unfinished composition to detract rather than complete the work.  These might be wrong color location or location or edge/emphasis.  More accurately, it may merely be unfinished.

When is a painting done?  For me, it is just before that final stroke of paint that finishes it.