Is it a Sketch or a Study? How do You Know?

On the Nile sketchbook of R.Swain Gifford
On the Nile sketchbook of R.Swain Gifford

After looking at enough art over the years the difference between a sketch and a study might seem pretty obvious, but the definition (at least for me) was really a guess based on accumulated experience. The problem with this method is that calling an artwork a sketch or a study seems completely arbitrary, relying on the understanding of each individual artist as to what they think the difference is. The result is an extremely fuzzy classification system, where a sketch or a study just means any artwork that is not a finished work.

But, I was happy to find out that there is a difference and what the purpose for each one is.

A sketch is the main idea. Whether it is a painting, a drawing, or even a sculpture, a sketch is where the artist explores the composition for the final work. Accurate draftsmanship, color, and detail are not important in a sketch. The most important thing is to get down the main idea, the impact, and the spark that ignited your passion to make the artwork. A sketch is about the big things in an artwork.

Mother, Child, and Camels, Tangiers sketchbook of R. Swain Gifford
Mother, Child, and Camels, Tangier sketchbook of R. Swain Gifford

On the other hand, a study is the complete opposite of a sketch.

Studies are fussy. However it is made, a study is all about gathering information. When making a study of a scene or an object be as accurate as possible. Put in all of the details that might be important. Composition and emotion don’t count in a study, accuracy of color and draftsmanship do. A study is an objective notation of observed facts.

Together, sketches and studies are the pillars of support to help make the final artwork.

The Secret of Art

I know I’ve read a title similar to the one above at least thousand times in various books, blogs, and magazines. Most of the time the author states that there isn’t a secret of art, but I’m not going to do that. There really is a secret of art, or at least the making of it, in fact there are three.

1. Just make it. This secret seems obvious but it took me a while to grasp it, and I’m still not a master of it yet. Just start making art. Don’t wait for conditions to be right, or spend hours or days fretting if you or your ideas are good enough. Start that artwork today.

2. Make it better. As soon as your last one is done, think of ways you could have improved it. Use the improvements in your next artwork.

3. Repeat.

The Unfinished Accent

In the final years of World War II German Panther and Tiger tanks were the most sophisticated in the world. They were more heavily armored, had larger and more accurate guns, and the engines were stronger and precision built. Overall the Panther and Tiger tanks were more deadly than any other tank at the time including the M4 Sherman tank used by the United States and Allies and the T-34 used by the Soviets. So why did they loose?

They lost because they had better armor, had more accurate guns, and were precision built. They lost because they stepped too close to perfection. They lost because they were more difficult to make, harder to maintain, and less tolerant of any dirt or grime that entered the system.

Why is this important for an artist to know?

In any realist based art instruction the student should be encouraged to be accurate and strive for the capturing of every detail. The student should be encouraged to achieve perfect rendering of any object placed before them. These are the worthy goals of a student, but not an artist.

An artist should be able to accomplish the goal of a student, but an artist’s goal is to move beyond the student and to give the artwork life.

The idea of life is hard to pin down, but a good way to think of it as that space left open in an artwork for the connection with the audience to dwell. Harold Speed in his book The Practice and Science of Drawing described it as dither. He used the analogy of an engine where the parts have been so precisely made that there is no room left for them to move. In a working engine there has to be enough room, or dither, between the parts that they can move freely.

I like to call this the unfinished accent.

In painting, an accent is usually the lightest light or darkest dark. But I like to think of an accent as a small unnoticed thing that if removed wouldn’t ruin an artwork, but will make you feel that something is missing.

For example, in the pictures of Girl with a Red Hat by Vermeer I’ve removed four accents on one of them. Without studying them closely try to pick out the one that feels more complete.

Girl with a red hat by Vermeer
Girl with a red hat by Vermeer

In the top one, I’ve removed four pointille dots that masquerade as highlights but are really accents to lead your eye around the painting.

To get back to the concept of the unfinished accent, look at these two sculptures below.
Which one has more life?
Clay Sculpture by Will St John
Clay Sculpture by Susie Chism

Both were done for the Grand Central Academy Classical Figure Sculpture Competition last year. The first one is by Will St. John and is the winner of the competition, and the second one is by Susie Chism and received second place. In many ways the second one has tighter more precise rendering and handling of the form, and more detail. So why did the first one win?

It won because it allowed room for the viewer to make a connection with it. You can see some marks from the sculptor’s tools on the arms and fingers on the abdomen, and yet it still won.

When something is rendered completely it has told it’s entire story, there is nothing left for anyone else to contribute. It becomes plastic ice cream. Plastic ice cream doesn’t drip. It is always a perfect scoop, never partial or broken. It looks perfectly like ice cream, but no one would be fooled into thinking it has the coolness, taste, or texture of real ice cream.

But there is a danger in the unfinished accent, and a reason why I call it an accent. To borrow Harold Speed’s analogy of the engine again, if there is too much room in an engine, it looses power and may not work, or even becomes dangerous. It needs to remain the unidentifiable thing that adds life to an artwork not become the artwork itself.


The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed.

Grand Central Academy Blog