A color study is a mini painting done quickly and loosely for practice and exploration of different color options before painting your actual piece.
Think thumbnail sketches as to composition, and color sketches as to color harmony, values, contrast, saturation and mood.
It is meant to help you explore color possibilities and judge at the outset what works and what doesn’t. It can save you a lot of time and trouble.
Color study will help you be familiarized with your own palette. It is quick and not as expensive when you have to rework everything after noticing that you made a mistake.
It is better to commit mistakes early on than halfway through.
Here are some steps I do for color studies:
Sketching the Subject
Make a very simple sketch of the subject by using a graphite pencil or directly with paint and brush by mixing Raw umber and yellow ochre light with turpentine.
Just draw loosely and with no details as much as possible. You can start with primitive shapes or just the contours or maybe both.
Accurate and detailed proportions are not necessary but general, big picture proportions does. Like the size of the eye sockets relative to the head or the tilt and turns of the head towards or away from light source.
The point of this stage is to just give us some reference points that will help us in isolating color properly.
Painting the big picture
Take note of where contrast are easily seen on your reference subject by intentionally overlooking small nuances of values, color and saturation. Go for the abrupt change.
You can do this by squinting your eyes. Colors and values will merge into bigger groups, hence simplifying it.
When done correctly, after a while your eyes will get used to it. And when you start opening your eyes properly, then the subtle nuances of values, color, and saturation will pop right out of you.
Now you can easily isolate those colors that at first were very hard to distinguish. Be sure to have a clean color to avoid mud.
As much as possible avoid blending colors on your canvas. Because that tends to be passive. In other words, your mind is not actively and intentionally learning how to mix clean colors. Color mixing must be done on your palette actively.
Try to experiment how local colors interact with the surrounding colors. Surrounding a not so intense color with muted colors will make it pop. Or a not so dark color with a very light valued colors will make it look darker.
You can also mute a clean and intense color without blending just by surrounding it with complementary colors.
Do more studies
The beauty and helpfulness of color study will only come to light when you make at least three color studies before moving onto the main project.
Try the same composition with different color combinations or color schemes. Try more vibrant colors over muted colors, more muddied colors over clean colors, or maybe try color biases.
The possibilities are endless. The aim here is to loosen up and make you confident with every brush strokes you make and yet still maintaining a clear judgment of colors. In no time, you will find the best color scheme you really wanted.