Improve Your Odds of Success in Your Painting

create a value study to improve your odds of success


Are These Studies Part of Your Regular Practice? Improve your odds of success in your painting by making a simple sketch and value painting essential parts of your practice.

It’s easy to overlook some of the simplest tools that can help is make stronger artwork. Motivated by an internal vision and impulse to paint, we often have the urge to jump right into the final painting without clarity and focus. When working from photographs, it’s especially tempting to skip over sketches and other helpful steps in the planning process. You can improve your chances of success in your paintings by making time for quick and easy studies like these.

Goal: Transform This Average Reference

Reference Photo

This reference photo is rather dull, blurry, and poorly lit. It carries personal significance however, and my goal is to find any opportunities to make an interesting painting. From the start, I know that I’ll need to make editorial decisions and spend some time planning. I need to find the compelling story being told by the abstract elements in the subject. It’s tempting to simply start painting, but I can’t let the emotional connection to the space overpower its visual limitations.

Pencil Sketch

A pencil sketch is the fastest and easiest way to improve your odds of finding success in painting. Often overlooked, a sketch helps you start thinking through the big ideas of your work.

This is simple sketch is created using a simple yellow #2 pencil on scrap paper. I’m using loose, rough marks, reacting to the basic angles and shapes in the reference. Throughout the process, I’m hoping this simplified approach will help me see the image in a new way that will help focus me in a positive direction.

Simple line sketch in pencil
What I Learned

The lines and shapes of the tables and chairs are interesting. In particular, I’m compelled by find the contrast between the curved chair backs and sharp angles of the chair legs and table. These elements are also most personally significant, so I try cropping the scene to make this the primary focus. I’m also realizing that linear perspective will be a factor in the scene and for the final painting, I’m not sure that I need that perspective to be 100% accurate.

Value Study

Following the pencil sketch, I create a value study in watercolor. Any medium could have been used, but I chose watercolor to introduce some brushwork to the subject. While I call it a “Value Study,” my primary objective is to bring clarity to the structure of light and shadow, rather than gain a precise understanding of the values of the colors I’d use in the final painting. It helps me improve my odds of success in painting by thinking about the large shapes and values as abstract shapes. This study focuses my attention on using light and shadow as foundations for the composition. This process is broken down into two stages.

Stage 1

I dampen the paper and mix a solid tone of watercolor using a mixture of Phthalo Green, Burnt Sienna, and Ultramarine Blue. This precise mixture is unimportant. I wanted to introduce an element of hue, while keeping the saturation low and allowing me to focus on shadow shapes. Squinting at the reference, areas of light are mapped out as negative space, with all other areas assigned a middle-value.

Stage 1: Value Study
What I Learned

My main goal is to make a fundamental assessment as to whether or not the image is sufficiently compelling to keep me going. The variety of shapes create a visual rhythm I find interesting. In particular, I like the abstract relationship between the light and dark shapes. I’m seeing the image as shapes of light and shadow, rather than lines. The lower-right corner will need some attention though, so I’ll keep that in mind for the next stage. There are enough interesting elements to keep me working with the image. Otherwise, I would simply create another variation of this image to see if it generates more excitement.

Stage 2

Using a thicker concentration of the same watercolor used in Stage 1, I map out the darker lines and shapes in the scene. I’m taking care with proportions and placement of my shapes, but not looking at details. I’m still squinting at the reference to avoid the compulsion to address details and to help me see the abstract possibilities in the design.

Stage 2: Value Study
What I Learned

By the end of this stage, I’ve found my focus in the direction for a final painting. The visual elements are coming together to make a composition that is built upon the abstract relationships between lines, shapes, and values. I’m energized by the contrast between the complexity of the chairs and the simplicity of the tabletop and window. Drawing attention to the dark, curved shape of the rug makes the area in the lower-right work better now. There are many small decisions I’ll need to make for the final painting, but I’ve now made the big decisions from which all of the smaller decisions will be made.

How This Helped

These simple exercises, haven taken 30 minutes or so, have helped me find a focus for the image. While there are many things to resolve, by creating these simple studies I’ve saved myself countless hours of work had I jumped right into a final painting from the reference. Paintings will always evolve and grow, but some of the biggest steps forward can happen before the painting even begins. You can’t guarantee that every painting will be a hit. However, making simple sketches and value studies regular habits in your process will go a long way in improving your odds of success.

About the Artist

Scott Maier is an artist and content director for, where he has streamed live over 150 times for Drawing Together. He’s also the author of the instructional art book, See, Think, Draw: An Easy Guide for Realistic Drawing and Beyond.


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