Block Study by Henry Hensche


The block study is a unique and insidious form of torture invented by the late, great Henry Hensche. Legendary, block studies cause trembling at the memory by all who have been forced to endure them, and the average student of painting has good reason for anxiety when faced with the prospect of doing one or two. The thought of doing thousands of them (as I have) has caused some promising young painters to forswear art for more sensible and enjoyable pursuits such as bridge toll collecting and rag picking.

Now that I have gotten that off of my chest...I think that block studies have enormous value as a tool for learning to study color relationships. I still do block studies as a way to tune up my color vision after a period of not painting, rather like a musician might do scales or exercises to warm up. Properly used, the block study can accomplish so much that I would encourage every painter of every level to do them on occasion.

When we begin to paint we are faced with so many choices that the tasks of knowing where to begin, what colors to choose, and how to organize everything coherently can be so overwhelming that even experienced painters can end up with a mess instead of a painting. The less experienced student learning to see and paint color and light can be overwhelmed by it all and end up learning nothing. The block study reduces the problem to its most basic elements: big masses of color.

Henry Hensche embraced the block study as a teaching tool because he realized that by eliminating distractions – the play of light across flowers, the sparkle in the reflection of water, the slight glow in the shadow on a model’s face – a student would be able to concentrate on the fundamental problem of putting one spot of color next to another. Hawthorne’s mudheads were an earlier version of this. Hensche also realized that if a painter learned to see big masses through the study of simple shapes, that painter would be able to apply that knowledge to much more complex subjects. Instead of seeing a landscape as an assemblage of trees and houses and sky and flowers and fences and what-have-you, the painter who has trained by studying blocks is apt to see the landscape as big masses of light and shadow, thus both simplifying the problem of how to approach the painting, and also providing a powerful basis for organization.

size unknown, c. 1970s
Click to select the cover image for this artwork.
Imported from:
Media: oil on board