The value of the bozzetto


Dear Artist,

“Bozzetto” is an Italian term for a sculptor’s small-scale model, usually in wax or clay, made in preparation for a full-scale work in more permanent material. Like the French “maquette,” a bozzetto is often exploratory. The word bozzetto, however, can also mean a sketch for a painting — even a sketch-for-its-own-sake that can march out into the world and have a life of its own.

Artists of all stripes need to know that the bozzetto is not just a sketch but a state of mind. With its low degree of commitment and expectation, it gives high value and ongoing reward as a creative tool. Lending itself to the magical ploys of series and set, it frees the mind of great obligation and prepares the groundwork for visual freshness. Together with the golden rule of “chuck it,” regularly practiced, bozzetto-making is a sure route to style and an individualist personality. It also goes a long way toward overcoming obsessive overworking and the perennial inability of some artists to wind up their work. Because of its casual nature, bozzetto-making simply and directly self-teaches the painterly virtues of audacity, paucity, experimentation and elan.

Audacity: Daring, bold and impudent, the audacious painter wades into action without knowing what she’s getting into. “Just do it” is her motto, and ego-force is her operating mode.

Paucity: Paucity is the absence of, or mere implication of subjects or areas within a work. It also includes cursory, lost-and-found lines and the minimal number of strokes necessary to do the job. Paucity is the ultimate economy of means.

Experimentation: The artist constantly asks “what could be?” and shucks off the temptation to go for the tried and true. In some ways, experimentation is the most stimulating act of the creative process. With small stuff, the artist speculates: “What the heck, I’ll try this.”

Elan: Flushed with energy and enjoying a vivacious rush, the artist commits, conducts and masters. Elan itself releases the genie of imagination. The artist looks and acts like a maestro and thus becomes one.

Best regards,


PS: “What is important is not the motif itself, so much as your ability to imagine, speculate, organize, and above all, to simplify.” (Richard Busey)

Esoterica: Underlying all the enthusiasm I have for bozzetto-making, there’s the value of simplicity. Small, inconsequential works facilitate simplicity, and the broad-based habits so generated pass into larger pieces. Many creators have experienced this epiphany. “Less is more,” said Robert Browning. The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson noted, “It is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.” Small work clears the mind of impedimenta and complexity–and sets higher ambition in motion. “Out of clutter, find simplicity.” (Albert Einstein)


Bozzettoed all morning
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada


recent bozzetto by Jane Champagne

Here have I been producing bozzettos for years and never knew it! Robert, I don’t know whether you had any idea of what hilarity that word would produce once it was out in the ether, but a painter friend and I bozzettoed all morning, had a great time misusing the word — and produced a couple of good ones. Seriously, I’ve found that bozzettoing with a 1- or 2-inch flat brush on a 5 x 7-inch paper results in increased audacity and experimentation. Yours bozzettedly, Jane

(RG note) Thanks, Jane. Some artists wrote to challenge me that bozzetto wasn’t a word. Google, for example, hasn’t been properly bozzettified. It has 750,000 references to Bozzetto, but most are for the Italian film animator Bruno Bozzetto. However, the noun is well defined on page 59 of one of the most respected art reference books: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, edited by Ian Chilvers. As many artists regularly point out, I like to appropriate arcane words. By sharply defining specific acts and items we are more able to lay claim to them. Several artists wrote to say the word itself sent them straight to work. Apart from putting us in touch with the great bozzettifiers of history, anything that might lead to the further bozzettification of our world is a good thing.


Bozzettoing while husband watches TV
by Sonja Donnelly, Lake Oswego, OR, USA


“White Feathers”
graphite and coloured pencil
by Sonja Donnelly

A new word for something I love doing. I often do these “bozzetto” drawings in the evening while watching TV, or at least sitting with my husband while he watches TV. My mind is kind of in neutral and yet my subconscious seems to be in complete control. I wish I could achieve this same ability to completely let go and “just let it happen” with my painting. I think the key is to relay and enjoy the process and trust the subconscious. And perhaps not take our work so seriously. Most of the time I work about 8 x 11 inch and graphite or colored pencil.




Bozzettoing when husband’s away
by Sarah Zoutewelle, The Netherlands


“Day-to-day bozzetto”
by Sarah Zoutewelle

When my husband goes on his yearly camping sojourn to France, I stay home and have a sort of retreat alone. This year I recorded my inner state each day by making a tiny 2cm x 2cm oil pastel at the end of the day. Doing this got me going creatively again. Now I am working on a 7cm x 7cm square a day, one realistic drawing in the morning and another ‘mood square’ at the end of the day. Through play, I am building a visual vocabulary for future work.



Bozzettoing when on the job
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Vancouver, BC, Canada

While I am in the office at my day job, I use the smallest size yellow stickers and make tiny bozzettos with a felt pen and highlighter markers. Due to the small size of stickers and the thick markers, those things are simple and consist of just a few colored areas and few lines. I stick those on the edge of my computer screen, and on some slow office days I have a nice art exhibition going, before it gets archived into the trash can. Nobody ever asked me about them, so I gather that people probably think I am nuts.










Bozzetto as commission tool
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“Lures #2 Study”
oil on canvas
by Coulter Watt

Studies or bozzettos are a wonderful tool in the artist’s bag of tricks. Like a quick sketch plein air painting there’s no time to be too fussy. Grabbing the essential elements of composition, value and color are the goal. Coupled with a few reference photographs I then paint a large painting. This works well with commissions since a patron often doesn’t have the “vision” to imagine a finished work. There are a few bonuses in this process, too. I get to explore several variations on a theme and the client gets to pick the direction the commission should go. The client has the idea, but it’s the painter’s responsibility to listen to the client and come up with a visualization of that idea. One doesn’t want to be weeks into painting a 3 x 8 foot commission, have the client arrive at your studio and be disappointed by the direction the painting has taken, especially when there’s $20,000 on the line. My commission payment schedule is in 1/3 payments: 1/3 to start which includes the approval of a study, 1/3 to start the full size painting and 1/3 upon completion. Framing is at the client’s expense.


Bozzetto vending machine
by Lynette Miller, Asheville, NC, USA


Art-o-mat Vending Machine
(Governors State University, IL, USA)

I have been making “bozzettos” for several years without knowing that what I was making had a name! I make a batch of small (2″x 3″) works of art from time to time which are dispensed — along with many other artists’ pieces across the U.S. — from refurbished cigarette machines. In terms of time and money, these art pieces do not add much to my coffers, but I’ve found they have been invaluable tools to experiment with and work out problems for larger scale works.




Squinting down the bozzetto
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA


“A beautiful day in gray”
original painting
by Ron Elstad

The artist needs to see the simplicity of the shapes and forms in a photograph or subject by squinting down in order to see the underlying design. Then making thumbnail sketches to rearrange, exaggerate or de-emphasize the shapes and forms as well as their values. This needs to be followed by more involved sketches. I would like to recommend a book written and illustrated by a friend: A Proven Strategy for Great Art, by Dan McCaw. Dan deals with this matter very well. Moreover, his writing is inspiring for growth and change.

(RG note) Thanks, Ron. Dan’s book, which has an odd title given its nature, has been widely reviewed. Essentially a “point of view,” it is nevertheless “a well formulated approach and makes the point that continued experimentation is essential to artistic growth. Design is fundamental to a good painting. Design is largely created by the values and the shapes chosen.” Dan deals with thumbnail sketches, value studies, light and shadow planes, warm and cool, edges, accents, etc. Textured brushwork is Dan’s forte.


Bozzettoists all
by Naomi Brotherton, Carrollton, TX, USA


watercolour painting
by Rex Brandt

I found today’s letter so interesting and to the point, that I would like to share it with my students. I needed it as well as them. We don’t spend enough time on this phase of painting. I teach watercolor painting and have studied with many of the “greats.” Whitney, Pike, Pellew, Rex Brandt, Robert E. Wood, Milford Zornes, etc. and I have been sharing what I learned. I still glean from the “greats” of today such as Frank Francese, Rob Erdle, Betsy Dillard Stroud, and others.


Boceto in Spanish
by Maritza Bermudez, Wheaton, IL, USA


“Enchanted Forest”
pastel painting
by Maritza Bermudez

Spanish is my background. We have always used the word boceto for anything you plan ahead to doing. When I was in high school, teachers always used boceto to instill in students the idea of planning the school projects and practicing before submitting. This was specially used in our science labs. Now that I am an artist, I plan my paintings by writing down just an idea as it comes to me. Later, when I am ready to start, I use the original idea and the rest comes easily as I create. In a sense, it is kind of like a boceto.




Small and large at the same time
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Sisters” study
oil painting
by Mary Moquin

I put a little different spin on it that our readers might want to try. I have a small painting and a larger painting of the same image going at the same time. Proportionally the same, I work on the smaller for a while and when I’ve gotten it to a point, I switch to the larger. Then I can sit back and compare and contrast the two. I assess what is working in one versus the other. I will then go on to work on whichever one calls for correction. I repeat this process until both paintings have reached completion (or abandonment as they say). By the end of the process, both paintings look pretty similar, however, along the way they have each taken their own diversions of discovery. It makes me feel less precious and frees me to experimentation.


Value of the unknown
by Elizabeth Allen, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Sun glazed”
original painting
by Elizabeth Allen

I can’t believe you have described “my” methods to a tee! I approach each canvas not knowing what might happen. I just start putting on the colour and somehow the painting tells me what it needs. Often I am not inspired when I start, but I go into the studio and “just do it” as you say and before too long I am right into it and the work starts to evolve in a particular direction. That is when I have to make some decisions, eliminate that “lovely” stroke because it detracts from the whole, or try something totally new because there is nothing to lose. It is so satisfying when it all comes together, like the last few notes of a symphony.



Residency bozzettos
by Annette Bush, Augusta, GA, USA


“Treetop Lights”
by Annette Bush

Intellectually, I know the value of a simple sketch. I have pages of thumbnails, studies and lines, but I learned the true value of making those marks during a residency in France recently. I had purchased a little non-serious 4-inch square sketchbook before I left and I determined to record something in it every day. Because of another commitment, my time in the studio for “real art making” became very limited, then my camera malfunctioned and I was forced to make sure I drew something! After I returned home, I viewed the photos I had and compared them with the simple sketches. I was surprised that even the tilting buildings, scribbled lines and poor sketches brought it all back.

(RG note) Thanks, Annette. Annette’s drawings and notes are a good example of the current bozzettoblog trend.


Bozzetto-making on sabbatical
by Gaye Adams, Sorrento, BC, Canada


“A lot of bull”
pastel painting
by Gaye Adams

This summer I decided to become a student again, that is, to focus more on learning and exploring than producing the pieces my galleries were asking for. I have been taking the time to get out of my studio and explore back-roads, sometimes painting, sometimes just photographing and looking for possibilities. I’m trying a new medium, and I’ve booked a five day plein air trip to Lake O’Hara in the Canadian Rockies. I don’t like most of what I paint outdoors, but the process is the point; and I know it will make me a better painter. I have picked up some excellent art books, some instructional, some historical, and I’m actually taking the time to read them. I’m carrying my sketch pad with me and drawing whatever will hold still — I’m loving this. I’m on sabbatical.


Bozzetto for discipline
by Tom Albano, Alsip, IL, USA


“Colorado barns”
watercolour painting
by Tom Albano

My watercolor teacher John Howard at Moraine Valley College practices just that. He encourages Bozzetto but he calls it a thumbnail value sketch. It does solve a lot of problems before one dives into a larger sketch and painting. However, I find myself not looking at the bozzetto sketch as I paint sometimes. Maybe that’s why my work feels over worked at times. I’ll paste a bozzetto on my forehead next time. I think I’ll print this up and put it on the classroom bulletin board.







acrylic painting
by Teressa Bernard, Vancouver, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Carmen of Madrid, Spain (Asociacion Pintores de España-Declarada de Utilidad Pública) who wrote, “Bozzetto is important because it is the difference between the application programs of computers, and the reality work of an artist.”

And also Lori Standen Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “I painted a ‘bozzetto’ yesterday and on second viewing was feeling a bit like a ‘bozo.’ But now I feel better, with the understanding that the fun I had was just that… fun!”

And also Helena Tiainen of Berkeley, CA, USA who wrote, “Be it a cell or a brushstroke all physical manifestation is to build from the small to the large.”

And also Linda Saccoccio of Santa Barbara, CA, USA who wrote, “Regarding the ‘just do it’ in painting, the power comes from surrender. The Zen mind of, ‘don’t know’ is an unlimited source far exceeding the force of ego.”

And also John Fitzsimmons of Fayetteville, NY, USA who wrote, “I just checked my website stats. Out of the total of 138 hits so far in July to my website, 49 originated at “The Painter’s Keys.” One originated from my Saatchi Gallery listing and that was probably me!”




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