What is a thumbnail sketch?

A question I am often asked as an artist is "What is a thumbnail sketch?" 

I am a fan of creating quick 2 x 3 inch sketches of possible compositions for my next drawing prior to committing to a larger project. These are known as thumbnail sketches and are only a guide, not a finished piece of artwork.

Thumbnail sketches are a swift way to get a feel for the overall composition. These sketches are made quickly, often in pencil, on small pieces of paper (often I draw two on an A5 page). They are rough sketches of the composition, the people, the background and so on. They are designed to give me an initial idea of the composition and where the main features should be placed.

If the sketch looks promising then I will probably progress to the full-size drawing in graphite or colored pencils. Sometimes it can take multiple thumbnail sketches until I am happy with the arrangement of elements within the composition. 

A thumbnail sketch exploring an idea of using a window to frame a view

The picture above illustrates "what is a thumbnail sketch" rather well. Not because it is a good drawing, or even a pretty scene, as it clearly isn't either. But it served it's purpose for me. I was seeing whether including the window frame succeeded in 'framing" the view beyond. I decided against taking this idea any further after thumbnail sketching for15 minutes,  I had accomplished my goal without wasting too much time or materials. I could then move on to something else that may work better. 

Rearranging the landscape in a thumbnail sketch

When planning a landscape in colored pencil, I try moving elements around within my thumbnails to try different compositions. A tall tree on the right in real life may look better near the middle or over on the left of your drawing.

I like to begin my quick sketches by placing the horizon line. Will it be low down so there is a large expanse of sky? Or do I prefer to have more foreground and less sky? Normally I make thumbnail drawings for both options to see which I prefer.

Trying to create a balance in my sketch without crowding everything into one area is important. This is one of the benefits of drawing over photography; just because a tree seeded itself in one position doesn't mean that is where it belongs in my artwork.

Sketching the same subject from different angles can prove useful. Sometimes none of the sketches look quite right, but by combining skills from two or more sketches, I can create something better than each on its own.

Thumbnails are not the place for accurate shapes or details. All I need is an indication of an element to get an idea of how it could look in my finished work. A long thick line may indicate a tall tree. A rough rectangle, the side of a building. A scribble can suggest a bush or hedge.

I don't use these sketches to transfer outlines to my drawing paper, they are just a way of working out ideas for the arrangement of the picture.

The thumbnails are for me and me alone. I normally don't share them with anyone else, but on this rare occasion you get to see the messiness of a thumbnail sketch!

What is a thumbnail sketch for? - Balancing values

Values are tones that vary from dark to light in a painting or photo. Learn more about high contrast drawings here. 

When painting or drawing an image, I often need to adjust the tones so that they balance, creating a harmonious overall effect. Creating thumbnail sketches before I start work on the image is an ideal way to experiment with different ways of achieving a good balance between light and dark tones.

Using a black marker is a good way to place the darkest areas within a composition, leaving the lights the white of the paper. Those black areas will have more detail in my actual drawing, but at the thumbnail sketch stage, all I need to be able to see is if my darks are well distributed.

I might decide to include the edge of the river in the foreground to add some darker values at the bottom of the image. Or to carry the line of trees further across to give a dark background behind a white cottage.

Remember that the area of greatest contrast will act as the focal point and draw the viewer's eye.

Change up the lighting in a thumbnail sketch

Just as I can change the position of items, I can also test out a change of lighting in the thumbnail.

Maybe I used a photo reference taken at a different time of day to the one I want to portray. This might mean that I have to change the placement of the shadows and highlights. Perhaps I want the shadows to fall on a different wall of a farmhouse? If so, I can test it out, make notes and perhaps add a symbol for where the sun needs to be positioned in my thumbnail sketch.

When to use thumbnail sketches

Getting the perspective of a scene correct can be problematic at times. Sketching in the horizon and my eye level along with the vanishing point of a perspective line can help tremendously when I come to draw a finished piece of artwork from my thumbnail sketch. The result can be a drawing with depth rather than one that looks flat and off somehow

This is especially useful when working outside on location. I can use the thumbnail sketch as a rough guide for the final piece, moving my position to find the best viewpoint to work from. This may involve lots of walking, but it is often worthwhile. Something interesting may become apparent when I stand at a different angle to the scene. I might decide to add an element that was in the scene but out of view into my final drawing. 

A thumbnail sketch of a stable block seen through an archway

In the above thumbnail I tried out standing under an arch to frame the view of the stables beyond. You can see how I changed the outside shape of the sketch as I progressed, finding I didn't need as much foreground or archway above the view. The dark values of the nearby arch were countered by the dark trees behind the building and the shadows inside the further archways. Unlike the window frame, further up the page, this time I may take the idea further but feel there should be something in the lower right corner.

This example also shows that I never bother to use an eraser when sketching in this manner.

Thumbnail sketches may be useful for artists who work entirely from imagination or who create abstract art. Starting with a small thumbnail sketch could be helpful when sketching out a design idea. I prefer to have a reference to base my drawing on, even if I change it beyond all recognition before I am finished. 

How long does it take to do a thumbnail sketch?

I normally spend around 10-15 minutes on a thumbnail sketch. As soon as I have what I needed out of it, I stop. It doesn't have to be finished; if I realize something isn't working, I abandon it and start a new one.

The finished sketch should be a preparatory drawing for the artwork and not a project in itself.

I hope this has helped to answer the question What is a thumbnail sketch.

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