Make A Thumbnail Sketch For Design

A thumbnail sketch is a vital preparatory step in drawing and painting; think of it as a mental warm up. If you make a habit of using them, you will be amazed at how this little exercise can save you time and effort, as well as help you strengthen your work's design and composition.

Without much emphasis on details, this is like a shorthand note of the image you are going to create. The sketch can be of what you are seeing in physical reality; or it can be drawn purely from imagination. Or, it can be a combination of both.

A thumbnail sketch is a great planning tool and helps retrieve and retain your most intense impressions of your subject.

So don't skip this essential step; it's simple and doesn't require much time.



The Making of A Thumbnail Sketch:

    You will need some simple supplies: some scratch paper and something to draw with. An ink pen, a charcoal pencil, vine charcoal, graphite pencil, or the like will do.

    Add an eraser to correct the mistakes as you go along. Since you are not concerned about details or textures, a sharp tip on the pencil is not necessary.

  1. Draw a small box that resembles the format you are going to use for your drawing or painting. Either a small rectangular shape, a square, or whatever shape you have in mind. You can even use sketches to decide which format works best for your composition. Make it really small: less than 3 inches across since (it is called a 'thumbnail' sketch, after all)..

  2. Now place an abstract or rough version of whatever makes up your desired center of interest in that small box. Remember to place it slightly off-center. Forget about the details; identify the largest shapes, the longest lines, and go from there. Only add what is necessary to suggest the essential characteristics of the object.

    Create a thumbnail sketch

  3. Next add the supportive or “subordinate” masses--the shapes or lines around the focal point. Keep them fluid and loose.

  4. Move these elements around your miniature “canvas” until the whole piece looks right to you. Keep the composition rules in mind as you do this.

  5. In addition to line drawings, you can start to shade the masses and plan the overall tonal relationships. Use just three tones: light, middle, and dark. You can even plan rough color placement at this stage, if you have not already done so.



You may also find it helpful to make additional thumbnail sketches of the same subject in different boxes. This way, you can explore how the format influences the overall spatial relationships within the painting. You also can just redraw the borders of your small box until you come up with the optimum format.

make thumbnail sketches to frame your subject


You can also use thumbnail sketches to explore the effect of adding and subtracting elements from your painting. Should you add another bunch of grapes to that still life? Or is it better without it?


Good planning makes the painting process easier and sets you up for later success. So, start today to make a habit of using the thumbnail sketch technique to design your painting or drawing. Believe me, you will be a lot happier with your work if you do!

I can attest to the value of the thumbnail sketch for planning paintings. I find that skipping this step doesn't get me very far unless I already have a very clear picture of where the painting is going.

In the past, I didn't always use this tool, preferring to jump right into painting. Usually I would find out later that my composition was flawed: the focal point was wrong, the supporting elements weren't supporting, or maybe I put a “barrier” somewhere that blocked the viewer's path into the painting. Have you had the same experience?




› Drawing Thumbnail Sketches

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