To an outsider, it seems like experienced artists simply sit down and create a masterpiece right away. Every single time. Wouldn't that be lovely, right? What most beginners don't realize is that good composition and a beautiful color combination are not a happy coincidence. A lot of preparation and planning goes into each complete artwork. Creating a thumbnail of your sketch is a great way to plan and prepare.
What is a thumbnail?
A thumbnail is a very rough draft of your sketch. It is a smaller, simplified version, usually made on draft paper. It contains only the key shapes and objects of your sketch and leaves out the details. It also shows the main color areas and how different colors work together.
Without a thumbnail, you might find yourself stuck half way through your sketch, discovering that there is something wrong with the composition or the color scheme and not knowing how to correct that. It is a bit counterintuitive, but making a thumbnail doesn't slow you down, it actually speeds up the process. Don't skip this stage!
You can see the completed sketch and the thumbnail next to it in the photo below. My Skillshare class Urban Sketching with Gouache and Colored Pencils: Turquoise House by the Pool shows my step-by-step technique for creating colorful gouache sketches and -- of course -- it includes making a thumbnail! It is available on Skillshare and in Brave Brushes Studio.
Click here to learn what's inside this class.
Why should you make a thumbnail of your sketch?
1. A thumbnail sketch is a great planning tool
Creating a thumbnail is a way to plan your composition.
First, draw a box of the same proportions as the sketch you are planning but smaller. Then draw the main vertical and horizontal lines and big shapes. Leave all the details out. As you are creating this rough draft, you can experiment with composition. If you are using a reference photo and like its composition, you can simply copy it.
This thumbnail is part of my Cotman Metallics Tutorial. Make sure to check it out!
Creating a thumbnail allows you to plan the color scheme.
Once you are happy with the composition, you can start experimenting with colors. Again, you want to focus on the key areas: large areas of color, not small details. You can also identify the light and the shadowed sides of your sketch and plan the larger shadows.
Compare the thumbnail and the finished sketch in terms of the level of detail in them:
Take a few colors and see how well they work together on your draft paper, mix them a little. Sometimes you get a good color scheme the first time around, but other times you may need to try several combinations before you find the one you like. Some artists experiment with colors right on their thumbnails but I recommend experimenting with colors separately first and then applying the right colors to the thumbnail. This way, you do not need to draw the thumbnail again if you realize the colors didn't work that well.
This 10-page FREE gouache tutorial also includes creating a thumbnail as part of my step-by-step process.
Sign up for my newsletter to download this colorful PDF. It contains detailed instructions and photos for each step, a checklist of all the necessary supplies, links to other useful resources.
The tutorial is meant to be done with gouache and colored pencils, but you can also do it with watercolors or markers (just make the necessary adjustments in terms of technique). However, I would love for you to try gouache!
2. A thumbnail sketch is a great memory tool
Thumbnails help you remember the choices you made for your sketch. Sometimes (or in my case, very often) you do not have time to complete your artwork in one sitting. You can break up your drawing process into several stages and do them on several days, if you wish: thumbnails on day one, pencil sketch on day two, painting on day three.
You can also make notes of color combinations and mixes that you used in the thumbnail for future reference.
3. A thumbnail sketch is a way to focus your attention
Before you start working on your sketch, you have to think about what is important in the scene you are trying to draw. Which objects are key? Which ones are unimportant? What should you include in your sketch and what should you leave out? Thinking about these questions helps your mind and your eyes focus on the subject of your drawing.
4. A thumbnail sketch is a way to loosen your hand
Think of it as warm-up before a workout in the gym. When you sit down to sketch, you switch from other activities you have been performing. It takes your hand some time to adjust to the pencils, brushes and pens. The thumbnail is really a draft, so the stakes are really low and mistakes are ok, which means you can paint lightly and loosely. No pressure. After you have created a couple of preliminary sketches, your hand will be warmed up for the main sketch.
Some students asked me at a recent workshop if I always make a thumbnail myself. And the answer is: it depends.
When I am drawing with an urban sketching group, I usually skip the thumbnail. I am not worried about the result because this is not work. It is my time to relax, chat with the other sketchers and enjoy the process. I just sit down and start to draw and chat. And then, I automatically use familiar color combinations, which I know always work for me.
When I am at my studio, I make at least one thumbnail. And when it's a commission, a job, or something else really important, I make a few thumbnails. Sometimes even a lot of thumbnails.
Here are four thumbnails that I made for a project recently. I made them on Winsor & Newton watercolor postcard paper.
The sheets of paper are the size of a post card. On the other side, there is a place for a short message, address and stamps. I love this format as it makes for great souvenirs for friends and family. The sketches do not have to be perfect: they are rough and loose, exactly like a thumbnail.
I think the thumbnail is a powerful learning tool, that's why I include it into my classes and tutorials. If you have never made a thumbnail, my classes are a good place to start. Here are two of my most popular classes: "Limited Color Palette: Color Theory in Practice" and "Expressive Sketching with Gouache and Colored Pencils". They are available on Skillshare and inside Brave Brushes Studio (along with lots of other awesome resources for amateur artists and urban sketchers).
I created Brave Brushes Studio to give artists simple, actionable tools for improving their sketching techniques, expanding their creative range and growing into confident, independent artists.
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