Last week, I noticed that quite a few of the students were neglecting to make a thumbnail study before beginning to paint. I’m a believer in the many benefits of thumbnail studies. Above all, we do them to create an effective composition and we become better designers with practice.
A thumbnail study does take some time but, with experience and repetition, it doesn’t have to be a lengthy process. Some artists make them too big and that usually takes more time. Some get absorbed in them until they look like beautifully finished drawings. A thumbnail study shouldn’t be a masterpiece; it’s a tool.
Historically, many people credit the English artist William Hogarth with coining the term ‘thumbnail’. Apparently, when out for a walk without his sketchbook, he drew a small sketch on his thumbnail.
Eventually, you’ll find your own way with thumbnails. Yesterday, I suggested some steps that I use as a starting point. Remember, I’m referring to still-life painting here but this approach should work for any subject:
LOOK: Relax and look at your subject for, at least, a few minutes. Does an area draw your eye over and over? Try squinting. It can help you see the important light more clearly.
SELECT: Decide on a general area that appeals to your eye.
SKETCH: Use your sketchbook. How big should your thumbnail be? How should it be positioned on the page? A sketch is an opportunity to consider elements like proportion, perspective and much more.
COMPOSE/FRAME OF REFERENCE: Now, we consider a format. Vertical or horizontal? Will you be painting on a quarter sheet (roughly a 3 x 4 ratio) or a half sheet (2 x 3). Your compositional thumbnail study should be in the same format and proportion as the sheet you intend to paint.
In the image below, I’ve used black mats to create a frame of reference. This is very similar to a format but even more specific and, with it, I have my composition.
LIGHT AND SHADOW: Once you’ve decided on a format and a composition, light and shadow can be considered. This may not be as important with still-life painting when you have a stable light source such as a lamp on your setup but I still recommend it. Landscape painters, however, have to deal with a fickle sun and shadows that change as they paint. Most experienced plein air painters will complete their thumbnails by recording the key shadows.
One more thing! Don’t underestimate the impact of a strong pattern in your painting. Good observation of light and shadow is your best means to achieve it.
OUR TUESDAY EXERCISE: I challenged the students to crop tightly, leaving little or no background. A tight crop can give the composition an almost abstract look. This can allow us to focus on shapes, colour and value rather than on rendering objects.
Have a look at some of their thumbnails and see if you can find the related watercolour painting below.