Posts Tagged ‘thumbnail sketches’

Wednesday Watercolour Class at DVSA – Week One!


Last night, I was at the Dundas Valley School of Art to teach Watercolour: Concept and Technique. This course, based on observation of the still-life, is comprised of eight evenings and we got off to a good start.

I didn’t discuss or demonstrate anything to do with watercolour technique. Rather, I focused on finding a composition with a thumbnail sketch/study. Thumbnail sketches are a very helpful part of the process. They don’t have to be pretty. They’re tools; not masterpieces. I lightly sketched an area of the still-life before deciding where I wanted to focus. I framed that area with pencil lines and shaded the main shadows within it. My next step was to enlarge the thumbnail on my watercolour paper while maintaining the same proportions as the sketch.

This was a new concept to many of the students. They worked hard on their thumbnails and on transferring the compositions to their larger watercolour sheets. The process slowed some of them down a bit and not all finished their watercolours. I didn’t mind that at all. As they incorporate thumbnails into their practice, they’ll become quicker and more assured. At the end of the evening, we looked at the paintings in two batches. See you next Wednesday!

Click on any critique image to see a larger version.

Wednesday Critique a

Wednesday Critique b



Tuesday Watercolour Class – Week Three – Caps!


Still Life - SpringTuesWk3

It’s baseball season so out came the caps! Last week, I touched on thumbnail studies and reminded the students yesterday of how important they are to an artists’ process.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the cap still life. It’s done in pen and ink in my 5 x 7″ sketchbook.  Three steps are shown here.

1) SKETCH – My preliminary lines, all straight, are done in orange ink. I then refined the drawing, using curved strokes, with black ink.

2) FRAME – I’ve zoomed in and decided on a vertical composition. The proportions are about 3 x 4, the same as most watercolour pads, blocks and sheets.

3) SHADE – I’ve shaded with hatching; parallel strokes. Studying and simplifying the shadows in this thumbnail is a great help when it comes to the watercolour painting.

Thumbnail sketch by Barry Coombs - SpringTuesWk3

It’s time for the watercolour demonstration. Again, I stressed simplification and soft edge techniques. I also distributed artistic licenses. The students were encouraged to use whichever colours they desired with their caps.

Watercolour Demonstration by Barry Coombs - SpringTuesWk3

Sometime, during the night, my blog had it’s 80,000th view. Thanks, as always, for supporting me with your likes and comments and by following our endeavours. Now, here’s what you really want to see….the student watercolours.

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique



Tuesday Watercolour Class – Week Two – Pears


Still Life - SpringTuesWk2/2013

The Saturday class ate the last still life so I had to pick up a new batch of pears for Tuesday. Well, the Saturday pears wouldn’t have lasted. Pears are a classic painting subject but they do tend to ripen quickly.

I decided to review a few thoughts about thumbnail sketches. I like to start with a drawing in my sketchbook. I didn’t draw the entire still life but focused on an area that interested me.

Step One of Demonstration by Barry Coombs - SpringTuesWk2/2013

The next step was to consider my composition and for that I needed a frame of reference. I keep some black paper corners in the studio and played with them until I found a vertical composition.

Step Two of Demonstration by Barry Coombs - SpringTuesWk2/2013

This composition is roughly 4 x 3 in proportion. Many of the pads and blocks we use are in the same proportion; 9 x 12, 12 x 16, 18 x 24. At this stage, I like to do a bit of shading with my pencil. It helps me to understand how light is falling on the forms and to create an interesting pattern. Obviously, I haven’t shaded this yet. I wanted to show you the light, planning lines of my pencil drawing. More about light and shadow next time!

Step Three of Demonstration by Barry Coombs - SpringTuesWk2/2013

Browse through art books and magazines and it doesn’t take long to discover that most artists stress the importance of strong composition and recommend thumbnail studies as a key element of the painting process.

So why do so many art students (and artists) resist making thumbnail sketches? Many feel that they take too much time or drain some of their creative energy prior to painting. With practice, however, an artist will develop their own personal ‘shorthand’, a way of doing thumbnails that works for them and, ultimately, leads to stronger and more expressive compositions.

It’s time to showcase the work of the Tuesday students. What do you think?

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique

Sustained Saturday – Watercolour Plus!


My studio hosted our second Sustained Saturday of the Winter term yesterday. Almost everyone worked in watercolour but you’ll notice, in the critique image below, a very nice pen and ink drawing. It’s the reason for the ‘plus’ in the title of the post.

Last Tuesday, I gave both classes a lesson on thumbnail sketches. Yesterday’s group got the same lesson as well as a similar still-life. Once again, I asked the students to crop their compositions quite tightly. I showed some examples of my thumbnail sketches, including one I prepared from the day’s still-life.

We always have a lot of fun on these Saturdays but the level of concentration was very high. The thumbnail process paid off with some very striking compositons. Our final Sustained Saturday of the Winter term will be held on February 25. There are still a few spots left. Why don’t you join us?

Sustained Saturday Critique

Tuesday Watercolour Class – Week Five


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.

Mary Gurr

George Hume

Mary Hughes

Phil Masters

Laura Boast

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique

Sustained Saturday Watercolour Class


Yesterday was our final Sustained Saturday until next autumn. The still-life had a classical look to it. Simple, full volumes and warm, analogous colours. I discussed a few things at the outset. Everyone worked on a thumbnail sketch, in order to plan their composition, and we reviewed those together.

The thumbnail on the left is by Pamela Mitchell. She has zoomed right in to the still-life with a tight crop on three sides. Karen Waite drew the one on the right. She has zoomed in, as well, but allowed more of the tabletop at the bottom. Both artists used a grid to help them transfer their thumbnail to the larger watercolour sheet and maintain the same proportions of the composition. See if you can find their finished paintings in the critique photo at the end of this post.

I talked about two things in particular. First of all, I stressed the importance of keeping the light areas of the objects very light with lots of water in the washes. I also discussed warm colours, such as yellows and oranges, and how to make them darker. I suggested mixing them with their complements so I added violet to my yellow and blue to my orange. For the darkest areas of the yellow objects, the violet was very cool and almost blue.

It was a cold and windy day outside but the warmth of the still-life inspired some terrific results.

Sustained Saturday Critique