A thumbnail sketch might sound weird and a waste of time. Why draw whatever I want to draw, but in a small size??
The answer is straightforward: planning!
A thumbnail sketch is very useful to avoid problems like, “uh-oh I made this drawing too big and now I can’t fit everything on my page!” Or, “eeeeh this composition isn’t looking as good as I thought it would”. Try also, “I can’t figure out this position/this perspective, ugh!”
A thumbnail sketch is basically a very quick sketch in a smaller (thumbnail) size, that helps the artist plan and visualize their final artwork. This is a process used by many professional artists to plan out their drawings very quickly and with no corrections.
Taking some spare time, before going for the final piece, to make small thumbnails with sketches, will not only help plan your drawings properly. It will also help you get ideas for new ones!
I’m including a video that I made to help you better see how to do thumbnail drawings, along with examples!
If you haven’t tried thumbnailing yet, I can help you, and I’ll also add a template for you to download at the end of this post so that you can start right away.
Thumbnail Sketch Definition
A thumbnail sketch is, very simply, a quick sketch, usually with no corrections.
You just pick any medium you want, like a pencil, but if you prefer other tools for sketching, don’t hesitate. This kind of sketching is made in small sizes, small squares or rectangles with about 2 or 3 cm.
A thumbnail sketch serves to visualize your final painting. So leave the details behind, work with shapes and composition only and try different sketches, until you’re happy with one. Now you’re ready to work on your final piece!
How To Plan Your Drawings With A Thumbnail Sketch
First thing I want to say here is, when thumbnail sketching, you don’t need to forcefully use a rectangular shape and draw inside of it.
Let’s say you’re just unsure about how and where to draw a character position. Or even deciding on the characters’ clothing, etc. You can just draw small, quick sketches along your page without the limitation of a frame as well. The idea of thumbnail sketching is for it to be quick and catch the important elements such as composition, balance, and movement!
It will also help you with planning.
As you thumbnail, you’ll discover what kind of ideas you’re not a fan of, but also the opposite!
You’ll discover new perspectives and compositions, lines and movements that you haven’t tried yet and that you’ll fall in love with.
Why is this so important?
Well, not only you’re learning new things about your art and yourself, but you’re also discovering new ways that you can adopt and next time your planning time might be reduced because you already know what you want and like more easily!
By planning your drawings with thumbnail sketches, you will also avoid excessive changes and cleanups in your final drawing.
It will avoid the frustration of going mid-drawing and getting to the conclusion that the composition, that seemed great in your head, isn’t that good after all and now you have to redo everything from the beginning!
In short, thumbnail sketches will help you plan your drawings but they’re such great friends of yours, that they’ll also help you avoid a lot of stress and frustration that might occur when working on your final piece!
Visualizing the Final Artwork With Thumbnails
Like we just talked about, thumbnailing is all about experimenting and planning. But it’s also about visualizing your final drawing! You have a general idea of what you want to draw, but not the detail, the composition, the poses yet. So you grab a piece of paper, you draw small rectangles and you start sketching up ideas, with that final painting in mind.
In your mind, you’ll only have a general idea of your final painting.
But it’s through sketching that you figure out what’s the best way to go about it.
If you’re unsure about how to draw or sketch something, look up for references!
While thumbnailing and fleshing out your ideas, this is a great opportunity for you to use some references and improve any subject you still have difficulty in drawing!
Remember that you can’t know how to draw something without looking at it. Image references are your friends.
As you work on your thumbnails, you might also want to add some small notes by the side of your sketches. Notes about composition, color, what you think works best or not. You’re learning as you are doing the thumbnail.
So the best advice I have for you is, do not rush your drawings! Don’t jump right away to your final painting. Instead, visualize it, keep in mind what you want to do, but take a few minutes to do some free sketches, without worries, experimenting with different ways you can go about your final piece.
4 Thumbnail Sketch Examples
Let’s now see some thumbnail sketch examples to inspire you and help you better understand what a thumbnail sketch is.
I’ll include the sources for all these thumbnail sketch examples in the captions.
As you can see from the example above, these thumbnail sketches were done to plan out environments and buildings. Done with a fountain pen and water brush.
Thumbnail sketches can also be quite helpful to plan out story sequences and storyboarding, as you can see by this thumbnail sketch example by Matt Jones.
As you can see by the above digital thumbnail sketch examples, these thumbnails can be quite elaborate!
You don’t need to completely simplify your thumbnails and leave everything very minimal. You can still add details to your thumbnails and take them as far as you want.
Another example of thumbnail sketching, it can be super useful to plan out environments and perspective.
As you can see, you can use thumbnail sketching for a variety of things:
- Study Proportions. In thumbnails, you’ll be drawing in a very small size, which can help you better to figure out proportions before jumping into a bigger canvas. Like I mentioned in this article, drawing in a big piece of paper can seem very intimidating and harder, but if you start with a smaller size, it will help you understand certain proportions better and to learn them. Now that you already know the shapes and balance of your object you just need to draw it again in a bigger size.
If you prefer, you can even try several sizes of canvas until you reach the final one. There’s no wrong way to go about this, as long as you feel comfortable with it!
- Study Details. Let’s say you want to draw a character with a leather jacket. But, unfortunately, you’re not sure how to draw the zippers properly. Use thumbnail sketches for that! Small, quick sketches where you practice and explore zippers, their lines, and shapes. What if you’re not sure yet how to represent a leather effect in painting. Study that as well! Using values or even color, make small-sized thumbnails. Draw and paint them small, quick studies of leather, until you get the hang of it!
You don’t need to use thumbnail sketching for the whole view of a painting, you can use it for smaller studies of any object or an effect that you don’t know yet how to draw.
- Study Composition. I’ve been talking about this a lot, so you must be tired of hearing me talk about composition by now! But yes, thumbnailing is the best when you want to figure out a composition in a painting. Small quick sketches, with different options. You’re learning new ways to organize your paintings, but also learning what works and what doesn’t. Remember, it’s all about balance!
- Study Poses. If you want to learn more about poses and gesture drawing (check out this article) or just trying to figure out how your characters are standing in your painting, thumbnail sketching is also great for this. Once again, it’s all about quick studies of different poses, so you can learn the general shapes, directions, and balance of the character until you’re comfortable with the pose. I do talk about this in my Character Design course, so do take a look at it, if you’re interested!
How to Make a Thumbnail Sketch Step By Step!
Alright, buckle up, because we’re going to put all that we talked about to practice!
Making a thumbnail sketch is not very complex and there’s no wrong way to go about this, but there are a few steps to follow.
Remember that if you’re not sure what sketchbook or paper to get, check my article about my Recommended Sketchbooks for Artists!
Every artist has its own methods, but if you feel too lost or still a bit intimidated by the thought of thumbnailing, just follow along these very simple steps:
- Grab a piece of paper. Or your sketchbook, it doesn’t really matter so pick what you prefer. Personally, I prefer my sketchbook so that way I have everything in one place instead of loose paper.
- Draw small rectangles on it. Let’s say around 2x3cm. Horizontal or vertical. It all depends on which direction you’ll want your piece to be. You can also make a mix of vertical and horizontal rectangles. That way you have both possibilities and you can understand what will work better for the final piece.
- Remove all the details from your subject/painting. Don’t focus on details right now. Just draw the main shapes of your drawing. A horizon line, any main vertical or horizontal lines that will be part of your painting and will help on your composition. Finally, the general shapes of your character, buildings, trees and any other subject that will have some importance in your final painting.
- Values. Or even a bit of color, if that helps you. Usually, since we’re trying to reduce details as much as possible, artists will add some tones to the thumbnails in grey tones, mostly just to get silhouettes and a better notion of the composition. But also to study the lighting for the final painting. If you prefer, you can add some bits of color. Some studies to help you figure out what color scheme you’ll want for the final piece.
- Clean Up. After you’re done with several thumbnails, and you think you found the one you want to work with, pick it up and start cleaning up your sketch. Take a new piece of paper, draw a bigger thumbnail or just use the whole paper and start sketching out the same drawing you have on your thumbnail. Now you’ll be adding some details to it, cleaner lines and changing anything you feel needs to change.
Bonus: Relax. Remember that thumbnail sketching is all about freeing your mind and just drawing anything that comes to it. You’ll probably reject the majority of the sketches you’ve made. It’s part of the process and that’s why you’re doing this. Try out different ideas with no pressure until you find the one you want to work with.
Simplify Your Art With Thumbnail Sketching!
I cannot stress this enough. And it’s not only for thumbnail sketching.
Overthinking usually means you’re not confident enough in your skills and that you’re too nervous about drawing what you want. And sometimes, by overthinking, you’ll just give up.
One thing: your skill is good enough, as long as it makes you happy.
Second: there’s also space and time for learning and improving. If you do give up, there’s no way you can get better.
Finally, third: thumbnail sketching is not supposed to be perfect at all! They are quick sketches that will take you seconds to do!
It’s impossible for you to make a perfect drawing in such little time.
When thumbnail sketching, you’re creating concepts and ideas. These are supposed to be rough and very simple. Studies of perspectives, compositions, color, shapes, anything! Just keep in mind, this is not supposed to be a finished piece, just sketches with no pressure and complete freedom!
Thumbnail Sketch Template for You!
As promised, I have here a very simple template that you can use for your sketches. So you have no excuse not to start. I already made part of the work for you, now go have some fun!
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Remember, Thumbnails Are Great But Not Always Necessary
Every artist has their own method.
Some artists might love to work with thumbnails, others not so much. It’s really rare for me to use them unless I’m doing a piece with many details. Sometimes… I’ll even do the thumbnail afterward! I draw the characters and then I’ll draw a rectangle, figuring out and thinking how I want it to be for the final piece.
The importance of thumbnail sketching isn’t the method itself, but the planning and studying!
Why is it called a thumbnail sketch? This process is called a thumbnail sketch because the squares where you sketch and plan out your drawing can be the size of a human thumbnail! Even though they usually are quite a bit bigger than that, this name stuck with artists.