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What’s A Thumbnail Sketch (With Templates and Examples)

A thumbnail sketch might sound weird and a waste of time. Why draw whatever I want to draw, but in a smaller size?

The answer is straightforward: planning!

Thumbnail sketches are great tools to avoid problems with composition and perspective, as well as to prototype a larger painting quickly.

Use Thumbnail Sketching to solve some common problems by planning your drawings.

These sketches are done very quickly and without a lot of detail, by hand or digitally. Thumbnail drawing has been around for a very long time, and it’s a very useful tool in an artist’s arsenal.

I’m including a video that I made to help you better see how to do thumbnail drawings, along with examples!

Thumbnail Sketch Definition

But what exactly is the definition of a thumbnail sketch?

Generally, a thumbnail sketch is 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.

You just pick any medium you want, like a pencil, and start sketching. This kind of sketching is made in small sizes, small squares, or rectangles with about 2 or 3 cm.

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.

The Definition of a Thumbnail Sketch by Don Corgi

Thumbnail sketches 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 Thumbnail Sketches

When doing thumbnail sketches, you don’t need to use a rectangular shape and draw inside of it forcefully.

You can just draw small, quick sketches along your page without the limitation of a frame. Go outside it, and try different shapes.

The idea of thumbnail sketching is to be quick and catch the important elements such as composition, balance, and movement!

Not only that, but thumbnail drawing will help you plan out your artwork.

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 will 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. Next time your planning time will be reduced because you already know what you want and like more easily!

Plan Your Drawings the Smart Way with Thumbnails!

By planning your drawings with thumbnail sketches, you will also avoid excessive changes and cleanups in your final drawing.

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, which seemed great in your head, isn’t that good after all! And now you have to redo everything from the beginning.

If you want to learn more about Composition, do check out my full guide here.

In short, thumbnail sketches will help you plan your drawings, and they’ll also help you avoid a lot of stress and frustration that might occur when working on 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.

thumbnail sketch example by u/ukasabii on reddit
Thumbnail Sketch by u/Ukasabii on Reddit

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.

thumbnails of the "Inside Out" movie by Matt Jones
Inside Art Thumbnail Sketches by Matt Jones for Inside Out

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.

thumbnail sketches by petter fautino
Digital Thumbnail Sketches by Petter Faustino on Artstation

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.

thumbnail sketches of A Bug's Life from ScienceBehindPixar.org
“A Bug’s Life” thumbnail sketches from ScienceBehindPixar.org

Another example of thumbnail sketching, it can be super useful to plan out environments and perspective.

What Are Thumbnail Sketches For?

The purpose of doing thumbnail sketches are many, such as:

To 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.

As I mentioned in this article, drawing on a big piece of paper can seem very intimidating.

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.

Study Proportions in Thumbnails, this is a very useful exercise!

If you prefer, you can 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!

Practice Drawing Details

You can also practice drawing details by doing some thumbnail drawing.

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.

Using values or even color, make small-sized thumbnails. Draw and paint them small, quick studies, 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

Since thumbnail sketches represent abbreviated drawings of larger work, you can use them to practice your composition.

Thumbnailing is the best tool when you want to figure out a composition in a painting.

Study Composition when planning your Drawings in Thumbnails

You’re learning new ways to organize your paintings and what works and doesn’t. Remember, it’s all about balance!

Practice Drawing Poses

When learning to draw poses and doing some gesture drawing, thumbnail sketches are one of the best tools available for you.

You just need to focus on quick studies of different poses. Focus on the general shapes, movement, and features of the figure you’re drawing.

This is something I cover more in-depth in my Figure Drawing Course here.

Communicate Design Ideas

Thumbnail drawing is also a wonderful way to communicate quick ideas to colleagues and clients.

Stop Overthinking! Simplify the process of drawing with Thumbnail Sketching.
Don’t get overwhelmed, try different thumbnail drawing approaches!

It allows you to showcase a potential work quickly, and get one sketch approved to keep on working on it and refining it on a larger scale.

Not only that but doing these thumbnail sketches also allows you to keep on getting fast feedback on what’s working and what’s not in your project.

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.

How to Make a Thumbnail Sketch, step by step! by Don Corgi

Every artist has their methods, but if you feel too lost or still a bit intimidated by the thought of thumbnailing, just follow these very simple steps:

  1. Grab a piece of paper. Or your sketchbook, it doesn’t matter, so pick what you prefer. I prefer my sketchbook so that way I have everything in one place instead of loose paper.
  2. 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 in. Optionally, you can draw other shapes to experiment with.
  3. Experiment with different compositions. It’s time to practice drawing different compositions. I recommend you start by drawing a horizon line and then move the elements accordingly. Try changing the placement of the objects and subjects, and play around with the use of negative space.
  4. Refine your sketches and choose a thumbnail. Go through several thumbnail sketches and see which one you like the most. Consider the ones with the most potential and polish them up. Once you go over this, decide the one that works the best and develop it.
  5. Clean up your chosen thumbnail. 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.
Clean up your Lines on your thumbnail, so you can better understand the final result.

Bonus: Relax. Remember that thumbnail sketching is about freeing your mind and experimenting with a bunch of ideas. 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 without pressure until you find the one you want to work with.

Thumbnail Sketch Template for You!

Here’s a very simple template that you can use for your thumbnail sketches. It includes several squares for you to practice your compositions and try out different ideas.

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 with your artwork!

Thumbnail Template Download by Don Corgi
Click here to get your thumbnail sketch template!

Remember, Thumbnails Are Great But Not Always Necessary

Every artist has their 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.

Can thumbnail sketches be done digitally or do they have to be done traditionally? Thumbnail sketches can be done digitally or traditionally, the choice is up to each artist. Use a drawing software of your choice, or a simple pencil and paper.

And if you’re done with your thumbnail, you should go ahead and add some color to it! Check our color theory guide here to learn everything you need to know about color.

What Is A Thumbnail Sketch and How Can it Help You by Don Corgi - Read More on doncorgi(dot)com

Patricia Caldeira is the main writer here at Don Corgi. She's an art teacher with over 20.000 happy students across many platforms and courses!

Enjoy your stay and as always:
Keep on drawing!

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