Starting Small with Thumbnails

Put away the polish and nail file; you aren't getting a manicure. A thumbnail is a mini-size sketch you draw to work out the kinks before you spend all that time, effort, and money on the full-size painting. These sketches serve as little road maps so you know where you're going to end up in your painting. After all, without a road map you may get lost.

Few things improve your painting more than planning your painting by using a thumbnail. As Ben Franklin said, "Failing to plan is planning to fail."

Artists call these little sketch plans thumbnails, but usually the sketches are a bit larger than an actual thumbnail. I make them about 1K x 3 inches, but there are no rules. In fact, the only person who sees these sketches is you, so you call the shots.

Figures 7-7a and 7-7b show thumbnails for the fence post painting in Figure 7-4 and for the iris project coming up next.

When you're ready to start a painting, think through the composition visually by following these steps to create a thumbnail sketch:

1. Draw a small shape that represents your painting.

It doesn't have to be to scale; you just want to duplicate the general shape.

2. Sketch your idea with a pencil or paint in watercolor.

Usually you don't want to wait for watercolor to dry for these quick sketches. I usually just draw a rough idea in pencil unless I need to decide color choices.

3. Sketch another version of your idea.

Always make several thumbnails to work out an idea. You then can choose the best one. It may be your first one. It may be your last one. Unless you make several sketches, you may not know if the one you've done is the best one.

4. Choose the sketch you want to paint, enlarge it, and transfer it to your watercolor paper.

Chapter 8 has instructions on how to enlarge and transfer your thumbnails.

You can keep a sketchbook with all your ideas, journaling, and organization, or you can just doodle a thumbnail on scratch paper and toss it in a box for later. (And, no, you can't toss it in the round file. How will you measure your progress?) Choose either method of saving your sketches to fit your needs.

Sketchbooks are great to collect ideas and recall them at a later time. Sometimes you feel creative; that's the time to jot down all the different ways to make a painting. Another time, the ideas may not be flowing as fast, and you can get out the sketchbook full of thumbnails from more fruitful days.

Take your sketchbook everywhere. Keep one in the car, and if you're waiting on something, you can always sketch. If you sketch with watercolor pencils, you can solve color issues too. Put dates on the pages, and you have a record of your ideas and when you had them.

Make a cool tool that helps you focus in on your subject and doesn't cost a cent: Get an old overexposed 35mm slide, take out the lousy film, and leave just the slide frame with an open hole. Look through the frame to help you see your subject. Use it like a viewfinder in a camera. Close one eye and look through the frame. As you move the frame closer to your eye, the view is wider. As you move the frame farther away, you crop the view.

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