Why Thumbnails are so Important!

mini lesson 1

All the art instruction books and every art instructor will tell you to simplify your subject. Yes, but how do you do it? That’s the trick, right?

That’s where the thumbnail or notan comes in. I resisted doing thumbnails for many years, but I have to tell you, when I began to employ them in my work, my compositions got stronger and my work got better overall.

Here are some important points that I think will help you to simplify your work and make a case for using thumbnails!

When you’re choosing your subject, consider how effective it would be in a small sketch, no bigger than 5 x 7. Could the elements be set down in a sketch of that size?It is safe to say that any subject that will look effective on a wall in the average size living room space, is also definable in a 5 x 7 sketch at about a distance of 5 to 6 ft.

Since we are going to have to simplify most subjects anyway in the finished work, it’s best to start eliminating in your sketch. We can always add detail later.

Save yourself a lot of trouble by choosing a simpler subject from the start. Rather than the grand scene that includes rocks, mountains, people, a lake etc., group elements together that suggest two or three patterns of shapes. I love painting the play of light across a path or the wisp of grass passing in front of a shadow, but that’s just me!

Either simplify what you see or choose a simpler subject!

Painting is like writing, you need to edit. Too much detail and your reader gets lost and bored. I always say we are painting poems, not novels and a haiku would be the best type of poem. Like a conversation that gets boring with too much trivia, a painting can get boring with too much detail.

We want to do a better job than a camera can. We don’t want to slavishly copy nature, rather we want to capture the essence, so we need to figure out what attracted us to a scene and make sure we are including that.

We have to break down our scene into the essentials that make the subject effective.

How to Get Started?

1. Use a viewfinder or cropping mattes to explore different compositions and proportions. There are lots of tools out there and apps for your phone and ipad.
EasyL, AccuView and ValueViewer are just a few.

2. Choose a proportion based on your idea, don’t settle for what your canvas size or paper size is. If your idea doesn’t work with what you have available, then do something different!

3. Eliminate and edit. You don’t need or want to include everything! Leave out what is not important or essential to your idea.

4. Group elements of similar value together to develop 3 to 5 large shapes or patterns. The thumbnail really helps us here!

5. Establish a focal point or area of interest.

6. Do a line sketch then develop a value study or notan with markers, pencil or whatever you like to use.

7. Once you’ve settled on a sketch you like, be sure to scale up the sketch in proportion for your final version. This is an important step that we sometimes forget! Your final won’t look the same if it’s not the same proportion, so if it’s a square sketch, don’t stretch it to the 8×10 canvas size you happen to have!

In the examples, I used five markers ranging from a 10% grey to black. I used both warm and cool grey which I didn’t intend, but it worked out kind of nicely!