What Is a Thumbnail Sketch and What Is Its Purpose? Easily draw your own

Thumbnail sketches are a great way to plan out your composition before you begin. They’re also helpful for understanding the main light and dark values in your painting. A thumbnail sketch is only about 2 – 3 inches in size, which makes it easy to be able to simplify or update if you need to alter a design or change your mind.

They can also act as notes for your artwork plan, you can add comments here and there. What thumbnail sketches are not are fully detailed renderings of the final work.

If you want more information on how thumbnail sketches work, in this post we’ll explain all the details about thumbnail sketches, how big they should be, what colors to use, and when to use them. Keep reading to learn more.

Thumbnail sketch example
My own thumbnail sketch for a Turner painting I was copying with notes.

What is a thumbnail sketch?

Thumbnail sketches are small sketches used to plan out your painting before you begin. They’re typically only 2–3 inches in size, so they can be quickly drawn and easily changed if needed. This makes them very helpful for artists who want to simplify or update their compositions.

It’s common for most painters to create a few thumbnail sketches before starting on their main piece. Thumbnails help with composition, color choice, and the overall design of the piece.

It’s important that when planning your piece, you make sure it has an interesting focal point with depth and dimension, which is where many painters choose to sketch out the focal point.

What is the purpose of a thumbnail sketch? What does a thumbnail sketch do?

Thumbnail sketches are small, rough drawings that serve the purpose of assisting in the beginning stages of a larger project. For example, to create a beautiful piece of artwork or digital painting, you must have an idea in place before you do so.

Thumbnail sketches help artists plan out their composition and determine what will be included in their final work. Thumbnail sketches also give artists a chance to play around with lines, shapes, color schemes, etc., before creating something they are, or not happy with.

Thumbnail sketches can be altered quite easily since they are so small and simplified which allows artists to quickly change aspects of the sketch if needed without having to redo hours of work on their main piece.

When to use a thumbnail sketch

Thumbnail sketches should be used whenever an artist feels they need a more concrete plan of what their artwork will look like before starting, whether that is a full piece or just a certain section. This can be especially helpful when the artist is working with difficult shapes or trying to convey a specific mood or feeling with their work.

When I was first starting out I would actually sketch a full miniature of the work I was planning to paint and then I would painstakingly scale it up onto a canvas.

The problem with this logic was that sometimes the work wouldn’t translate well from paper to canvas and it would require me to rework my entire artwork on the canvas and it was just a mess.

If I had created a simple thumbnail sketch then I could have avoided this problem.

I could have also created a series of thumbnail sketches that could all be linked together to make a larger piece.

Thumbnail sketch
Thumbnail sketch for a portrait

How long does it take to draw a thumbnail sketch?

Thumbnail sketches can be done very quickly and they only require a small amount of detail. They can take a few minutes to create for a simple still life or portrait to a few hours for a more complicated or larger piece.

I would not spend more than 20 minutes to draw a thumbnail sketch.

I would suggest being as broad and rough as possible and not getting bogged down into the detail. Use something like charcoal, pastels or even a paintbrush to sketch.

Focus on shading, blocking out large shapes, and checking for balance.

How to create your own thumbnail sketch from start to finish

It is very simple to create your own thumbnail sketch. All you need is either paper or canvas, some drawing materials (charcoal, pastels, pencils), and a place to sit down for 20 minutes.

Choose an object or scene that interests you. Set up your subject in front of you and begin to block out the main shapes with shading.

Block in large shapes first and use lines if needed to indicate where details will go later on.

Ensure there is balance both vertically and horizontally within the composition before moving forward into the next stage.

Once you feel like you have done enough blocking in move on to creating more detail, adding smaller shapes, and reinforcing the shading until it looks complete.

If not satisfied then go back over previous areas until you are happy with the result.

This isn’t rocket science. Keep it simple and don’t overthink it.

What art materials can be used for Thumbnail sketching?

You can use whatever art materials you like for creating your thumbnail sketches; however, it is generally recommended that you use pen and paper since they are not only more effective but also cheaper than buying new supplies each time.

Charcoal, pastels, pencils are also recommended for drawing as are a flat brush with some medium, thinners, and paint if you are creating a thumbnail sketch on canvas.

That’s it, nice and simple. I have even created thumbnail sketches using watercolors on a small sketch pad.

What are the best thumbnail sketch size & proportions?

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the size of your thumbnail sketches. Some artists prefer smaller sketches that fit comfortably within their hand, while others may opt for larger sketches that offer more detail.

As for proportions, it is generally recommended that you keep your thumbnail sketches relatively simple and concise. This will help make them easier to complete as well as allow you to focus on the most important elements of your composition.

Can thumbnail sketches be in color?

Thumbnail sketches are usually done in charcoal or pencil since it is easy to erase and can be done fairly quickly. Because of this, most are in grays or black and white.

However, some artists may choose to do their sketches in color or even a combination of both color and pencil. There are no rules that say you have to use this or that when drawing a thumbnail sketch, use your judgement and do what works for you.

Using color does have the added benefit of helping you plan your colors and palette and this, in turn, will help you see if your artwork will be balanced and color can also be used to work out perspective.

Tips for creating an effective and engaging thumbnail sketch:

1. When starting out, try to keep your thumbnail sketches simple and use basic shapes to represent your objects or figures. This will help you focus on the composition and design of your work rather than getting bogged down in details.

2. As you become more experienced, you can add more detail to your sketches, but always make sure that the most important elements are still clearly visible.

3. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different media and techniques when creating thumbnail sketches. This is a great way to find what works best for you and helps you come up with new ideas.

4. Be patient and take your time when creating thumbnail sketches – they may not be perfect, that’s okay!

More thumbnail sketches
More thumbnail sketches made with a digital app using photos as the base.

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