97 – Understanding Thumbnails

I’ll bet there isn’t an art instructor that hasn’t spent some time preaching the benefits of doing thumbnail sketches and most students resist them. Why do we preach and why do students resist?

Well let’s talk about the resistance first. Some students think that thumbnails entail a high level of drawing skill. They seem like they take away spontaneity, fun and significant time away from painting. This can be especially annoying when you’re painting en plein air and you’re in a hurry to get going. When we are painting in Plein Air (when a thumbnail counts the most), we can get impatient, I think because we know the light is going to change. Things are fleeting. For some students there is a sense that you don’t need them; you already know what you’re going to do. I even have had students ask me if I consider it cheating!

I think there is also some confusion when it comes to common terminology, so let’s take a look at some definitions.

Drawing: the art or technique of representing an object by means of lines.

Notan: the combination of lights and darks especially as used in Japanese art : the design or pattern of a work of art as seen in flat areas of dark and light values only.
Is a notan a drawing? Well it could be, but it could also be painted or done on a computer or on a phone app.

Thumbnail Sketches: are quick, abbreviated drawings, usually done very rapidly and with no corrections. Thumbnails are very small, often only an inch or two high.

How is a Thumbnail different from a drawing?


A Thumbnail is small and is meant to serve as a map or reference for the artist to use to help in planning a larger work or painting. They can be used to experiment and to try out different compositions of a the same scene. Does a Thumbnail have drawing in it? Yes, but it’s not intended as a completed work of art on it’s own, while some drawings are.

It’s not meant to be a finished work of art, although many Thumbnails that I’ve seen are really cool, they are intended as studies. A Thumbnail can be very rough and as long as it makes sense to you. It’s your private map or guide. You can put notes on the margin about color, mood and scale. It’s meant to help aid your memory or impression of a scene.

Can a Thumbnail also be a Notan?

Yep! In my opinion these are the best. When you can include some information about value in your thumbnail you’ll have given yourself a leg up on creating a strong painting.

Here is a Thumbnail with just line.

Here is one with some value.

Here is a true Notan where the scene is represented with just three values. Is it also a “Thumbnail“? Yes!

Can your Thumbnails incorporate aspects of a Notan?

Sure, here are some examples of Thumbnails that have line and value and are a bit more finished providing a little more detailed information.

Markers, pen and gouache on craft paper
Markers, pen and gouache on craft paper
Markers, pen

Do you need to be able to draw to paint?

Well, geez, it helps. Having a working understanding of some basic drawing concepts definitely helps. Studying linear perspective, understanding scale, overlapping shapes, the basic properties of light and shadow…all good stuff. I would undertake a 4 to 6 week study of drawing before I put brush to canvas, but you can walk and chew gum at the same time. If you are just so excited about painting that you can’t wait, it’s possible to work on drawing and painting in concert with one another.

Do you need to be able to render like this?

No! We can all strive to get better but it’s not necessary to draw like a master to create successful paintings. Again, a working understanding of picture making is all that is required to get started creating Thumbnails, Notans and paintings from them.

What is a “Working Drawing”?

If you are planning a detailed painting, you might want to do a working drawing. A working drawing is usually fairly large, sometimes as big as the finished piece, and carefully composed. The subject is sketched in, and potential problem areas might be done in more detail. This is where you can fine-tune your drawing before embarking on the finished piece. This probably does not include value. Use your Thumbnails and any other reference material to execute a working drawing. More likely it is only line that will be transferred to your painting surface. More on that in another lesson.

Do I have to do a Working Drawing to start a painting?

No. Often I will use my thumbnails and or notan in conjunction with any reference photos to sketch my composition directly onto my painting surface. It just depends on how detailed and exacting I want the finished painting to be.

Ok, hopefully I have your attention and now you want to get started using thumbnails regularly in your work.

How Do I Start Making Thumbnails?

First you need a couple tools. If you haven’t done much drawing or sketching, you’ll probably want to experiment with a few things and get comfortable. I like using a ballpoint pen for most of my thumbnails because they make a nice dark line, you can create gradiations with them pretty easily ( they get dark when you press hard and can lighten up to the white of the paper). You can also find them just about everywhere!

I also like Tombow markers with gouache on craft paper. These make very nice Notans.

Start Making Thumbnails!

After you’ve got some great tools gathered up, time to put pencil to page!
Imagine your subject stripped of all details, through squinted eyes, or in poor light. All you see are big shapes and value patterns. That’s all you need for a thumbnail. First, sketch a rough box, small but in the same proportions as the finished picture will be. Don’t get it too big or it will be more like a finished drawing. Then sketch in the big shapes, positive and negative in relationship to the frame that you sketched. Reduce it to two or three values. Add some line if it helps. Make any notations that will help you with color, mood, detail. Remember this is for you. You don’t have to share it with anyone. It’s just a tool to help you get to the finished work more gracefully!

The next mini-lesson will expand on Notan Design and how to create powerful compositions using this tool and how this goes hand in hand with simplifying to be able to paint anything and everything with ease.

Keep Smiling and Painting!


Painting Minilessons
with Marla Baggetta

My free online minilessons in art are a fantastic way to learn more about your craft, regardless of your skill level. There are lessons available on everything from basic drawing techniques to complex painting methods, and no matter what your interests are, you’re sure to find something that appeals to you. Whether you’re a beginner who’s just starting out, or a seasoned artist who wants to brush up on your skills, these minilessons are a great resource. These lessons are available anytime, anywhere. So whether you’re looking for a quick refresher or want to explore something new, be sure to check out some of my minilessons at Painting Lessons with Marla.

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