Thumbnails. What an incredibly helpful tool! And yet, there is so much resistance. So misunderstood. So to be avoided! Students often say, “I just want to get to the painting! By the time I’ve done a thumbnail, I won’t have the energy to do the painting.” And this stance is particularly espoused when it comes to making thumbnails en plein air. I, however, cannot imagine beginning a representational painting without doing at minimum one thumbnail. This is true whether the piece is in the studio or on location.
It’s easy to create a thumbnail.
- Understand what it is you want to paint (there’s so much to choose from!)
- Before you apply paint or pastel to the canvas/board, compose your painting.
- Create a pattern/design of three values – the underpinning of your painting
- Learn about your subject
Thumbnails can be quick, small explorations into the painting possibilities. Sometimes a thumbnail may even show you that what you thought you wanted to paint isn’t the subject for you right now.
I do make thumbnails in plein air because I know that the scene, especially the light, is constantly changing and time is critical. I wouldn’t dream of skipping this oh-so-valuable step!
Let me show you a few recent pieces I did on location in La Manzanilla (Mexico). You’ll see the scene as I saw it and then, through my thumbnails, the part of the scene I chose to paint. You’ll also see the final painting.
The wall that we saw was a beautiful purple color. It was right around the corner of where we were staying. You can read an overview of the book. earlier postHow I overcame the resistance to painting en plein-air in Mexico. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Oh, what a cast shadow the mango tree throws!
You’ll see in my sketchbook that I began a horizontal thumbnail. As I worked I realised that what I wanted the focus to be on was the transition of the cast-shadow to the sunlit walls along with the bike. So I started another thumbnail – a vertical one.
I knew the bicycle could be ridden off at any time when I chose this scene. I took that risk and got lucky – it stayed put the entire painting time!
I was quite taken with that wall. (As an aside, I was a bit frustrated that I didn’t have the colours in my Set of 36 pieces in Unison Colour to do it justice. I focused on creating a warm colour wall and not replicating the specific purple.
The next piece is also on the same wall. This time, however, it was also the dogs that were lying around that caught my attention. They seemed to mostly stick to the cast-shadows. The bike was a nice touch.
Here’s the scene (without any dogs as it turns out!).
You can see from my thumbnail that I compressed it, bringing the shadow at the bottom closer to the rest. It was important to have the shadow run across the bottom. You can also see in my thumbnail that I thought of including an outlier – a dog sitting in the hot sun but crossed it out. I decided not to include the dog in the sun because it moved after I drew. (Isn’t there some saying about Mad Dogs and Englishmen…?
Then comes the painting. A dog dropped suddenly in front me near the end of the work and I quickly added it. I love those serendipitous events that happen when you are painting on location. By this time the sun was hidden behind a huge cloud, and the scene remained overcast for the remainder of my painting time. Having made thumbnails, I knew the pattern in light, dark, or grey. Luckily, I’d also gotten down quite a bit of colour. The scene would be so grey if it weren’t for the sunlight.!
Next there’s the scene with an outdoor (abandoned?) The next scene is an outdoor (abandoned?) washing machine. The orange building reflected light onto the washing machine. This caught my eye.
I wanted to make the washing-machine the main focus of the painting as it was what caused the stop. I cropped away a large part of the background in my thumbnail. I chose a square format. I also liked the cast shadows on the wall in the background – a lovely blue contrast to the orange wall. I wasn’t sure how much detail to include. It is here that creating thumbnails in plein air can be invaluable! You can make compositional decisions much more easily. You can see that I did another thumbnail in order to clarify the design of the three big shapes. I can tell at this stage if the composition has any chance of working.
After deciding on the format, composition and value pattern, I was able to have some fun with the color!
Lastly, there’s this fairly nondescript scene.
There’s something in the pattern created by the tree’s cast shadow and the small areas of dark that made me stop and get out my sketchbook. Again, I decided to crop in close to tell the story of this small corner of La Manzanilla, probably one that’s ignored by most passersby.
You can see my thumbnail. You can see that I have moved things around to suit my needs. The bush by the post is a good example. I’ve also compressed all the parts to fit into the square format. And I’ve deleted much of the overhanging tree branches.
As an artist, it is your responsibility to bring about these changes. Creatingthumbnails en plein air This allows me to sort out these ideas before I commit to putting my mark on the surface.
And here’s the painting! In the second picture (of me holding the painting), you can see my small sketchbook, which contains thumbnails of the scene. I always keep my thumbnails front and centre as I find it’s easy to lose my way, wandering away from my original design if I’m not careful!
I mentioned earlier that creating thumbnails en plein air can also prevent you from wasting time on a painting that doesn’t have a strong enough foundation and will most likely be a disappointment. I always say, if the thumbnail doesn’t excite you/please you, don’t start painting! Colour won’t improve on a black, grey, and white design that isn’t working.
Here’s a thumbnail I did of a scene I liked. I quickly realised that I needed to return at another time of day to get a better pattern with darks, light, and greys. What I produced didn’t excite me at all – it was a bit of a dud! You can see that I tried to extend it on both sides in order to see if it would work. Nope!
My thumbnails are tiny. I don’t take a lot of time with them. Like you, I’m eager to get started! And, working en plein air has the added stress of coping with an environment that’s always in the process of changing which means we don’t want to waste any time. Doing thumbnails is a better use of your precious time.
I hope that you can see why creating thumbnails in plein air is not a hindrance but rather a benefit. I’d love to know your thoughts so please do leave a comment.
That’s it for this time!