Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Thumbnail Sketches - All Dressed Up!

One of the lessons I taught my students while in Tuscany was about using thumbnail sketches to zero in on a scene and test out various compositional options. I suggested using a separate sketchbook page for the thumbnails and later turning that page, with its accumulation of tiny scenes, into a dynamic page in its own right. I thought you might like to see how this works, how I build a "dressed up" gridded page from a series of simple thumbnail sketches and the addition of a few design elements.

On the day of the lesson, my students and I parked ourselves in a shady pine grove with views of the surrounding countryside and began to narrow our focus by sketching small sections of the endless view, limiting our thumbnail sketches to simple pencil drawings of the main shapes of the scene. Details were not necessary.

Outdoor class at Fattoria Bacio

I snapped some photos of the scenes I sketched, so I could refer to them later, then we all chose one of our thumbnail sketches on which to base a larger drawing, and went to work on that in our sketchbooks.

This week at home, using my photo references, I turned each of my rough thumbnail pencil sketches into a miniature painting. All together, they bring back a week's worth of wonderful memories.

Here's the process:
First I tidied up the messy grid I had drawn onsite by using 1/4" painter's tape to mask off borders around my sketches, being sure to "de-sticky" it before using so it wouldn't damage my paper. (I probably should have done this in the beginning, onsite, but I was in a rush at the time and just dove into working on my thumbnails.) I then added more drawn details to each scene and inked them with my Platinum Carbon fountain pen (extra fine tip). I filled in some empty spots in my grid with new scenes drawn from my reference photos. Two of the gridded boxes were allotted to lettering.

Step 1 - Taped grid, line drawings, first washes

I laid down my light to medium base washes (plus a few darks here and there), as shown above, and let them dry fully.

Next it was time to make those sketches come alive with the addition of darker tones and shadows.

Step 2 - Darker washes

Then, the big reveal....

Step 3 - Lots of white space

Peeling off the tape revealed the pristine white borders around my sketches. I loved the look of the page, and I probably should have just left it at this stage, but I felt like the titles got a litte bit lost among all the paintings, so I added a dotted outline around the title boxes...

Step 4 - Dot border on title boxes

Hmmm, it looked good, but the two boxes felt disconnected, so I made a dotted line to connect them.

Step 5 - Connecting dots

I thought it might look nice to carry over the dotted motif to the outside edge, so I added a simple dot border around the entire page.

Step 6 - Dotted line border

Lastly, I masked off inside the dotted border...

Step 7 - Masking tape

and painted a variegated wash around the outside edge of the page to echo the colors of the title boxes.

Step 8 - Painted border
10" x 7", ink & watercolor in a Stillman and Birn Beta series sketchbook

Was that an improvement? Or did it look better with the white space around it? I think maybe I should have stopped at Step 4 or 5. What do you think?

I tend to like to push the limits in my sketchbook and keep adding elements to my pages until I feel they're finally complete. There's an element of risk in that approach, because I may overdo it and wish I had stopped earlier in the process, as in this case. But what I do then is to simply turn the page and move on. After all, it's just a piece of paper, and I have plenty more of them.

Sketchbook journaling is about the process, not the end result. The tests of a successful page are:
  • Did I have fun?
  • Did I record a memory or experience?
  • Did I learn something?
On all counts, I give this page a resounding YES!


  1. I LOVE this so much! It's such a treasure of little memories. How do you "de-sticky" the tape before using it in your sketch book? I'd love to use it for clean sharp borders, but am hesitant to ruin my page.

    1. I press the fresh piece of tape on my jeans or the sleeve of my shirt, sometimes two or three times, so it will pick up some lint and take away some of the stickiness. Then press it onto your page firmly, but don't burnish it down. When you're peeling it away at the end, don't pull it back on itself, but just lift it at a slight angle - that seems to help, too. I think it's also best not to leave it on for weeks at a time, although I haven't really tested that. I usually just have it down for a couple of days.

  2. Your whole process is wonderful and beautiful. Love it all.

  3. I so loved all your thumbnail sketches. thanks for the tip on de-sticking.

  4. I preferred it before the dots and border. It was softer on the eyes and I could vacation from picture to picture. Now my eye is drawn too much to the words and away from the lovely sketches. It's work to look at it. However, you do beautiful work and this is the only one of yours that I wasn't too thrilled about and I wouldn't have posted my opinion but you asked.

    1. I agree, Karen. I prefer the simplicity of the earlier version. There's no going back now, though. I was thinking when I return to Tuscany next year, I'll do another thumbnail page and keep it simple.

  5. If you haven't already looked into publishing your sketchbooks, please do!

    1. I've self-published two of my travel journals - ones from Ireland and Italy. You can see the links to them in the column on the right.

  6. Loved it both ways, dots and border and also as is. In itself, you always learn best by doing and then knowing later which is more effective. Love your work~!


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