After last week’s struggle with a viewfinder I was excited to get onto the topic of the next lesson in my SketchingNow Foundations Course. I had one of those big light bulb moments this week which was a combination of doing the thumbnails below, meeting with some architects and then a private message from a sketching friend. It was a re-affirmation rather than a brand new idea… but I am jumping ahead of myself already!
In Foundations Lesson 10 we look at how to find a focus for our sketch by thinking about what aspect of a scene we like the most. To help with this I explain how we can use a series of thumbnails to explore different options – different stories. While filming the outside demo for this lesson something very special happened. I was at the Reservoir Gardens in Paddington and my intention was to do three different options. But instead, I got caught up in the process and proceeded to draw 9 thumbnails one after each other, and each one telling a completely different story – refer to the top image. The exploration (of the scene) and discovery (of the different stories) were totally exhilarating.
Thumbnails are often used to strengthen composition and do value studies, but my use of them in this instance was a step before both of those. Simply finding a story, designing a narrative. Once a story has been chosen then a further series of thumbnails could be used to compose the sketch in a way that strengthens this story.
I have a hot and cold relationship to thumbnails and my light bulb moment this week was achieving clarity about why I rarely use them myself. As I mentioned on Monday, thumbnails are bread and butter to me as an architect. When I am design sketching, what I am doing, in essence, is one thumbnail after the other, exploring multiple views in rapid succession.
These kinds of thumbnails are all about discovery.
Discovery is a huge part of sketching for me - perhaps the most important part.
When I design as an architect the solution comes out while I am sketching. If I keep drawing and testing ideas, the design will come. I am trusting that the process, the very act of drawing, will generate the result that I need. More about this topic here on a newly set up section on my blog.
And so when I sketch, I am composing as I go, trusting that if I keep going it will be ok in the end. It mightn’t be a masterpiece, but it will be a wonderful record of my discovery process.
For me a sketch is my first response, it is the way I record my exploration of my subject. When I carefully plan the sketch beforehand, doing a traditional thumbnail to resolve the composition and the value shapes, I can lose a lot of the joy and excitement. And as a result I often make a mess of the ‘finished work’.
This is exactly what happened in Melanie Reim’s workshop in Singapore. I was very happy with the thumbnail (top left) but when I tried to do the bigger sketch (on the right side) I lost it completely. Hmm, I also lost my focus as the trike disappeared! When I just worked spontaneously (middle sketch) I was able to recapture the feeling of the initial thumbnail.
Please don’t think I am dismissing thumbnails… I am certainly not. In some ways I wish I could plan more carefully using thumbnails and then end up with a more designed, beautifully composed watercolour painting. But on the other hand I thrive on the feeling of living dangerously. Next week I will be sharing the approach that I typically use.
But to get back to Foundations Lesson 10, I do love doing scrappy thumbnails exploring ideas of what I could say in my sketch. This is particularly the case in very complex scenes. On Wednesday I had 15 minutes before going to a meeting and paused at one of the busiest intersections in Sydney, where you can see both the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) and the Sydney Town Hall.
I did these three rapid thumbnails, each with a completely different story. They are thinking drawings, simply exploring my initial idea and like my architects design sketching, the ideas formed as I was drawing. If I wanted to make these into a sketch (and wanted to plan it beforehand) I would have done a few more thumbnails to resolve the composition and values.
In the second when I started I was thinking of a panoramic view but while drawing I noticed the way the two grand facades where talking to each other and how the trees separated them. So this is what I would develop further in my next round of thumbnails.
The third was more about looking down George St focusing on the busyness of the street (people and cars) and the overlapping patterns of the buildings. Although the QVB was included in this view, its role was secondary and I probably would crop it further and make this into a more vertical composition.
I didn’t have time to do a sketch, but this process was a lot of fun.
So before I wrap up this post, I just want to clarify that although I don’t do thumbnails when I sketch, I think they are an incredible tool for improving the design of sketches.
They make you focus on what you are trying to say, and will help map out all the major value shapes. I use them all the time when I teach as I love helping others design their sketches – it’s the architect in me coming out!
A lot of people struggle with the concept of thumbnails and they end up drawing a tiny detailed sketch of the whole scene. I know that I often take my architectural skills for granted – skills which enable me to do these type of analytical drawings with ease – but I think the important thing to remember that that are more of a thinking diagram than a preliminary version of your sketch. You only need to do enough to resolve the design but at the same time need to make sure that they are adding value (that you are thinking hard and nutting out issues as you are drawing them).
My use (or non-use) of thumbnails when I am sketching has a lot to do with my own personal definition of a sketch being quick and spontaneous. Urban Sketchers has certainly meant that the traditional idea of a sketch (an quick initial response of a scene in preparation for a larger more serious painting) has become a lot more sophisticated, with people sometimes spending hours on their sketch. There is a huge range of work included under the definition of ‘sketch’ and mine (nearly always under 20 minutes and often only 5 minutes) are certainly at the quick end of the scale. The time that you invest in your sketch is a major factor in determining how essential thumbnails are. So if your sketch takes an hour or more, doing a few thumbnails certainly makes a lot of sense.
But regardless of whether you use them or not, I always recommend that before you start, you ask yourself what is the part of your scene that appeals to you the most, and then have this in your mind constantly as you work.
I would love to hear from you:
- What do you think about thumbnails?
- How often you do you use them?
- When do you use, and when do you go straight into the sketch?
- Do you struggle with them and include far too much detail in them?