Six days of sketching thumbnails

June 22, 2020 | Leave your thoughts

Last week I hosted a special SketchingNow Thumbnail Challenge as part of the lead up to the return of Watercolour On Location.

I shared some Free Intro Lessons (as per last year) plus some new demos all about thumbnails, and then I committed to drawing a number of thumbnails for the week. The first three days of thumbnails was all about  important edges and  for the last three days we focused on recording shadow shapes.

It was a very simple challenge but one that really sharpened some essential observational skills. Even the most basic value study (just mapping light and dark) helps us think through our colour choices. This is a really quick simple sketch of San Lorenzo in Florence from a Google Street view.

I also hosted two livestream events to talk about the challenge and answer lots of questions.

Oh ah! I love doing livestreams and connecting with people from around the world – answering their questions and hanging out in the chat. I absolutely love talking about the concepts in Watercolour On Location. – how to find story, design values and then apply watercolour to the page simply. Replays for these livestreams are available for a limited time to people on the Watercolour On Location. waiting list.

Anyway, it was really good to give myself the permission to just draw thumbnails last week instead of producing finished sketches. These four ‘thumbnails’ were more like small sketches even though they were done in under 5 minutes each.

I discovered a few things from doing the SketchingNow Thumbnail Challenge:

  • Swain Gardens has the most incredible curved edges which I look forward to incorporating into sketches in the future.
  • Scenes with lots of curved edges are much harder to draw accurately than typical street scenes.
  • Doing a number of thumbnails of the one scene forces me to look more carefully – to notice things I wouldn’t normally see and to look beyond objects to edges and shapes.
  • I really love doing small ink drawings of street scenes as per above (these aren’t technically thumbnail studies!)
  • Doing simple shadow shape thumbnails make me really see the composition and drama of the big shapes.

There is a tendency to want our thumbnails to look pretty and neat, but they are working drawings with a specific purpose. They only need to be neat/accurate enough to be useful for the final sketch and they have to energize and motivate us to start the final sketch. If we try to make our thumbnail a perfect small sketch then there is a real danger that they will tire us out and demotivate us from doing it all again in a larger version. So we have to find the sweet spot – to make our thumbnails fit for purpose. This will be different for everyone.

This challenge wasn’t actually demonstrating the traditional use of thumbnails because – apart from the San Lorenzo sketch above – I didn’t do a normal sketch afterwards. However, it has really inspired me to use them more as a discovery tool for sketching ideas. By the end of the week I had done over 40 thumbnails and I’m buzzing with some new ideas for future sketches in my local area. All of mine were done in around 3 minutes each – they are rough and messy but it’s the thoughts that I was having at the time that makes this collection special to me.

Here is the full collection (click on any image to view them larger)

Day 1: Swain Gardens

Day 2: Lunch on my balcony

Day 2: Outside Goodfields looking for more stories


Day 3: Tracing around a credit card to make sure my thumbnails remained small

Day 4: Shadow shapes from my balcony

Day 5: Last day in Italy as part of my Virtual trip – so I revisited some favourite towns.

Day 6: Quick warmup sketches before a virtual sketching event hosted by USK Luxembourg.

So that’s a wrap on my SketchingNow Thumbnail Challenge.

It’s time to get to work and get the Watercolour On Location. course ready for signups. If you are on the dedicated mailing list you will get earlybird access (and an exclusive one-off earlybird price) later this week.

I can’t wait to have this course available again and to be hosting a Group Run Through starting 8 July (going for 12 weeks.) Each week during this time I will be running Q&A Livestreams to answer people’s questions and discuss the concepts of the current lesson. It will be a lot of fun and I know that we’ll all learn so much from each other which will help our sketching of complex scenes.

Find out more about the course and join the mailing list.


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