I want to let you in on the best kept secret in painting, the Thumbnail Sketch! This little practice of thumbnail drawings are the secret to great ideas and in turn great art. I was first introduced to this idea when a read Edgar Payne’s book on Outdoor Composition. He broke down the landscape into a group of basic designs. All landscapes could be designed in these groups, according to Edgar. I started sketching my designs before I painted and use the thumbnail for so much more now. I use this practice to design, create and explore before I paint.
After I read Edgar Payne’s book, I religiously would sketch a scene before I painted. I would categorize the landscape design into one of his classifications and away I would paint. But, after a few years I felt that I was kind of stagnant feeling in my designs. I attributed this to the sketching of the idea before I painted. So I stopped sketching and just would design on the canvas. This worked out fine until I saw a good friends sketchbook! He had all these great designs laid out one after another and I realized that I was really missing a great step in creativity by not sketching. I started up again, but this time I didn’t categorize the drawings into preconceived designs. Instead, I just drew out ideas, any idea I could think of that was interesting to me. I would draw landscapes, move things around, add objects, etc… (I started using pencil, but it smears so I changed to India ink pens.)
Before I started painting, I had my own cartoon business. I designed T-shirts, mascots and cartoon maps. I wanted to be the next Gary Larson and developed several Cartoon Strips! One of the things that I started to think about is that I never looked at anything to draw a cartoon. I just drew what the idea was and the people, animal, object came out and that was my style. It didn’t need to look like anybody else. I started to apply this thinking to painting. Starting with the sketch. Pretty soon I was really having fun with ideas and inventing compositions. This opened me up to paint more in tune with my feelings I had when I saw a scene.
What is so great about this process is that you can explore an idea and design, move elements around, resize, etc. and It only takes 10 minutes or so. So many times I have come up with a better idea on the third or fourth time I worked on a sketch.
I sketch everyday, sometimes on location when I am painting Plein Air and sometimes when I have a show coming up I will sit down and think of what would be a great idea to paint. Or if I remember a great scene I will draw out ideas of the scene from memory.
Another benefit of daily sketching, especially from memory is that I started focusing the use of on line and shape in design. These are some underlying elements that direct your eye around the painting and are so important in good compositions! They tend to get overlooked because of all the other elements like value, color, stroke, thick and thin paint that one can use to compose. It reminds me of baking a cake. Everyone want to put the icing on the cake because its fun and tastes good. But, without the foundation, the cake part, there is nothing to put the icing on! Shape and line is the foundation for the painting. A good design and the painting is a success, a poor design and no matter how nicely it is painted, it falls apart.
It is always a pleasure to look at sketchbooks and get an inner view of the artist’s thoughts. One of my favorite parts of museum shows is to see the drawings that the artist made before they painted the picture. Or, sometimes when I am stuck and can’t think of anything to paint, I can look through my own books and revisit ideas that I didn’t paint and explore them anew. My suggestion to you is get a sketch book and give it a try!
To learn more about Jim and his work, please visit his website. www.jimwodark.com