The Purpose of a Thumbnail Sketch and How to Easily Draw Your Own

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Thumbnail sketch on paper laying on an artist's palette with pieces of drawing charcoal scattered around

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A thumbnail sketch is a small quick drawing that can help you to plan out a, larger painting or drawing. They are especially useful for understanding the main light and dark values in your composition.

A thumbnail drawing is only about 2 – 3 inches in size, which makes it easy to be able to simplify. So that before starting to work on a larger scale piece. You can get an understanding of the big picture tonal values of the subject you are drawing.

Here’s a video guide to help demonstrate the process of creating a thumbnail drawing – then keep reading for full written tutorial with process steps and images below!

Thumbnail Sketch Reference

If you would like to follow along with the exact reference I used for the thumbnail sketch in this article. You can find that below. I did the thumbnail by creating this still life setup and observing it in real life – not the photograph. However, the image gives you a starting point to work from 🙂

How to Draw a Thumbnail Sketch

artist beginning to draw a square box with a piece of drawing charcoal
Beginning thumbnail sketches by drawing a frame helps you keep your drawing small

It is best to begin a thumbnail sketch by first drawing a square (or rectangle) that you will create your thumbnail drawing inside of. Ideally this frame should be about 2 x 2 – 3 x 3 inches. Having a border for your drawing helps create a clear composition and allows you to see where everything fits in easier.

I recommend to keep your thumbnail drawing small. This drawing is NOT meant to be a beautiful detailed drawing. Rather, the purpose of a thumbnail sketch is to help you simplify and see the big light and dark value shapes. So, it is a study that will help you later on when you work on a larger painting.

Begin Your Sketch with Clear Value Structure

artist creating a thumbnail drawing with charcoal on white drawing paper
Begin your sketch where strongest dark and light values intersect – will help you to create a strong sense of light in your thumbnail drawing from the start!

Your thumbnail drawing should take you about 5 – 10 minutes. So, don’t overthink where and how to start your drawing! As already mentioned it isn’t meant to be a polished beautiful drawing.

That said, I personally find it helpful to start by drawing a dark area that is next to a lighter area as shown in the image above. Here I am drawing the dark background area that also marks out the silhouette of the light vase. So, now I have two values – a light and a dark value.

artist drawing with charcoal for value sketch
You can see how the drawing starts to take shape by using strong tonal values

Creating Shadow Areas

A hand drawing shadow areas in a vale drawing study
Creating shadows in thumbnail sketches are so key to adding dimension

In my still life you can see that the right side of the jug is in shadow – but it is not as dark as the background. To designate this shadow area I simply soften the edge between the jug and the background using my finger as seen in the image below.

example of start to a thumbnail sketch and it's purpose
By smudging using my finger, I was able to create a really soft edge on right side of the vase

At the moment there are now three values in this drawing – a light, dark and now a medium value. With the medium value acting as the shadow area on the side of the jug.

Continue to Simplify

thumbnail sketch definition is a small quick drawing to represent a subject
The definition of a thumbnail sketch can be thought of as a brief description, which is helpful to think of as you continue to work through your drawing by simplifying.

Always remember to keep your thumbnail drawing as simple as possible. In this next stage I find more of the darker value areas and draw out the shadow shapes. Even though some of the darker shadow areas are slightly lighter than some of the other dark areas. I still make them the same level of ‘dark’.

I am not trying to draw every single shade of value I see because I am simplifying. The purpose of a thumbnail sketch is to group together values. So to be able to see the big picture and not get distracted by subtle value changes.

Try not to be too concerned about having it look like anything. If it helps, tell yourself that you won’t show your drawing to anyone! This frees you up to really be able to study your subject and get the most out of this exercise 🙂

Block in the Rest of Thumbnail Sketch

sketch of a vase demonstrating what the purpose of thumbnail sketches are
Continue to shade and work through the values of your thumbnail sketch

In this next stage of the thumbnail sketch I block in the rest of the values. I do this by shading in the medium value area, so that the white of the page is covered. I use my finger to smudge the area so that the charcoal is distributed more or less evenly. Don’t worry if you make an area lighter in value that it needs to be. You can adjust that in the next step.

Finishing up the Thumbnail Drawing

hand holding drawing charcoal thumbnail sketching
Mark out the general details of your thumb sketch you want to capture, remembering don’t need to go to great into detail – especially if is a value study drawing for a larger piece.

Now we are in the final stage of the thumbnail drawing. There is just a little bit left to do before calling it done! I darken the areas that became too light in value in the previous step. So, I create dark shadow shapes in the fabric portion of the still life. However, I still keep the thumbnail drawing very simplified and create clear simple light and dark values.

Completed thumbnail sketch drawing study of a vase
Once you have your thumbnail sketch completed you will have a great study to work off of if you want to pursue creating a larger work of it. Or perhaps after the study sketch you decide to move on to another piece and keep this thumbnail sketch idea for later…

Now it is Your Turn…!

Doing a small thumbnail sketch is an excellent way to understand your subject before starting a painting. It allows you to figure out the main light and dark values before working in color. Light and dark values are much easier to figure out first in black and white before color!

When you first start a painting after completing a thumbnail drawing. You will already have a clear idea of the main values. This way, you will be set up to create a realistic sense of light in your painting from the start!

Want to remember this? Save How to Draw a Thumbnail Sketch to your favorite Pinterest board!


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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    4 thoughts on “The Purpose of a Thumbnail Sketch and How to Easily Draw Your Own”

    1. inger karin sivertsen

      Selv om jeg har malt mye i mitt 83 årige liv. Har bare malt det jeg så. Her er det mye å ta tak i. Og jeg leser og forstår betydningen av det du skriver. Dette er med å beriker mitt liv. Vi blir aldri for gamle så lenge vi er friske.Tusen takk for berikende lesestoff som jeg også vil ta med i malingen.

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