What is a Thumbnail Drawing?

Today, most people hear the word "thumbnail" and think of those tiny images on the internet, which usually link to a website or larger version of the image. However, thumbnails can also be used as a creative technique for illustrators, designers, and other artists, helping them to determine the key elements of a composition. Below, we've shared a practical guide to thumbnails, how to draw them effectively, and why they're so advantageous for visual artists. 

What is a thumbnail drawing? 

Think of thumbnails like a visual shorthand for artists, which are used as a reference point for the actual work. Only the essentials are captured in a thumbnail, so that artists know where certain objects should roughly be placed within the larger frame. This allows illustrators and designers to determine the overall layout before working on the visual details. Thumbnails don't need to be meticulous, since they only exist for the artist's benefit, and it's perfectly fine if they're only a couple inches high. 


How are drawings more useful than photographs?

Using a photo as a reference can be helpful in the later stages of a composition, especially if you want to use accurate colors and textures. However, thumbnail drawings and photographs serve completely different purposes. A thumbnail is all about simplicity, reducing an image to its bare essentials. Instead of overwhelming the artist with details, a thumbnail serves as a powerful tool for planning the broad strokes of a creative work.   

What's the best method for drawing a thumbnail?

  1. Draw a plain box with the same proportions as your actual canvas. Then, picture your subject as a collection of simple shapes and lines. No details, just a rough sketch.
  2. You'll want to draw the largest elements first, such as the horizon line and foreground shapes. Then, sketch any other objects that you essential to the piece. Dark and shadowed shapes should be filled in with a light hatching.   
  3. Ultimately, your thumbnail should capture any feelings you hope to convey with your finished work, but eschew the less important details. It's worth trying a few different iterations of a thumbnail before you start the actual piece.

Is sketching a thumbnail really necessary? 

Absolutely, and especially if you're a beginner! Thumbnail drawings will save you time usually spent changing the placement of objects in your illustrations, which can be frustrating if you've already put in a lot of work. Overall, your finished composition will be stronger and more thoughtful if you plot out those main elements at the very beginning. They're also a great memory tool, if you're walking around the city and see a particularly inspiring scene, but can't capture it with a camera. 

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