Thumbnail drawings. That’s my subject for today. Thumbnails are the small drawings an artist makes in order to get ideas down on paper. I guess they’re called thumbnail drawings because of their small size. They’re small like the fingernail on your thumb. They’re not alway literally that small but sometimes they are. They sound easy to do in concept but in reality they’re harder to do than you think. That’s also possibly because no one in art school really teaches you how to do them. You’re just shown some thumbnails and then told to do some of your own.

Unless you have to show them to a client thumbnails are mostly for the artists themselves. If you have to show them to a client then odds are they won’t really be thumbnails. You’d have to develop them more so a client could easily understand them. You might still call them thumbnails but they’d be more like layout sketches. Layout sketches happen when you’ve nailed down the idea and now are sketching it out. Thumbnail sketches happen before you’re nailed down the idea.

I’ve seen thumbnail sketches that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. This is okay as long as the artist who drew them could. It’s okay for the thumbnails to be bad drawings that look awful as long as the artist who made them understands the idea they represent. That’s not always easy when you’re young and just starting out. I was terrible at thumbnails for a long time. Years and years. I didn’t know how to get that basic information on the page.

One of the reasons I was so bad at thumbnails is that I was trying to make them nice drawings. There I was with barely an idea, a two inch tall drawing, a pencil, and an eraser and I was trying to make a masterpiece. Since it was a drawing and I was spending a lot of time learning to draw I treated the thumbnail like any other drawing. I’d come up with an idea and spend half an hour trying to make the thumbnail of that idea look good and end up frustrated that I couldn’t make it look good. But then wasn’t not the time for making it look good. I should have spent that half an hour coming up with six ideas.

It turns out that my enemy durning the thumbnail process was my eraser. I was drawing in pencil and every time there was some part of the drawing I didn’t like I’d erase it and try again. The idea was already down on paper but I was insisting the idea was also a good tiny drawing. I’d spend more time trying to make that tiny drawing look good than on the idea. Not a good balance of time when the idea is to come up with ideas.

The key for me learning how to do thumbnails was to put away the pencil and take out a pen. When I switched over to drawing my thumbnails in ink it removed the eraser from the equation. Not being able to go backwards with a drawing took getting used to but eventually it was okay. With a pen I’d start to get an idea down on paper and if the drawing went bad it usually went bad quickly and I’d start a new one. These are little drawings, a few inches by a few inches, so staring over is no big deal. Especially since I only spent a few minutes on it to begin with. No half an hour thumbnails to frustrate me.

I also had to learn to draw using simple shapes. This circle here is a head, this triangle here is a body, and this square is a wall. There is no need to try and capture the complexity of the human form at this stage. That’s for later. The drawing also doesn’t have to impress anybody. It takes a while to be able to learn that. It’s common for young artists to apologize for their thumbnails. I can see why. They don’t want to be judged by them. I didn’t want to be judged by the bad drawing in my thumbnails. I learned not to care because thumbnails aren’t about the drawing. But young me didn’t know that.

Learning how to do thumbnails eventually lead me to making my Inkbook drawings. I fill up a hundred page 5.5×8.5 inch sketchbook a year with my ink drawings. I draw six to nine thumbnail drawings a page in it. That is a lot of little drawings. I’ve been doing that for 22 years. Anytime I’m in need of an idea I can pull one of those sketchbooks off the shelf and look through it for something I can turn into a big drawing. It’s a system that works well for me. It was all because I learned to quickly get ideas down in ink.

When I make those little thumbnail drawings in my inkbook I’m working from nothing. I’m coming up with visual ideas that can be turned into anything but unlike a regular thumbnail I have no assignment to begin with. I just jam out visuals with no preconceived notions. I like doing that. Often when I get a notion I can find something that fits it in one of my inkbooks.

Last week I mentioned that I started doing some illustrations based on the novel the Great Gatsby. I’ve had to come up with ideas based on the book and that’s a whole new thing for me. I had to do thumbnails differently than in my inkbook. I decided not to do them in ink but I also didn’t want to do them in pencil either. So I decided to do them with a 6B Wolff’s carbon pencil. It’s still a pencil but it is so dark that erasing it is a fool’s errand. Even though it’s a pencil it takes the eraser out of the equation.

I even got a new sketchbook for my Gatsby project. It’s 5×7 inches and I can fit four thumbnails on a page. With the carbon pencil I can draw light lines and then darken them as I work on the idea. It’s been working for me. At least half the thumbnails are terrible but that’s okay. With thumbnails anything over .250 is a pretty good batting average.