Thumbnail Sketch

This lesson on the thumbnail sketch is similar to the point to point method; the main thing is to be able to see your subject in simple two-dimensional shapes, only this time in the context of the total picture.

The first step is to decide the limits of your drawing; in this sense, we are doing the exact opposite of the previous lesson. Instead of starting from a part and building outward, we are starting with the total and then detailing the parts.

There are many ways to establish the beginning context for your drawing, to set the outside limits or framework that you are going to be working within.

Thumbnail Sketch 1
Thumbnail Sketch 1

Two right angle paper corners with a paper clip holding them together is a simple method. A small clear plastic rectangle also works well; likewise, putting up your hands with thumbs extended creates a frame. With practice you learn to establish your picture limits easily without any external guides.

Doing a series of simple “thumbnail sketches” to try out your ideas gives you the opportunity to see what your sketch will look like before committing a lot of effort. The thumbnail sketch also brings into play the idea of “drawing-as-thinking”, meaning you make choices and selections, and do not just copy an arbitrary view.

Start by making a frame as described above to view your subject with. The proportions, of course, can be any you wish to make. Now, in looking at your subject, select two or three simplified major lines in your subject. Ignore any detail and, as in the lesson on point-to-point, pay particular attention to the basic angles and lengths of these elements.

Look at the examples and notice that you can get a general sense of what the picture will look like, yet there is no detail. These thumbnail sketches can be done in any medium, from a carpenter’s pencil to paint.

Thumbnail Sketch 2
Thumbnail Sketch 2

In the drawings on the left you will notice simple diagrams that I did trying to think out the formal elements of the composition, primarily dealing with visual balance.

Take Notes
Sometimes to aid the memory, it is useful to write information about the colors, textures and materials that you see. This page is a general visual exploration of a location, which includes drawings of detail, compositional possibilities, and notations. These notes and thumbnail drawings were used while painting in the studio months later. The camera also becomes a great aid in recording detail, yet, drawing from the subject itself is still the best way to get the sense of what you are looking at.

By Glenn Vilppu

This article first appeared in Animation World Magazine August 1, 2000. This was taken from the second in a series of articles about sketching on location. The articles are based on my Sketching on Location Manual. The manual was developed as a series of lessons that I use on my guided sketching tours of Europe, and that I use as material in my regular drawing classes. As such the lessons can be part of a regular course or can be used by individual students as a practical learning guide. If you have not seen the previous lesson starting in the June 2000 issue of Animation World Magazine, it is recommended that you do. The lessons are progressive and expand on basic ideas. It is suggested that you start from the beginning for a better understanding of my approach. If you really want to begin at the beginning start with the lessons based on the Vilppu Drawing Manual.

Glenn Vilppu teaches life drawing at the American Animation Institute, the Masters program of the UCLA Animation Dept., Walt Disney Feature Animation, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Dreamworks and Rhythm & Hues Studios. Vilppu has also worked in the Animation industry for 18 years as a layout, storyboard and presentation artist, most of this time was spent working at Disney. His drawing manual and video tapes are being used worldwide as course materials for animation students. Glenn Vilppu has, in effect, either through teaching them directly or teaching their teachers, trained an entire generation of professional animators.

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