Planning with Thumbnails

Inflatable Rings
11 x 14
I've finally accepted the importance of the thumbnail in my painting process.  I fought it for years, mainly because the little charcoal drawings that I produced didn't seem to have any relationship to the world of paint and colour. So while I attempted them over the years, I never felt thumbnails to be particularly helpful to my work.

But recently I've begun to paint tiny thumbnails in black and white before launching into a full colour version, and it's been a revelation.  Thumbnails in paint correlate perfectly to the colour paintings - they already are paintings - and so they become what they should always have been: maps to the finished works.

reference photo
You can see the process that I go through in these images. Using a photo that I took at the beach last summer, I wanted to separate the girls and their inflatable rings from what was a chaotic mess of people and beach toys.  I needed to edit and organize a composition.

My first step was, in fact, to use charcoal to visualize the main movements of the painting.  The girls became swooping lines of certain heights; I figured out the shore line (which meant I knew the division of space between water and land) and I indicated the people in the water on the left.  This step took 1 minute.
placing figures with charcoal

Next, using black and white paint, I made a tiny, abstract painting that determined the values - light, mid, and dark - of those elements.  In the process, I discovered that I didn't like the shoreline, so I altered its course.
What I'm looking for at this stage is variety in the shapes, both positive and negative, and effective use of values.  So, if I'm trying to emphasize the light surface of the inflatables, I ensure that they are silhouetted against a mid or dark value which will make them visually dramatic.  If I didn't do this editing step and launched straight into the
black and white paint
painting, I would copy what I saw in the photo and end up with a light ring against light sand.  I'd lose the opportunity for drama.

When the thumbnail makes an appealing abstract composition with variety in value and shape, I can start the painting.  It's a simple matter then of making sure that the values of the colours that I mix for each area correspond to the values that I'd determined in my thumbnail; individual colours don't matter as much as their value.

Like an outline for an essay, these thumbnails direct the painting and become a more meaningful reference than the photo reference itself.  I glance at the photo for colour clues, but it's the thumbnail that tells me if the composition will work in the first place; and no amount of interesting colour or brushwork can save a painting that has a poor composition.

If you don't already do them, I recommend you give these painted thumbnails a try.  They solve a lot of problems before you ever touch colour, and liberate you to paint freely and with assurance once you do.


Cheryl Quist said…
Hi Ingrid! It sounds like you're having a very busy spring! I'm enjoying reading some of these step by steps and I'm curious how large you did the thumbnails and whether they're in oils or did you use black and white acrylic? Thanks,

Hi Cheryl,
They're tiny - 3" - I'm too lazy to go bigger. They're in oil so that it feels like my usual painting and is easily translatable into colour. I wish I'd done this a few years ago!