Why creating thumbnail sketches will improve your drawings

One day I was scrolling through Disney character sketches on Pinterest that gave me an ‘I wish I could draw this!’ feeling I simply couldn’t ignore.

Most of the images were small collections of little pencil drawings, so-called ‘thumbnail drawings’ or ‘thumbnail sketches’. They didn’t even have any colors yet, but they had the most beautiful aesthetic. (I think this aesthetic is why I love art books with concept art sketches so much!)

I didn’t see any reason at the time why I couldn’t ‘reproduce’ such thumbnail drawings if I just tried hard enough. And thus began my first attempt at creating rough and simple character sketches like the ones on Pinterest. A few lines and scribbles, and.. voilà!

I was happy with how my ‘sketchy’ drawings of Thumper (from Disney’s Bambi) turned out. But I also realized soon enough that these weren’t actual thumbnail drawings. 

Not because they looked very different from others’ thumbnails, but because my drawing process was not a process of thumbnail sketching

Not at all.. 

This led me to wonder what exactly thumbnail sketching is and why my well-intended attempt was not entirely successful (even though the results could easily be mistaken for actual thumbnail drawings). 

What is thumbnail sketching? 

The word thumbnail refers to the nail of our thumb. The term is also widely used as an indicator of size to denote ‘something about as small as a thumbnail’. 

Nowadays thumbnails are commonly associated with miniatures of digital images

This interpretation also applies to thumbnail sketching (or thumbnail drawing), where thumbnailing is a creative technique used by visual artists

Thumbnail sketches are small preparatory sketches (= rough drawings) that are meant to explore different ideas on how to approach your artwork. 

Only the essentials are included in thumbnail sketches. This allows you to quickly sketch ideas without having to spend too much time working out all the details. 

Thumbnail sketching tip: Thumbnailing is about getting many ideas on paper (or screen) in a short amount of time. Be careful not to spend too much time thumbnailing. Thumbnails by no means need to be perfect and they do not require the same amount of detail as a finished artwork. 

Thumbnails are typically drawn as a group of little sketches and are useful to create an outline of the artwork in the making. 

Just as a writer creates an outline before writing a story, thumbnailing is a tool you can use to create an ‘outline’ for your creative work

You can add notes to your sketches to remember the key take-aways of every thumbnail study. 

Although sketching is often specifically associated with ‘drawing’, thumbnail sketching can be done before any type of artistic project. It doesn’t matter whether it is a drawing, a painting, an illustration, or anything else. 

Likewise, thumbnails can be created in any artistic form. They can be traditional or digital sketches, paintings, illustrations, etcetera. 

The general idea is that thumbnail sketches ultimately serve as a tool to help you prepare for your artwork. So, you should never feel obliged to only use pencil or charcoal sketches as thumbnails. 

Choose the method and material that helps you learn and prepare best.

Thumbnail sketching tip: Remember that thumbnailing is a tool to improve your artwork. Experiment with different options and take risks by venturing beyond your ‘creative comfort zone’. Try out different materials, colors, compositions, lighting, etcetera. 

A few examples of how thumbnail sketching can be applied are:

  • Character design. In character art, thumbnails can be helpful to explore elements such as physical features, expressions, gestures, clothing, and accessories. 
  • Background/environment design. In background and environment art, thumbnailing can be used to test different colors, values, lighting, compositions, etcetera.
  • Storyboards. Perhaps storyboards are in themselves also a form of thumbnail sketching as they consist of thumbnails that portray how the story develops frame-by-frame. Thumbnail sketching can still be applied as a preliminary step of the storyboarding process to determine how each frame works best. 
  • Record ideas. Inspirations and ideas can present themselves at any given time. By keeping a small sketchbook with you, you can quickly sketch them out wherever you are.

Benefits of thumbnail sketching

Just in case you’re still wondering if thumbnailing is really that helpful.., here is a list of reasons why you should consider giving it a try:

  • Thumbnailing helps you to brainstorm ideas. It is a good practice to get ideas out of your head and put them on paper. The problem with having all kinds of ideas in your head is that you often have no way of knowing exactly what your ideas are. This is where thumbnail sketches help you to bring ideas to life in a sketchbook. Also, seeing existing ideas on paper can help you come up with even more ideas.

Thumbnail sketching tip: Use reference photos as a source of inspiration for your brainstorming phase. Try to start thumbnailing the ideas that you already have and look for additional inspiration in photos and artwork. The key is to not simply copy your reference (as was my mistake in the thumbnails of Thumper), but use different references to create your own unique work.

  • Thumbnailing helps to refine your ideas. Once your initial ideas are on paper you can start to refine them. Thumbnail sketching visualizes your art development process and helps you to determine what works best.
  • Thumbnailing saves you time. If there are any mistakes in your work, thumbnails will help you correct them early on in your working process. This way you will not have to correct as many mistakes in your final artwork. 
  • Thumbnailing helps you create better art. Diligent preparation is important to create visually interesting artwork. Thumbnail sketches allow you to carefully think about different elements of your work. Instead of leaving the outcome to coincidence or luck, you have actively tried and tested different approaches and found what works best. 
  • Thumbnailing can be a useful ‘warm-up’ exercise. Animation artists, for instance, will typically spend a few minutes at the beginning of every drawing session drawing little thumbnails of characters with different expressions and gestures.

Thumbnail sketching tip: You can use thumbnailing as a warm-up exercise. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of every drawing session drawing little thumbnails of what you are working on to improve (e.g. characters, objects, gestures, expressions). 

Conclusion

Thumbnail sketching is a creative research tool that allows you to sketch freely without worrying too much about details and precision. And, without immediately having to commit to creating a full-scale artwork.

By means of small thumbnail sketches you can test your ideas and experiment with different colors, compositions, lighting and so on. This helps you brainstorm and refine your initial ideas.

I have also seen artists using thumbnail drawing as the preliminary step of a three-step drawing process. After drawing multiple quick thumbnail sketches, artists may move on to creating more refined sketches of the subject of their drawing. Then the linework of the sketch gets cleaned up and colors are added in. 

Different artists can have different thumbnailing habits. Try to study their different approaches and then come up with a thumbnailing routine that works best for you. 

This way you will genuinely make your thumbnails meaningful to you and your work.