Techniques and Tips

Thumbnails—Your Ticket to Better Compositions

Thumbnails—Your Ticket to Better Compositions


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Just like a house needs a solid foundation for support, so too does a successful painting. One of the best ways of insuring this is to focus on composition and design elements prior to applying pastel to the surface.

As painters, we are often reminded that the ability to draw is essential to a successful painting. It encompasses the arrangement of simplified shapes, angles of visual direction, value masses, and color choices throughout the framework of the painting. Just like an author arranges words and the musician arranges sound, the painter arranges visual elements to communicate intent and reinforce their concept.

One of the best means of exploring these possibilities is to do a series of thumbnail sketches prior to painting (see above an assortment of some of my thumbnails). As the name implies, these sketches are meant to be small. Working large encourages detail—the nemesis of composition. Details tell us about things; thumbnail sketches tell us about relationships. If you are accustomed to sketching detailed renderings of scenes, this can be an awkward exercise. Give yourself permission to be messy, even crude, with these sketches. Keep them simple. Break elements of the scene into no more than 4 or 5 major shapes. Analyze the directional thrust of the shapes. Associate reflective light (value) to the shapes. Scrutinize these thumbnail sketches and make adjustments. Leave out, add, move, and alter elements to strengthen your concept—the idea you wish to communicate about the scene. Rely on these sketches to set the foundation of the painting.

Many hours of frustration may be avoided by orchestrating these compositional elements before committing time and energy to the process of painting. As the painting progresses and details are added, they provide a reminder of what was really important and help to keep you on track as you become enamored with incidentals. They become the blueprints of the structure. Remember, all the pretty pastel in the world will not support a weak design.

For a broad selection of opinions on design and composition, investigate Margot Schulzke’s book, A Painters Guide to Design and Composition, published by North Light Books.


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