Planning a Painting: Drawing Thumbnails

Thumbnails for February 2019 Ram Sheep painting project

A quick and easy way to plan a composition is to draw a thumbnail of your idea. By thumbnail I mean a small drawing, simplified to the main shapes and elements that you’re thinking of including in the painting. I tend to draw thumbnails in pencil or pen, using line, as it’s fast and I don’t have to wait for anything to dry. You might prefer do it with shapes of tone, or using paint or ink. It’s a personal preference.

In the video below (link) I’ve done three thumbnails, one each as portrait, landscape, and square format, to give you an idea of how I’d draw a thumbnail. I’m certainly not going to win any prizes for the drawings, but for me it’s about thinking of the position of the face and ears in the overall composition, how much space there is around them. Studio cat Misty is helping.

For me there are three rules:
1. Work fast, don’t overthink it and don’t obsess about neatness.
2. Do more than you think are enough. I sometimes draw a page’s worth of rectangles in various formats (landscape, portrait, square), then challenge myself to fill them all. It’s surprising what can emerge if you keep going, and the ones you don’t use immediately can provide ideas for paintings at a later date or for a series. Often I do use my first idea, but by testing it against others I know that it’s a choice made from preference not from a lack of ideas.
3. If you don’t do thumbnails, be prepared to rework your composition as you’re painting, possibly multiple times.

Here are some other examples of thumbnails from my sketchbook:

Drawing ≠ Representation

Art Workshop Isle of Skye

A drawing that looks like the subject we’re drawing is but one type of drawing, albeit what most people think of when it comes to drawing. (That “oh, wow, it looks like a photo” definition of what constitutes “good drawing”, usually followed by a “I could never in a million years do that” which reinforces the myth that drawing isn’t something all adults can do.)

There are other styles of drawing, and other reasons to draw. There’s much to be explored and enjoyed once we put “it must look real” aside as our primary aspiration. It’s “I was walking by myself and saw a long line of daffodils along a bay” vs how Wordsworth put it: “I wandered lonely as a cloud … When all at once I saw a crowd, /A host, of golden daffodils … /They stretched in never-ending line /Along the margin of a bay”.

Drawing to fill the time, to encourage patience. Doodling.

Drawing to explore a new material. Focusing on what the new pencil/pastel/pen/colour does rather than making a finished piece..

Drawing to capture personality. Portraiture beyond mere likeness.

Drawing to convey emotion. Expressive mark making.

Drawing without looking at the paper whilst you’re doing it. Blind contour drawing. Drawings about looking, about seeing. not representation or realism. It’s impossible to draw something perfectly this way, and that’s at the heart of it. Impossible to do it right and also impossible to do it wrong. You have to abandon control, hope of perfection in the overall drawing before you’ve even started, yet at the end, within the chaos there are tiny bits of magic.

Drawing without lifting up. Continuous line. Drawing whilst looking at the subject more than the sheet of paper. Drawing a line tracking what your eyes are looking at, without lifting up your pencil/pen to move from one part to another. We don’t close our eyes when looking from one thing to the next, we just don’t bother to register what’s inbetween even though our eyes do cross over it.

Drawing Portree Harbour with Continuous Line
Rocky Shore Continuous Line Drawing (with video)

Monday Motivator: Line Speaks to the Mind

Monday motivator art quotes

“Tone speaks directly to the emotions. Line speaks to the mind. Or, rather, it speaks to the emotions through the mind by distilling the idea of the thing.

“Lacking the mimetic immediacy of tone, which is a closer approximation of the actual way that we perceive the world,  the abstractness of a line drawing can never look like its subject in any literal sense. It can only look like itself, however much it may remind us of things seen.”
— Frank Hobbs, Line Drawings

A line is the simplest of marks, one we know so well yet never in all its possibilities.

In a line drawing, aim for the lines to be having a ceilidh not a committee meeting.

Scratching an Inky Itch

Black ink and a big coarse brush

It started with something familiar, using Payne’s grey acrylic ink to do the line drawing that’s the basis of the composition. My next step usually would be to spray the ink and let it run, or to wet a brush and turn the still-wet ink into wash, or to leave the line to dry entirely (the latter being the least-chosen option). But this time, as I picked up the brush to dip it into some water, I found myself looking at the dry, scratchy hairs and wondering what result I’d get if I drybrushed the still-wet areas of ink. Only one way to find out, of course, and that’s to give into the impulse and see what happens.

Black ink and a big coarse brush
I did wipe the brush a few times to ensure it stayed “drybrush”, but most of the ink had dried already.

This is what the ink lines looked like before I starting drybrushing them; that awkward vertical in the middle is supposed to be a single-track roadsign:

Black ink line drawing for composition

After I’d drybrushed, I dipped the brush into water (the tip, I didn’t want to wash out the ink in the brush) and added some light-grey watery wash.

Black ink line drawing with wash for composition

It’s the beginning of my first attempt using the reference photo I’ve selected for next month’s painting project. So far so good.

I’ll end with the redaction poem I did as the morning’s warm-up exercise:

This is interesting for many reasons.
I feel that not too much has changed.
The time had come.
We shall not fail.
Fear. Flinch.
So be it then.
A sleepless night.

Redaction Blackout Poem
Looking at this now, I’m wanting to take out the words “not too”, making that line “I feel that much has changed”.

A Diversion into Redaction Poetry Following an Incident with Coffee

Found Blackout Redacted Poem

I’ve been pondering what I’ll create for the “Words” exhibition opening at Skyeworks Gallery in April, aware of time ticking away without my starting anything. My mind has kept circling back to found poetry along the lines of Tom Phillips’ Humument. (I fell in love with Phillips’ word-based artwork on encountering it by chance at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In 1989, I just looked it up).

A few days ago when the in-house art critic accidentally drowned a book with a cup of coffee, I thought “aha, words exhibition”, and thus it entered my studio to begin a new life as “collage material”. Add a felt-tip pen, and I ended up creating some redaction poems (also known as found poetry, blackout poetry). Turns out the book was indeed as interesting as the in-house art critic had said.

Found Blackout Redacted Poem
Found Blackout Redacted Poem
Found Blackout Redacted Poem
Found Blackout Redacted Poem
Found Blackout Redacted Poem
Found Blackout Redacted Poem

The writer-artist Austin Kleon, who does a lot of blackout poetry, describes it thus: “It’s sort of like if the CIA did haiku.” His video on the history of this borrowing and reworking is worth a watch.

I prefer the term “redaction” to “blackout”, because redacting a document is something deliberate and active, while a blackout is more something that happens to you. And redacted documents do carry that sinister edge of “what is it they don’t want you to see”, along with the changing of meaning by hiding things. Also, you needn’t use black.

Found Blackout Redacted Poem
(The black-and-white version of this above was photo-edited.)

If you’re wondering what the book was, it’s James the Good: The Black Douglas by David R Ross (affiliate link).

I did also make a start on a piece that could possibly be for the exhibition, but it’s early days:

Continuous Line Drawing (with video)

COntinuous line ink drawing Marion Boddy-Evans with wash

Continous line is as it sounds, drawing a line without stopping. I think of it as a line tracking what my eyes are looking at, done at the speed I am looking.

You don’t close your eyes when you look from one part of a subject to another. So if you’re creating a drawing that’s foremost about looking rather than representation, then the line should be continous, not broken (though it could get lighter).

If you’re using pencil, where you don’t have to stop for a while before you “run out” (i.e. need to sharpen it), things can get really interesting as you loose where you are on the sheet of paper (and you didn’t stop to reorientate yourself). By interesting I mean abstracted and distorted. It’s worth doing a few times, giving yourself a taste of the freedom that comes when you’re concentrating on looking, not on the results nor perspective nor representation.

I had a search through my photos but can’t find an example from my own drawings, which doesn’t really surprise me as I don’t often do it with pencil except in a life-drawing session. Have a search online for “blind continuous line”, but be sceptical about all the ones that look like perfect contour drawings.

What I like doing most is continuous line with quick checks keep the drawing achored in reality, regardless of what medium I’m using. An ink bottle pipette lends itself to this as the ink runs out regularly. When I stop to dip the pipette back in the bottle, I look down at my drawing, then back at what I’m drawing, decide where I’m going to look/draw next, position the pipette at a suitable point, then draw again. As I’m drawing I occasionally glance down, to check what I’ve done and where I am and whether I’ve run out of ink, but mostly as looking at what I’m drawing.

This video shows what I mean. I’m look at the outlines and cracks in a slab of rock on the shore at Camus Mor, north Skye (see this blog post and this one for more photos, from the day before I took this video):

If you don’t see the video above, you’ll find it here:

I do it with both my left and my right hand, especially working in the A3 landscape sketchbook I’ve been using the past few weeks.

COntinuous line ink drawing Marion Boddy-Evans

This is what it looked like when I’d finished the line drawing, with a section of rocks I was looking at behind it.

COntinuous line ink drawing Marion Boddy-Evans

This time, after I’d done the ink line drawing, I then used a small, flat brush and water to turn some of the still-wet line into ink wash. Plus some paper towel to lift off excess ink and create pattern.

COntinuous line ink drawing Marion Boddy-Evans with wash

There’s a risk to doing this, a risk of messing up a drawing I was pleased with, not least because how much of the ink is still wet is an unknown factor. On a cold winter’s day I know it’ll be more rather than less, though the wind does still dry thinner lines quite fast. It would be more sensible to let the acrylic ink line dry completely and then add a layer of watercolour, which could be lifted and changed without moving the dry ink. But I spend too much time being sensible, logical, responsible, practical (cue: Supertramp’s Logical Song).

Between a Rock and Hard Place (aka Being in the Zone)

ink sketching rocks on Skye

That moment when everything flows, everything works, it feels effortless and the results, when you stop, surprise you. That Zone of Creativity, ever-elusive, ever-desirable.

I don’t have a fool-proof recipe for how to get “in the zone”. I do, however, know how to guarantee that I won’t, and that’s by desperately wanting to and trying too hard. The harder I try, the more I second-guess what I’m doing, and things go from bad to worse to dire.

It’s only by thinking less about the overall outcome, by worrying less about whether something is right or wrong, by allowing myself to trust that I’ll be able to fix mistakes as they happen and work through and over them, by not stressing about ‘wasting’ materials and time if I don’t because I can start again, make another attempt, that I begin to create the conditions for being in the zone. (And, yes, that is a ridiculously long sentence; welcome to the inside of my head.)

sketching rocks on Skye

A pristine new page in a sketchbook holds so many hopes and possibilities. The moment you make the first mark, you’ve narrowed those. But if it becomes dissatisfactory, you simply turn the page and start again.

ink sketching rocks on Skye

With the ink drawing I did this time, it flowed right from the start. It felt effortless doing it; I was delighted with the result. But it wasn’t the first sketch of the day, it was the second. And the day before I’d also been sketching at this location (see photos). I swapped from pencil to ink, I narrowed my focus to a specific element that fits with line, and I’d just munched some ginger biscuits with a warming cup of peppermint tea. Which of these was the magic ingredient? All and none.

ink sketching rocks on Skye

My intention was to capture a sense of the rock, the solid slab and the vertical cracks. I started on the left, and did it by looking at a specific point, drawing until the ink ran out, then dipped the pippette back in the bottle, focused on a new bit of rock and drew again. I didn’t worry about exactly where I stopped and starting, I wasn’t trying to get an exact representation of the rock, so it didn’t matter if I skipped a bit or made them the wrong size or shape. Ultimately the drawing stands alone, not in comparison with its source.

ink sketching rocks on Skye

I was thrilled with it. Now the question becomes: what will happen the next time I try to draw on this location? To Infinity and Beyond!

Drawing (Neist Point) with One Ink Colour

Is it a drawing, is it a painting? Did it start as a drawing and become a painting when I added water to the ink? I don’t know, and don’t believe it matters. What’s of more interest to me was that this afternoon, after days of exploring new watercolour colours, I felt like using “black” ink only. Maybe it was a side effect of a grey-skies day.

It’s not black though, it’s Payne’s grey*, a dark blue-grey that I find has got more rich depth than straight black.

The subject is Neist Point, the westerly most point of Skye, punctuated with a lighthouse. I was working from memory with one of my reference photos (in the booklet of photos I use for my workshops) to hand to remind me of shapes. I’m using acrylic ink, and the dropper as a drawing tool.

You can’t easily make it out in the photo but there are some composition lines I drew using a non-photo blue pencil before picking up the ink. It meant I could concentrate on getting the ink drawing done fast enough that some would still be wet enough to spread into the sea area when I dampened this. (If I were to do composition and ink simultaneously, it would split my attention and lengthen the drawing time.)

Line only at this stage, on dry paper (350gsm Not watercolour paper).

And here’s where I got so caught up in what I was doing that I forgot to take photos. So between the previous photo and the next the caption reads “Draw the rest of the #@&%! owl”**

Once I’d worked my way down to the foreground (it’s a cliff edge from which you can see the lighthouse), I made my way back across the drawing with line a little. Then I wet the sea area with clean water, taking care not to touch any of the ink yet.

I needed the sea area to all be damp so I wouldn’t get any hard dry edges (except on the horizon) when I started spreading the ink into the sea. I then carefully ran a damp brush along the edge of the ink line to connect it to the damp paper. Areas of still-wet ink spread out, and I brushed it outwards too.

Where there wasn’t enough ink, I used the brush to ‘borrow’ some from other areas. Where there was too much, I dabbed at it with paper towel. Brush wiped and dunked in clean water periodically too. At full strength this ink colour is very dark; thinned it’s a beautiful blue-grey.

I could add colour, such as the greens of the grass, but I won’t. That’s a different painting.


*Payne’s Grey is named after a British watercolourist and art lecturer, William Payne (1760–1830), who recommended the mixture to students as a more subtle alternative to a gray mixed from black and white. Payne’s grey originally was “a mixture of lake, raw sienna and indigo” according to “Artist’s Pigments: c.1600-1835” (by RD Harley, Archetype Publications, 2001, page 163). What’s in it these days varies between manufacturers, typically a blue and a black together, sometimes a touch of red is added.

**A meme from a few years ago on how to draw an owl in two steps, the first being two circles and the second a detailed owl drawing.

Eye Candy for Artists: Acrylic Inks

Acrylic Ink Droppers

Specially for you-know-who-you-are doing the you-know-where art project using you-know-what, here are some photos of the acrylic inks I’ve been using the last wee while.

Acrylic Ink Droppers
From left to right: Pebeo, Liquitex, Amsterdam, FW, Schmincke acrylic ink. I feel there’s little to distinguish various brands of acrylic ink in terms of quality, but there is in terms of dropper shape. My favourite is the pointy version of FW, which is great for drawing with directly. One thing that does puzzle me is why the Pebeo gold ink is scented.

Acrylic Ink Brands

Acrylic inks

Are You Creating Worried Lines?

Lines Shore Black and Orange Ink Drawing

A worried line is a line that’s created by drawing lots of short back-and-forth sections to make a line because you’re too hesitant and worried to draw the line along its entire length in one go. A hedge-your-bets line. An “if I get this little bit right then I might get the next little bit right too and maybe then it’ll all be right” line. You worry the whole way through its creation, worrying it into existence.

It feels reassuring, but it’s counter-productive. Hesitation isn’t your drawing friend; willingness to risk not getting it right but doing it anyway is.

It’s a form of assessing and editing what we’ve done before we’ve even finished it. It’s a step in relearning as an adult the unquestioning confidence we had in our lines as a child. The sooner you can get through this step the better, but at the same time don’t beat yourself up about it.

Talking to another artist about this yesterday, she mentioned how one of her college art tutors had said something about the quality of lines that had stuck with her but only truly made sense later on. How a line must reflect what it contains. How a line drawn in a circle to represent an orange needs to hold all of the inside of the orange. How an outline for an apple will be different.

So the idiom about apples and oranges applies to lines too.

Worry (think) about the differences, but before and after, not while you’re putting pencil on paper to create the line. Worry a line only after it exists.

Lines Shore Black and Orange Ink Drawing