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:

Video Demo: Painting a Pebble

Before you watch this, let me point out that the ‘action’ is speeded up five times actual speed and has the bits where nothing was happening edited out, which is a roundabout way of saying: I don’t paint this fast in real life and I don’t think you’d be interested in watching paint dry.

If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.

I painted this after I’d painted “Nine Pebbles” so I already knew exactly what I was going to use and a strong sense of where I wanted to go with it.

SOLD Nine Pebbles, 30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel

See Also: Pebbles Project Photo Gallery

Shorelines: Seaweed (Video Painting Demo)

This video painting demo could be titled “And Then I Changed My Mind” because, as you’ll see, I keep lifting off the paint I’ve just put down as I decide it’s not working. There isn’t a soundtrack on this video because it’d simply be me repeatedly saying “and then I reached for some paper towel to lift that off “.

An alternative title could be “Making It Up As I Go Along”. It’s an example of what happens when I have an idea in my head and attempt to translate it into paint without a clear idea of how I’m going to get there or having already made an attempt at it, but I know I’ll recognise it when I see it.

I was using acrylic ink and tube paint on an A4 wood panel that’s been primed with clear gesso. I knew I wanted to start with Payne’s grey to give a dark layer, and the colours I would use that would give me “seaweed colours”, but beyond that my plan was simply “layers of colours”. These were Payne’s grey, white (Schmincke’s opaque white ink), yellow (swapping from ink to cadmium yellow paint when I wanted it more opaque), orange (PO71 which is transparent), magenta, and dioxaxine purple (which is becoming a new favourite colour).

One of the decisions I was making all the way through was transparent or opaque colours, though I’d be hard pushed to explain my thinking once I’m beyond the initial steps other because I was following impulses based on the colours to hand and the results so far, rather than it being clearly thought out.

If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.

UltimatelyI got the painting to a point where it started coming together for me, though now it’s dried I am wondering if it needs some more tonal variation (darker darks/lighter lights). I also need to fix the bit in the middle where I scratched the paint off down to the wood layer, either by doing more of this or painting over it. I just need to pysch myself up to dare to do it rather than being worried I’m going to mess up what is now working.

While I wait for myself to that point — and it will happen — I had another go at a painting loosely based on this reference photo, on A3 watercolour paper.

Acrylic ink on A3 watercolour paper

The painting was still wet when I took the photo — if you look closely you can see a sheen on parts of the blue-ish colour at the bottom right — and it might have pulled into the paper somewhat as it has dried. Adding some white to the leftover paint with a lot of water and dabbing this on the left (and top right-hand) has worked, I think, to give a sense of sand and shallow water. I still haven’t got the “ribbon seaweed” working to my satisfaction, but I like this overall and ultimately only I will know what’s ‘missing’.


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Painting Demo: Stormy Sunset Sky

This painting was inspired by a sunset a few days ago, where there’d been a storm blowing in from the north and blue sky in the south, as I looked west, out over the sea. I really enjoyed the colours, from light blue and yellow to darks, and the way the distant view disappears beneath the rain at the bottom of enormous cloud.

When it came to painting this, I reached for a canvas that had an unresolved painting on it, which I’d sanded down a few months ago to level off the texture paste. Although the texture on the canvas hadn’t been done with this scene in mind, I felt what was there would fit it. And it would save me having to wait for texture paste to dry.

This video is speeded up 10 times, and edited down to just over three-and-a-half minutes. Sometimes things just all come together in a painting!

If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.

The painting is a bit hard to photograph because of the iridescence and the low level of natural light this time of year. And it’s snowing today, so I’m not taking it out my studio to photograph in the garden.

Stormy Sunset Skye Over the Minch, 95x80cm, acrylic on canvas. SOLD.

Video: “Here Comes the Sun” Seascape Painting

Here Comes the Sun Minch seascape painting

Watch over my shoulder as I paint one of my largest ever ‘Minchscape’ seascapes, a diptych on two 100x100cm (39×39″) canvases. The commission brief was for it to be bright, abstract in the foreground with yellows, with vivid blues of the sea and sky.

My starting colours were phthalo turquoise and yellow; a delibrate move away from my beloved orange and magenta starting points so it would be a fresh challenge to energise me anew, in the hope this would come across in the painting, which I think it does.

If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.

Music by Micah Gilbert, a singer-songwriter who lives a few miles from me.

Here Comes the Sun Minch seascape painting
“Here Comes the Sun”. Diptych of two 100x100cm panels. Acrylic on canvas.

I decided to call it “Here Comes the Sun” because I ended up with this Beatles song in my head after painting this and because whilst I was painting it I had to put a board up to block the sun shining through the window and lighting up the left-hand canvas from behind.

Video: Rocky Seascape Painting with Texture Paste

This little seascape was done on two wooden panels using acrylic over texture paste. If you wonder why the panels aren’t blank when I start, it’s because they’re two I’d previously painted a little on but never taken the ideas further. I knew the texture paste would cover a lot of the colour (it dries as opaque) and that I would then add Payne’s grey acrylic ink as the first colour over the texture, which would hide even more whilst creating a lovely dark in the recesses of the texture. (Note: the video does not have sound.)

The panels when the texture paste and Payne’s grey ink had dried. I dropped some of the ink onto the surface, then sprayed it with water to spread it around without touching the still-wet texture.
Size 30x15cm (two panels of 15x15cm). Acrylic on wood.

Painting Daisies in a Concertina Sketchbook (with video)

If you’ve not met one before, a concertina sketchbook has one long zigzag page that folds up between the covers. How many pages it has and what type of paper depends on the brand; the one I’m using in this video is from Seawhite and slips into a case. (If you don’t see the video below, click here to go to my Vimeo channel.)

I started with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, then watercolour in a dropper bottle (including two granulating greens), watercolour from my set using a brush, acrylic paint (cadmiun yellow light and medium), a mixed blue-grey acrylic ink (the masking tape on the bottle tells me it’s a colour I’ve mixed), white acrylic ink (Sennelier’s super-opaque white), and ultimately a touch of orange acrylic ink to deepen the yellows in the flower centres.

The decision as to how many pages to do was intuitive, a feeling for how many would be manageable across the width of my table (and off a bit) and would probably not be totally dry by the time I got back to the start with a new colour. I’m drawing daisies from a mixture of memory and the ones in the jug in front of me, which I turned around at various points so I was seeing ‘new’ daisies.

The colours initially are a bit gloomy, but when I add the bright green these become “background shadows” and everything turns brighter. I had visualised this brighter layer of green before I started, I just didn’t know exactly when I would do it. I’ve got a list in my mind of what layers I’m going to do (colours/materials) but if you’re new to working like this it’s worth taking the time to draw up a list, and having everything to hand, so when you’re painting the decisions are already made and you can concentrate on painting.

What will I do with the rest of the pages? At the moment my thought is to continue with flowers, probably the pink foxgloves that are flowering now too, but I’ll see what I feel like when I start again.

This is only the second concertina sketchbook I’ve used; the first has a watercolour of the sea/weather from my studio on every pair of pages, with a consistent positioning of the horizon line across the pages (drawn in with a pencil before I started). I’m sure there will be more, not least because I have a little Sennelier one with thicker paper I won in a competition and the Moleskine one the in-house art critic gave me last Christmas to try.

Video Painting Demo: Bluebells

Watch over my shoulder as I paint using the reference photo from the painting project for June as my starting point inspiration (along with my visual memories from the times I’ve been in the Uig woodland and seen bluebells). I’m using an A2 sheet of 350gsm watercolour paper, with watercolour, coloured pencil, and oil pastel.

At one point I take the masking tape off to try to stop myself overworking it; the next day when I continued I taped the edges again, cropping a bit at the top. You’ll see quite a bit of my putting down paint and then lifting most of it off with a piece of paper towel; I was worried about getting too dark too soon, but may well have hesitated too much. The video is at 10x speed, except for the bit where studio cat comes to inspect (at 06:41).

Mark Making for Painting the Sea

My first online video tutorial, on mark making for painting the sea, is now available on my on-demand video channel. There are three parts to it: First is my worksheet, which looks at different marks and how to create these using a pen or pencil and three shapes of brush. Second is a demonstration in which I use some of these marks to paint a seascape using watercolour, showing you how to build up layers of pattern to create a finished painting. The third part is a about taking this painting to the next level, using transparent and opaque acrylics

Here’s the trailer (if you don’t see it, click here):

I’m thinking my next online tutorial might be pencil drawing for beginners. If you’ve any requests or suggestions, email me or post a comment on my blog.