How to Use Thumbnail Sketching to Help With Drawing

They're Useful Memory Aids and Planning Tools

Young female artist drawing thumbnail sketches in a sketch book
Hero Images/Getty Images

Thumbnail sketches are quick, abbreviated drawings, usually done very rapidly and with no corrections. You can use any medium, though pen or pencil is the most common. Thumbnail sketches usually are very small, often only an inch or two high.

Memory Aids and Planning Tools

Thumbnail sketches can serve as a memory aid to help you remember important features of a subject when making notes for a painting or drawing. They are also useful when visiting a gallery, to help you remember important pieces. Artists often use thumbnail sketches to plan pictures. You can quickly experiment with format and composition, including only major features such as the horizon and any large objects, and noting movement and balance.

How to Draw a Thumbnail Sketch

Imagine your subject or picture stripped of all details, through squinted eyes, or in poor light. All you see are big rough shapes and some lines. That's all you need for a thumbnail. First, sketch a rough box, smaller but in the same proportions as the finished picture might be. Then sketch in the horizon line, hills, or any major verticals or horizontals. Next, outline any key shapes, and quickly hatch in any strong dark areas. There are no right or wrong ways. Different approaches work for different artists.


Thumbnail sketches are a great way to plan color schemes. Use felt-tip pens, colored pencils, or watercolors to add major areas of color in your picture. Small but intense colors also can be noted, as these can attract the eye, but don't get bogged down with detail.

Making Notes and Working Drawings

Once you've done your thumbnail sketch, you might want to make some notes alongside it. If at a gallery, you can record the artist's name and the title, along with your thoughts about the artwork. If sketching outdoors, you might record notes about the position of the sun or the particular colors, or make additional sketches to show small details.

If you are planning a painting, you might want to do a working drawing. A working drawing is usually fairly large, sometimes as big as the finished piece, and carefully composed. The subject is sketched in, and potential problem areas might be done in more detail. This is where you can fine-tune your drawing before embarking on the finished piece.

Not Always Necessary

As stated above, not all artists work the same way, and some use thumbnail sketches very little or not at all. The importance of thumbnails isn't the thumbnails themselves. It's what the thumbnails represent: a method of meaningful planning. And it is the meaningful planning, not the method, that is important.

Learning how to draw and use thumbnails can be an important part of learning the steps that work best for you as an artist when organizing your thoughts and planning what you want your finished piece to look like. But always remember that the thumbnail sketches are just a tool to use on the way to finishing a specific piece of artwork.