Thumbnail sketches: Gail Sibley, "Sharpe Road Farm," Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 12 x 9 in.

Thumbnail Sketches – What Can Happen If You Deviate From Them!

If you’ve followed me for some time, you know how I encourage (demand?!) the creation and use of thumbnail sketches. These small notations of composition and value are the roadmap I use while working. And they’re especially valuable for keeping you on track in the changing light when working en plein air.

You may ask, do I ALWAYS follow my thumbnail? Well, I’d have to answer yes, about 98% of the time. And if I don’t, I should have a really good reason, right?!

Sooooooooo……I was working on location on Salt Spring Island last week. As always, I’d made a couple of thumbnail sketches to decide on my plan of painting. So far, so good.

Then, mid-painting, I was struck by anxiety and decided to make a change from my thumbnail. And then what happened??

Let’s start at the beginning.

Here’s the view I chose on Sharpe Road. I can’t show you only one photo because I had to lean forward to see the whole picture. So here are two photos to give the general view. You’ll see it more clearly in the thumbnail.


Thumbnail sketch: Part of the view I painted
Part of the view I painted
Thumbnail sketch: The other part of the view I painted
The other part of the view I painted

And now for the thumbnail:

Thumbnail sketch: The thumbnail sketch (about 3 x 2 in). Notice where the lights, mid-values, and darks are.
The thumbnail sketch (about 3 x 2 in).


Notice where the lights, mid-values, and darks are. Lights take up the greatest part of the painting in the whole foreground and the sky area.

I then quickly sketched up the image from the thumbnail. You’ll see from the photo below that I am getting some dappled light on my paper and that there’s a heavy cast shadow from the top-of-easel attachment. Unlike the way I usually paint, most of this painting was done standing in the sunshine but it worked quite well as the day wasn’t hot and the light didn’t reflect brightly off my paper.


Thumbnail sketch: Charcoal sketch on UART 400 paper, 12 x 9 in
Charcoal sketch on UART 400 paper, 12 x 9 in
Thumbnail sketch: My set-up. You can see the empty space in my palette waiting for the pastels I use in my piece.
My set-up. You can see the empty space in my palette waiting for the pastels I use in my piece.


Ready for pastels! So let me take you through the progression of the plein air piece.


Thumbnail sketches: First layer applied in three values.
First layer applied in three values.








Thumbnail sketch: The thumbnail sketch (about 3 x 2 in). Notice where the lights, mid-values, and darks are.


Already I’ve deviated slightly from the thumbnail! Can you see where?

The main part I’ve changed so far is the dark to the right of the tree. The paper is slightly wider than my thumbnail format (tut tut) and I felt the dark would make the mid-value of the tree stand-out.


Thumbnail sketch: Second layer being applied. I'm careful to choose colours that match my three value choices.
Second layer being applied. I’m careful to choose colours that match my three value choices.


Thumbnail sketches: Adding more layers.
Adding more layers.


Notice I still only have two layers in the foreground – there’s no modulation within the light value.

I began to add interest to the foreground (and I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo of that) but then rather than modulating colours  a little darker or lighter within the light value range, I got anxious.

And I panicked.

I began thinking, What if the foreground is too boring? What if the viewer’s eyes jump right to the middle ground and background, completely skipping over the foreground?

I like ‘What ifs’. What-if’s push you to experiment, to take risks, even tiny ones.

But What if’s shouldn’t be part of judgement as in, ‘What if viewer’s hate my painting?’ OR ‘What if viewers don’t understand why I didn’t make the foreground more interesting?’ OR ‘What if I made a mistake in my thumbnail?’

All of these What-ifs don’t help.

But that’s where my mind went while painting that day. Instead of thinking, ‘Hmmmmmm….I need to work on the foreground staying within the parameters set out in my thumbnail [the thumbnail I thought worked fine]’, I went into some kind of mind warp!

And so I decided to go against my ‘map’ and add a dark area in the foreground.

Uh oh…


Thumbnail sketches: A move away from my thumbnail template....
A move away from my thumbnail template….

Thumbnail sketch: The thumbnail sketch (about 3 x 2 in). Notice where the lights, mid-values, and darks are.


I think the foreground did need something but that something wasn’t this dark patch. Instead, I could have brought in deeper oranges within the light scheme. This image actually shows what I did after I added the dark. When I saw what the dark did, I freaked out and immediately lightened it by scumbling some yellow over it all. Can you see that?

And this is when I packed it in for the day. I decided to stop fiddling with it and wait until I got home to see if I could still make it work.


Thumbnail sketches: The Unison Colour pastels I used
The Unison Colour pastels I used.


The next day, I examined my painting. I decided to add longer grasses in the foreground and I also added some warmth to the darkness, echoing the red in the distant shadow under the tree and on the side of the house. This would work.

Then I showed it to my Mum and Dad for suggestions. My Dad had the brilliant idea of adding a couple of ragged fence posts. I added these in and by their direction, they help send the viewer back into the piece. Saved!

Have a look.

Thumbnail sketches: Gail Sibley, "Sharpe Road Farm," Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 12 x 9 in.
Gail Sibley, “Sharpe Road Farm,” Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 12 x 9 in.

And in black and white……


Thumbnail sketches: Gail Sibley, "Sharpe Road Farm," Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 12 x 9 in - in black and white
Gail Sibley, “Sharpe Road Farm,” Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 12 x 9 in – in black and white


So in the end, all was not lost by me deviating from my thumbnail. Still, my painting life would have been easier if I’d stuck to the thumbnail, the one I liked and thought would work.

Thumbnail sketches are great – they help you begin to really see the scene, they help you simplify, they help you compose, they establish a value pattern. This is why I encourage you to use them. They really are a guide for the rest of your painting time!


I’d love to hear from you.

Do you use thumbnail sketches and if so, do you ever deviate from the original thumbnail?

I’d also love to hear your reaction to the various stages of this painting – before the dark, after the dark, and the fix!


Thanks for taking this journey with me 🙂

Until next time,

~ Gail


PS. It sure can be helpful to have another critical eye on your work (as you’ve seen above!). Why not get my eye on your work?! I offer video critiques. Find out more here.

PPS. Here I am ready to pack up! You can see despite the setback, I’m happy happy to be outside painting!!

Thumbnail: Meeeeeee! Painting en plein air on Sharpe Rd, Salt Spring Island.
Meeeeeee! Painting en plein air on Sharpe Rd, Salt Spring Island. Photo by Jeremy Sibley.

This was a family paint out (LOVE these!). My Dad sat in various spots sketching in pen and ink while my Mum worked in watercolour up the road from me. Here she is, come to check on how Dad and I are doing. I think is the gist of it is, Ready for lunch?

Thumbnail sketch: Mum and Dad - the whole family out art-ing!
Mum and Dad – the whole family out art-ing!



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37 thoughts on “Thumbnail Sketches – What Can Happen If You Deviate From Them!”

  1. Hi Gail. Love your blog and your work. It keeps me inspired. I paint when I can, as we are full time travelers living in an rv. I love the progression photos. It is good to know that I am not the only one that freaks out over foregrounds. Happy painting!

    1. Aww thanks Kathy! I love hearing my posts keep you inspired. Wow full-time in an RV. Sounds amazing if tight. And good for you painting on the road. Work small and often and you’ll amass an incredible art collection of memories along the way.

  2. Love this pastel, Gail. Dad had some great advice, it really saved the day. Maybe what was bugging you was that you had not quite resolved your thumbnail before starting painting? The final armature is a s or z whereas it’s a v..previously….if you had darkened the trail leading from or to the hut you would have also arrived at a z armature. I think it is so lovely that you have your parents to go arting with!

    1. Thanks Jane! Yes, my plan, as you see in the thumbnail, was to include the trail and darken (within the light value) the foreground. I think it was a plan that could have worked and I don’t really know why in the world I deviated!!
      And LOVE going out painting with my parents!! I feel very fortunate 😀

  3. Hi 😊 this was really useful to see. Both how it went wrong and how you managed to fix it. But most of all it showed the importance of taking the time to make a thymbnail. I don’t have much time to paint (wayyy to little) and I often skip thumbnails to have time to do the fun part, the painting. But very often I end up with frustration and using much time to figure out why something is not working and how to fix it.
    I really find your blog helpful, full of good tips and fun to watch! Thank you.

    1. Thanks Jytte. I know what you mean about getting to the fun stuff especially when you don’t have much time to paint. But it IS worth the time. Perhaps you could do thumbnails one day and then choose one and draw it up, then jump right into painting the next day!
      So happy to hear you find the blog useful 🙂

  4. Your Mum and me look like being in the same generation. So envious of you coming from a painting background. And being able sometimes to paint together. 🙂 Please, when are you coming to the UK…? preferably somewhere in the South-East… so that I can attend one of your workshops? Thank you for these blogs. I rarely comment but do look forward to them. And the monthly presentation of other great artworks.

    1. Thanks for commenting Sylvan. I am very lucky to be able to go out painting with my parents once in a while. I try to do so when we are together and the weather is nice.
      One of these days I will get to the UK to teach! There is a possibility that I will be teaching a 3-day workshop in Scotland early July 2019 but that may not work for you. I’ll just have to arrange a tour around the UK stopping to teach workshops along the way 🙂

  5. I LOVE this post! I love how you render exactly my own experience–freaking out, panicking the whole lot. But you saved it in such a lovely way. Although sometimes we must have the humility to say Nope, this one is a failure, I’ll do better next time and head for the trash can. We can’t be Rembrandt every day!!
    Thanks for your devotion to this blog.
    Nancy Malard

    1. Thanks Nancy!! And yes, we can’t produce masterpieces every time we paint and if we think we can, we’ll be paralysed before we start! At least I would be. So it’s jump in, paint, and whatever happens, happens. Better to paint and mess up than not paint at all!

      1. I love your blog and your You Tube videos. They have been very helpful to me, I’m coming from portraits to loose landscapes, and tend to get tight too quickly and then frustration follows. I love the colors of this picture, I’m trying to work with blues and oranges at the moment. As far as thumbnails that is a work in progress. I love the point you suggested “better to paint and mess up than not to paint at all”.

        1. Thanks Ann!! Love that you find the blog and YouTube vids helpful. I like your idea of working with blues and oranges and I assume, pushing that combo as far as you can. And no worries, thumbnails are a work in progress for many many, so you aren’t alone. Just keep working at them.

          Sometimes putting a timer on can help when trying to keep loose. When you have a time restriction, you have to work fast. See how long a piece usually takes then try half of that e.g. if it usually takes an hour, put the timer on for 30 mins and see what happens. That doesn’t mean you have to stop but before you work back into tightness, maybe look and see what needs work and put the timer on for another 5 or 10 mins. Then call it quits! This article doing a 10-minute painting may help.

  6. I don’t make thumbnails. Rather, I try to translate a photo in my mind’s eye as I would like it to appear on paper. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But if I can’t translate it in my head, I KNOW it won’t work.

    The dark spot in the foreground, to me, was necessary, but it also had to be worked into the scene so as not to cut off the eye. And you did work it in, and now it adds interest. I think your instinct was telling you correctly, only you didn’t understand what it was saying at first.

    Love that it was a family affair!

    1. Love that you think it was my instinct telling me what to do Maria! I like your version of the story hah hah.
      As for thumbnails, I think working out the ideas on paper, shifting things around, making artistic choices as to value areas and composition, is sooooo valuable. Creating thumbnails also familiarizes you with the subject in a very visceral way – from head to heart to hand (I sound like Felicity House!)

  7. Good Day Gail
    I absolutely love it – it encourages one to hop over the dark foreground and explore up to the cottage. I would love to see what it would have been if you stuck to a light foreground – to me I can’t visualize it working as well. Thanks so much for sharing real artist challenges – and the personal pains involved with them – you are a great encouragement!

    1. Paul thank you!! Sometimes I wonder about putting my trials and tribulations out there but in truth, that’s the life of an artist. I ain’t all easy but my, the struggle is worth it on a deep soul-level.
      I too would like to see what it would have looked like with the light foreground. Perhaps I need to do a small in-studio version and see what happens….
      Made me smile to hear your enthusiasm about the piece as it turned out 🙂

  8. Beautiful painting! I like the fence and the darker foreground as well as your color and mark making. What a nice way of telling the story! Yeah, I must confess that I quite often deviate from my thumbnails and just improvise as I paint…

    1. Thanks so much Susan!! It did work out in the end. As you know, it’s great to have another critical eye on your piece every now and then 😉
      Hmmmmm yes about your thumbnails lol!

  9. Wonderful demo and I just love your use of colors in the progression photos from beginning to final piece! Funny how thumbnails always seem like a chore but most always help!
    Do you ever paint a mini “thumbnail” on sanded paper using pastels to work out colors as well as composition. How do you choose your beginning value choices? Complimentary?
    I liked this demo so much I download to a PDF form on my new 12” iPad Pro. Thank you Gail.
    Love the final painting!

    1. Oh Sandi you are so sweet! Thank you for your enthusiastic and positive response both to the progression and final outcome. And yes thumbnails really do help!

      To your question, if I am in studio and starting a large piece, I will do at least a couple of two-layer colour studies. (Read more here.) The values are honed down to only three which means making decisions. Then to colour choices, I usually try to find some underlying colour or failing that, I often think cool under warm and warm under cool. But not all the time. In this case, it was mostly about seeing ‘other’ colours under the main one. Hope that helps!

  10. Love that you and your parents play together! How lucky you are! Whenever I get that panicky feeling I try to stop and do something else. Doesn’t always work, but at least I give myself a chance to calm down. It’s only a painting! There’s plenty more where that came from!

    1. Yes, that’s it! We do play together. Such fun!! And I am sooooooo lucky to be able to do that.
      Yes, in a panicky moment, going to do something else is certainly an option especially in studio. And yes, it’s only a painting 🙂 Working on location though there’s an urgency, to paint what you need before light changes too much and before energy flags. I think that may have happened to me. Really cannot explain it fully though! I like Maria’s (above) idea that I was listening to my intuition!!

  11. I enjoyed your progression photos very much. They inspire me to want to paint more and not be afraid to start a painting and have it fail. Your end result is beautiful. Thanks for your efforts to teach us through your blogs.

    1. I LOVE hearing that I’m inspiring you to paint more. Don’t be afraid, don’t set up expectation. Just paint for the enjoyment of feeling the pastel on paper (or whatever medium you use), for the opportunity to look and see the world more deeply, for the profound knowing that you are creating something with your unique voice. And the more you paint, the more you learn. Failures are teaching you something! And then you grow and things click. So paint away Cheryl!!

  12. How wonderful to go out painting with your parents!! And you ARE very fortunate!! I love the way the painting finished. I think the raggedy fence was the perfect way to add some interest to the foreground. I haven’t yet realized the value of thumbnails, but when I remember to make one, I do follow it. Yes, I know, I know!! Thanks Gail for allowing us to share your struggles as well as your successes!!

    1. Thanks Ruth! Glad to hear you are making those thumbnails once in awhile! Truly, they are valuable otherwise I wouldn’t harangue!
      And yes, I am incredibly fortunate to have my parents nearby and to be able to go out painting with them!! My Dad will be chuffed to know his fence suggestion was seen as so successful!

  13. What a great painting and interesting painting lesson! Well illustrated too. Thank you very much Gail. I noticed that you (often) start with a charcoal sketch. Why charcoal? Doesn’t it smear or do you use a fixative? Best wishes, Gabriela

    1. Thanks so much Gabriela! As to your charcoal question… I use vine charcoal because a) I like the feel of charcoal b) it keeps me loose and c) if the drawing doesn’t look quite right, I can easily brush it and redraw. Generally, charcoal is easily covered by the layers of pastels. The only time this may not happen is when it’s under a very light area. But then, I don’t mind seeing the hand of the artist, the process, beneath the work.
      Having said all that about using charcoal, I have also been using a 3H pencil. The first time this happened the 3H was the only drawing tool I had. And it worked brilliantly. So now I interchange between the two. Still LOVE the feel of charcoal though!

  14. Dolores (Dee) Martella

    I am absolutely fascinated by your layering process….why did you add pink in the foreground? I can see why it was necessary in the sky….

    1. Thanks Dee. Great question about the first layer of pink. Remember I choose ONE colour (usually) to represent each value area. In this case, the light areas were the sky and the foreground. So that meant I needed to choose a colour that would work under both the blue of the sky and the yellow of the grasses. Looking hard at the grass, I could see variations in the yellow that went more towards oranges and reds. This is why I chose the pink. I felt the pink work well as the first layer of the sky as well, giving a warm base to the cool blues. You can see I used that same pink to come in on top of the foreground yellows later. Hope that helps!

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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