The October 31-pastels-in-31-Days Challenge is well behind us now. The primary purpose of the Challenge is to get something painted each and every day. And this can be oh so hard!! One thing that helps me make this daily practice happen is having a sketchbook of thumbnails.

Why is this useful?

Because a lot of the hard work has already been done!

Imagine. You get to your studio ready to paint but first, ack!, you need to decide what to paint. If you’re painting from photos, you need to choose a photo. Then you need to select what part of the photo to use. Then you need to simplify…and create a good composition and also determine a strong value pattern. You have to figure out what format to use. So much to do before you actually put pastel to paper!

And that’s where a sketchbook of thumbnails comes in. The work’s already done! Here’s a sheet of thumbnails – all except one was used to paint from last year.

A sketchbook of thumbnails - Dogwalkers and gallery goers
Dogwalkers and gallery goers

Each day of the Challenge (and this is true of any day I’m in my studio to paint something representational), I just flipped through my sketchbook and chose a thumbnail that jumped out at me. Then it was a matter of grabbing some paper and sketching up the piece. And yes! then it was time to jump into pastels. (The sketching-up-on-paper process could always be done the day before. It doesn’t require creativity so doing it at the end of the day works well. The next morning, you can jump straight into pastels. Whoot whoot!)

If you’re painting from life, eg from a still-life set up, you need to do the same things in preparation to apply pastel. It’s trickier to create a sketchbook of thumbnails already completed though, so this idea works best when using photos.

A sketchbook of thumbnails - with Post-it tags marking unused thumbnails
Here’s one of my sketchbooks with a number of yellow post-it note tags. They represent a page with thumbnails that I haven’t used for paintings yet. Still LOTS to go!

Many of the thumbnails I worked from in this year’s Challenge were created last year. 

Here’s an example. Most of the thumbnails on the page below were used for the 2020 Challenge. There are two that weren’t used. In 2022, I selected one of two unused thumbnails to paint from.

A sketchbook of thumbnails -A page of thumbnails from previous years
A page of thumbnails from previous years
Rhythm of the challenge: Gail Sibley, "The Red Circle," Unison Colour pastels on UART 320, 8 x 12 in. Available. $600.
Gail Sibley, “The Red Circle,” Unison Colour pastels on UART 320, 8 x 12 in. Available. $600. I love that the red circle in Miro’s painting is the thing we see in this boy’s phone. I wanted to make Miro’s painting the star of this piece and then have the second red circle (and figures) noticed secondarily. Joan Miró, “Figure in Front of the Sun,” 1968, acrylic on canvas, 174 x 260 cm, Miro Foundation, Barcelona, Spain.

Here’s another example. Thumbnails done and painted from last year, one thumbnail used this year, and one possibility remaining.

A sketchbook of thumbnails - Thumbnails - Miro selfie used this year, three others used previously, and one still to go.
Thumbnails – Miro selfie used this year, three others used previously, and one still to go.
Gail Sibley, "Selfie with Women, Birds, (Gallery Goers series)," Unison Colour pastels on UART 320, 10 x 10 in. Available $625.
Gail Sibley, “Selfie with Women, Birds, (Gallery Goers series),” Unison Colour pastels on UART 320, 10 x 10 in. Available $625. After I taught a destination retreat workshop on the coast of Spain, I headed to Barcelona for some “me” time. I adored the Miro Foundation and many of my Gallery Goer paintings have been set in this wonderful museum. I smiled when I saw this guy trying to take a selfie with this gigantic piece by Miró!

So When To Do The Thumbnails?

Whenever you don’t have time to do a full-blown piece!

  • When you’re feeling under the weather, maybe a bit sniffly, and don’t feel like getting caught up in dust or materials
  • When you don’t have a lot of time to dig in
  • When you feel you want to do something but you have only a small amount of energy.

These are all great opportunities to get a thumbnail done!

It’s amazing how good you can feel after doing even one thumbnail. This IS progress! This IS showing up to do the work. And yes, thumbnails do take effort. They are work! This is why it’s such a treat to flip through a sketchbook of thumbnails already done and just pick one!

Here’s another example. This is an assorted example of thumbnails – architecture and gallery goers. I chose the Tuscan town scene to paint. It was a nice change from the figurative work midway through the Challenge.

A sketchbook of thumbnails - Tuscany sketches and thumbnails plus a couple of gallery goers
Tuscany sketches and thumbnails plus a couple of gallery goers
Gail Sibley, "Quiet Afternoon in Trequanda, Tuscany," Unison Colour pastels on UART 500, 8 3/4 x 5 3/4 in. Available. $295
Gail Sibley, “Quiet Afternoon in Trequanda, Tuscany,” Unison Colour pastels on UART 500, 8 3/4 x 5 3/4 in. Available. $295. I started this piece a couple of years ago, got it drawn up, and made a start with a partial first layer down. I can’t remember what made me stop but as I was looking for paper to use, I came across it. It was a perfect break from figurative work!

I like working on a series. I’ve been doing Dog Walkers and Gallery Goers for a couple of years now and they are still going strong. Working on a single theme (eg Gallery Goers) helps me know what to get to work on when I have time to do thumbnails. And since I enjoy painting these subjects, the more thumbnails I have in inventory, the better!

Here’s a page with a number of Gallery Goers. You’ll also see there are two thumbnails at the top (from a kitchen in Costa Rica) that are still available to paint from. (Can’t wait to start that new series!)

A sketchbook of thumbnails - Gallery goers all used. Still two thumbnails set in a kitchen to be used!
Gallery goers thumbnails all used. There are still two thumbnails set in a kitchen to be used!
Gail Sibley, "Black Hats (Gallery Goer series)," Unison Colour pastels on UART 500, 10 x 10 in. Available. $625.
Gail Sibley, “Black Hats (Gallery Goer series),” Unison Colour pastels on UART 500, 10 x 10 in. Available. $625. Ever since I saw this man looking at this painting by Klimt at an exhibition of Klimt’s work at the San Francisco Legion of Honor a few years ago, I’ve wanted to paint this scene. (In the reference photo, the man is actually looking at the label so I pushed him over a bit!). I was drawn to the similarity of the two hats of viewer and painting subject as well as the connection in colour of clothing.

I also created new thumbnails over the course of the 2022 Challenge but didn’t use all of them so there’ll be there to work from whenever I’m ready.

You can see an example of that here – the three lower thumbnails are still to be painted – yay!! I get excited when I look at them and imagine the possibilities!

A sketchbook of thumbnails : Thumbnails done in 2022 with three left to paint from
Thumbnails done in 2022 with three left to paint from
Gail Sibley, "Heading For The Hydrant (Dog Walker series)," Unison Colour pastels on UART 500 paper, 6 x 6 in. Available $225.
Gail Sibley, “Heading For The Hydrant (Dog Walker series),” Unison Colour pastels on UART 500 paper, 6 x 6 in. Available $225. Another dog walker, this time complete with an umbrella on a wet day. I loved that the dog was heading for the hydrant – typical dog behaviour lol. I couldn’t resist!

So whenever I’m short of time, or when I just don’t feel like painting, I get out my photos and have fun scrolling through. I pick an image and then get to work on a thumbnail or two in my sketchbook. It’s such a relief to have thumbnails ready to go!

Do you have a sketchbook of thumbnails? Do let me know. And if not then have you been inspired? I’d LOVE to know so be sure to leave a comment!

Until next time,


PS. You can see all my work from this year’s 31-in-31 Challenge HERE.

PPS. This is a great little notebook to have on hand. It comes with blank pages and a page marker. And it comes in a lot of colours!!

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22 thoughts on “A Sketchbook Of Thumbnails”

  1. Gail, you are a genius!
    I can’t imagine you ever being low on energy, but we all have issues with time.
    Inspired. I usually do thumbnails and preparatory sketches at the start of a project while tons of ideas swim around my head waiting their turn.
    I am chronically low on energy so this is a brilliant 💡 idea for me to try. Especially since it will cut down on procrastination. I can see after reading your post that I lose momentum when I have a good day, feeling energised but have to spend that creative energy on planning which can drag out for days to months.
    Thanks Gail, you are brilliant. And it was lovely to see into your sketchbook. You cram so much information into those thumbnails.

    1. Melanie your comment sure made me smile!! I love that you think I’m a genius lol! Really, I’m just trying to find the easiest way through. And you’re right, doing thumbnails does help with procrastination. And what a joy it is to have them there when I’m ready to paint! Do let me know here if you try this idea and especially if it works. 😁

  2. I love seeing your thumbnails, your dog walking and gallery goer series. They are inspiring! I especially love the Miro painting. The man’s face turned for the selfie echoing the figure in the upper right of Miro’s painting is wonderful.
    Thank you for all of the time you devote to this blog.

    1. Thanks Gill! And thanks for commenting on the man taking a selfie with Miro painting. I’m glad you saw the visual connection 😁 Its so much fun to look for and add the connections between viewer and painting.

  3. Gail, this was so inspiring! Thank you! I can really see how this will be a big help- and fun, too!! I’ve got my thumbnail sketchbook chosen and ready to go and I can’t wait to get started!

  4. Love this idea. And wonder why I hadn’t thought of it. There are so many takeaways. Just doing a sketch will give me satisfaction that I’m working toward a goal. A most appealing thing about pastels for me (other than loving drawing) is that they can be completed so quickly. Inspiring article!

    1. Ohhhh Genie, it warms me to read you comment! And yes!! Doing even a sketch moves us towards our goals and along our art journey. And that feels sooooo good!!

  5. Hi Gail!
    Your post was such a treat and best of all, really motivating for me! I think that all of your sketches are tremendous, I found myself staring at each one with such curiosity. My favorites were the dog walkers! You will have to sketch a cat walker, I hear they are out there more and more.
    Your energy and creative spark are a real gift to us all, thank you Gail! Very much appreciated.

  6. I found this post as I was reading your post to get ready for the 2023 31in31 challenge. I have tried doing thumbnails. Can you tell me how you do yours? Is it just with pencil? I do see such value in them. Thank you

    1. Hi Christine! So happy you can see the value you in doing thumbnails! When I do them for myself, I usually do them in pencil. When teaching, I have students do them in black and grey markers – that way there’s no fudging the value choices! Is it light? Or middle value? Or dark? That’s it!

  7. Found this post in my mail here in January 24, thanks so much, great idea no matter the medium.
    Just on equestion: so you make your thumbnails plus i guess with a few comments in colours?
    Does that mean you forget about the photo and “invent” the colours once you paint it?

    1. Hi Susana! I mkae the thumbnails to find the composition and pattern of light and dark. At this stage I don’t make colour notes. When I get tothe next stage – of painting – and I am unsure about colours, I may try a few colour studies. But I’m usually still referring to the original photo as I begin painting. Ayt some point though, I do leave the photo behind.

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Gail Sibley

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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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