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Digital Painting 101: Thumbnail Drawing for Beginners

This post is part of a series called Digital Painting For Beginners.
6 Easy Tips for Making Realistic Digital Paintings
Digital Painting 101: A Beginner's Guide to Photo References

Thumbnails are the sketch before the sketch. They help us to fully realize our paintings by giving us ample room to experiment. In today's quick tip for our Digital Painting 101 series, we'll cover the many benefits of these tiny masterpieces.

So What Are Thumbnail Drawings?

Thumbnail drawings are small, preliminary sketches, usually done within an outlined frame as a quick snapshot of your painting idea. Traditional artists have always used them to plan out their work, so there's no surprise that thumbnail drawings have crossed over into the digital art realm.

Thumbnail Drawings Used To Plan Out Composition

What Can Thumbnails Achieve?

Do you ever feel as if you have a ton of ideas but you're just not sure how to compose them?

Well, by sketching everything out in Photoshop first, you can work out the perfect composition before committing to a painting. This becomes an important step in your journey as an artist because as your skills improve, you want to prepare your paintings in a way that allows you to avoid any beginner mistakes.  

And the number one thing beginners fail to do is prepare. You see, great art doesn't just fall out of the sky. Behind every great piece is a long list of notes, thumbnails, and even small studies to work out each detail.

Types of Thumbnail Drawings

Creating thumbnail drawings is pretty straight to the point. Here are several different methods you can try out for yourself:

Notes & Research

Personally speaking, I always write more than I draw. All my thumbnail drawings are accompanied by associating words that clarify my vision more than the actual visual interpretation. I name the colors I want to use, write adjectives to describe the piece, and make any notes of important details I might forget. And as long as I have a generalized idea of where I want to position things, I feel comfortable enough to move on to the real sketch.

But not every artist is alike. You might have to do 3 thumbnails or 30 thumbnails before you get to that next stage. For beginners, just keep at it until you find a process that speaks to you. Make plenty of notes that are easy to understand, and always refer back to your originals to keep yourself on track.

Take Notes on Thumbnail Drawings

Loose vs. Detailed

I have seen everything from the most elaborately beautiful thumbnail sketches to stick figures and "chicken scratch" drawings. They all work, and there are benefits to them all. Any time that you keep things loose, you allow your art to have some breathing room. It lets you get ideas on the page quickly, without wasting too much time.

Detailed thumbnails, however, are great for getting yourself to actually commit to certain details. It forces you to work out any kinks before moving on to your final sketch. 

The best way to know which type of thumbnail to draw is to simply listen to your gut. If you need to add more details, then you know what to do. 

Loose Versus Detailed Thumbnail Drawings

Outlines & Shapes

What does the negative space look like? Where's the hierarchy in this piece? And how will your eyes move across the composition? These are all questions that have to be answered before finalizing a sketch.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is just use basic outlines for placement and movement. Want to paint a beautiful landscape? Then incorporate simple shapes into your thumbnails like triangles for trees and rectangles for buildings. As silly as it might look, you'll actually be surprised at how much clearer your vision becomes.

Draw SImple Shapes for Your Thumbnail Drawings

Color & Values

As I previously mentioned, thumbnails are great for research. So you should also take advantage of experimenting with color as well as the lighting scheme for your paintings. Figuring these out early on will save you the disappointment that is often associated with making poor decisions.

Because of its limitless potential, painting in Photoshop can be overwhelming to beginners. By working with thumbnails you can set your eyes on a specific color scheme so that you aren't distracted by any others.

Use Thumbnail Drawings to Pick Colors and Lighting Scheme

The Basic Setup: How to Thumbnail

It's super easy to make your own thumbnail template. But also feel free to download the template provided in this post.

Use the Rectangle Tool (U) to create several rectangular shapes to represent landscape or portrait compositions on a blank white canvas. Merge all the rectangle layers together and Lock the new layer so that you can use this template with interchangeable sketches.

Create Thumbnail Drawings for Portrait or Landscape Paintings

Create new layers and dedicate them to a specific concept. Now start sketching! Save the file as a normal .psd and continue to use it for all your future digital paintings. 

Create Many Thumbnail Boxes For Your Own Template

Making the Most of Your Thumbnails

That was pretty easy, right? So whatever you do, don't worry yourself into a corner. Keep these few things in mind to make the most of your drawings.

Don't Pressure Yourself

Remember, it's just a thumbnail. A small sketch. It's not meant to be too complicated or intimidating. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed even at this stage then dial back the amount of pressure you're putting on yourself. Coming up with great ideas takes lots of experimentation, so learn to accept the rough parts of this process, even when it's Mr. Stick Figure Man.

Think Outside the Box

Sometimes a box isn't going to work, and blank white pages are known for killing art dreams. Try your best to push the way you think about composition. If you have a tendency to create the same composition over and over again, obliterate this habit early in the thumbnail stage. Use circles instead of rectangles, play with perspective and point of view, and even use color to change the way you see your ideas developing.

Know When to Choose the Best Thumbnail

So you've made a couple dozen thumbnails. Now what? Choose a sketch that tells the best story. Don't be lazy and go for what you're used to doing. To make the most impact, study all your thumbnails and pay special attention to which ones your eyes naturally gravitate towards. No matter the difficulty level, this is a natural response to what works best, so listen to your body and let it tell you which one to choose.


I know it seems like a lot of extra work, but thumbnail drawings help you to put your best foot forward in creating beautiful digital art. Extensive planning is really how artists learn what works and what definitely doesn't.

So don't let your ideas go to waste! Feel free to download the template provided to get started, and share with us your ideas for your next digital painting! Good luck!

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