Search form

Let's Sketch on Location: The Thumbnail Sketch

Renowned drawing instructor Glenn Vilppu continues with his second installment discussing techniques for sketching on location.

All drawings in this article are by and © Glenn Vilppu.

This is the second in a new series of bi-monthly articles about sketching on location. The articles are based on my Sketching on Location Manual. The manual was developed as a series of lessons that I use on my guided sketching tours of Europe, and that I use as material in my regular drawing classes. As such the lessons can be part of a regular course or can be used by individual students as a practical learning guide. If you have not seen the previous lesson starting in the June 2000 issue of Animation World Magazine, it is recommended that you do. The lessons are progressive and expand on basic ideas. It is suggested that you start from the beginning for a better understanding of my approach. If you really want to begin at the beginning start with the lessons based on the Vilppu Drawing Manual.

Moving On...

In the last lesson we used a point to point method of drawing. The main purpose was to reduce your subject to a series of two-dimensional observations starting from a single point. This lesson is similar; now the main thing is to be able to see your subject in simple two-dimensional shapes, only this time in the context of the total picture.

The first step is to decide the limits of your drawing; in this sense we are doing the exact opposite of the previous lesson. Instead of starting from a part and building outward, we are starting with the total and going to the parts.

There are many ways to establish a beginning context for your drawing; in other words, to set the outside limits or framework that you are going to be working within. Two right angle paper corners with a paper clip holding them together is a simple method. A small clear plastic rectangle also works well; likewise, putting up your hands with thumbs extended creates a frame. With practice you learn to establish your picture limits easily without any external guides.

Doing a series of simple "thumbnail sketches" to try out your ideas gives you the opportunity to see what your sketch will look like before committing a lot of effort. The thumbnail sketch also brings into play the idea of "drawing-as-thinking." You make choices and selections, not just copy an arbitrary view.

To Begin

Start by making a frame out of the borders of your paper about 1 inch deep by 2 inches long. The proportions, of course, can be any you wish to make. Now in looking at your subject, select two or three simplified major lines in your subject. Ignore any detail and, as in Lesson One, pay particular attention to the basic angles and lengths of these elements. Look at the examples and notice that you can get a general sense of what the picture will look like, yet there is no detail. These thumbnail sketches can be done in any medium, from a carpenter's pencil to paint.

vilppu02.gif All of these drawings are reproduced actual size. In the drawings on the left you will notice simple diagrams that I did trying to think out the formal elements of the composition, primarily dealing with visual balance. The paintings on the next page are also reproduced actual size, though the originals were in color. These were done directly without any preliminary drawing, yet were done as thumbnails, drawing the simple shapes directly with watercolor.


The above drawing was done with a fountain pen; the wash was added by bleeding the ink with water. This, again, is reproduced actual size.

This drawing of the piazza of Orvieto with the duomo combines both a thumbnail and a detail of the thumbnail.

The drawing below is of the local citizens later arguing politics on the steps of the duomo. In doing the drawing of the detail above and the figures below, I used the approach discussed in Chapter One.


Now, in these thumbnail sketches, I have employed many of the elements we will be discussing in the following chapters. A strong component in the drawings is the light and dark pattern. In fact, some of these drawings were done with brush and wash where the only thing drawn was the pattern of the darks. Look at the variety of materials used: pencil, pen, as well as watercolor.


Take Note

Sometimes to aid the memory, it is useful to write information about the colors, textures and materials that you see. This page is a general visual exploration of a location which includes drawings of detail, compositional possibilities, and notations. These drawings were used while painting in the studio months later.


The camera, of course, becomes a great aid in recording detail. Yet drawing from the subject itself is still the best way to get the sense of what you are looking at.

View more examples on the following pages.

Glenn Vilppu teaches figure drawing at the American Animation Institute, the Masters program of the UCLA Animation Dept., Walt Disney Feature Animation and Warner Bros. Feature Animation, and has been sent to teach artists at Disney TV studios in Japan, Canada and the Philippines. Vilppu has also worked in the animation industry for 18 years as a layout, storyboard and presentation artist. His drawing manual and video tapes are being used worldwide as course materials for animation students.

Glenn Vilppu first wrote for Animation World Magazine in the June 1997 issue, "Never Underestimate the Power of Life Drawing." His drawing manuals and video tapes may be purchased in the Animation World Store.