Are Thumbnail Sketches Really the Best Way to Plan Art?

There are things you just do in art class. For example, throughout their time in school, most kids will learn about Van Gogh, make a pinch pot, try wax resist, and learn one-point perspective.

Most kids will also do thumbnail sketches. It’s just one of those required things we have kids do. But why?

For me, it was because this was how I was taught to plan. I remember my teachers requiring a set number of thumbnails for every project, and I remember being annoyed. I responded like many students do; I did one thumbnail sketch of my intended composition and then did two more half-hearted ones to meet my teacher’s requirement.

thumbnails

Now, as a responsible adult and competent artist, you’d think I’d use thumbnail sketches every time I make art. Nope. I never use them. Sometimes I just think about my composition until I have a clear visual and start marking it in on my canvas. Or, depending on what I’m working on, I might just play around with how my photo reference is cropped and work from there. I still plan, I still think about composition. I just do it in a way that feels natural and makes sense to me.

Just like adult artists, students are individuals with different needs and creative process preferences.

This is why arbitrary requirements like a set number of thumbnail sketches make no sense. They become merely a hoop to jump through when we should be teaching students the value of meaningful planning. The focus becomes meeting the required number of sketches when it should be on collecting enough information to make a successful artwork.

What if instead of requiring a set number of thumbnails we started teaching planning as a problem that needs to be solved?

I do this in my classroom by using a framework I call the Design Thinking Process. Once students know how to use it, they are able to pick and choose planning, or “Design,” methods that meet their current needs. Planning is differentiated based on the needs and preferences of each student, and it’s seen as a valuable step in the creative process.

sketches in sketchbook

We absolutely should teach students the process of thumbnail sketches and the reason behind making them, but we can’t stop there.

Whatever your method, your goal should be to teach students an array of planning methods they are able to apply independently. Thumbnail sketches are great for discovering how to best arrange a composition, but there are so many other ways to start a piece of art.

Here are four examples. 

  • Ask students to experiment with media to see what best suits their ideas.
  • Teach different brainstorming strategies.
  • Walk students through group planning activities.
  • Challenge students to make something without any preconceived plan and solve issues that arise during creation.

All of these are valid methods for planning work. Teaching them empowers students to make their own decisions about particular artistic goals.

student painting sketch and finished work

When we think about the academic value of what we do, it’s important to consider rigor. Are the tasks we assign challenging enough? Do they lead to new knowledge and help construct meaning?

We must carefully examine how often we give less challenging tasks, like assigning all students the same number of thumbnail sketches. To make our instruction truly rigorous and relevant, we must teach our students the skills they need to work independently.

How do you use thumbnail sketches in your art room?

How else do you teach students to plan their work?

Melissa Purtee

Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.

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  • Ashley Dowell

    I think it depends on how you teach the thumbnails. As a professional illustrator, I have been asked to supply thumbnails for review many times. I believe these are one of the best ways to build creativity, especially for students to not simply copy the composition from photo graphs or other peoples art off the internet. Sure thumbnails are not the only way to build up a composition and display ideas, however I do remember although annoyed by the process being able to developed my idea and mix together several essentials from the multiple thumbnails created. I like the sketchbook idea as well, but thumbnails are great and make a portfolio look well organized for college apps or job prospects. Great article!

    • Thank you! :)

    • Grant Thomas

      I agree with Ashley. As a comic book artist, I go through several drafts of thumbnail drawings and share them with colleagues throughout the process. My colleagues are able to give me feedback as I work through the story. I rarely make a story without making drafts and sharing with friends and colleagues.

      That being said, I teach several avenues of planning to my students and try to find videos of artists talking about their process.

      • Courtenay Mason

        Could you suggest/share any artists or videos you have found? It’s always great for them to hear these things from not their teacher!

  • Matt Tully

    I ask students to brainstorm with words and pictures and drawings and color theory, etc….at least 3 thumbnails with explanations. Then to combine to the best as a final sketch. They ask why 3 when they have one “great” one….I tell them they will solidify what NOT to do and to create confidence in the work ethic. They respond with, “Oh, Ok…” it eliminates the “what if”….when necessary.

    • Do you ever find that more or less than 3 would be a better fit for individual students?

      • Erin Johnson

        I always tell my students, “you must show me one GOOD sketch.” Sometimes they get it in 1 or 2, sometimes 5 or 6! They know that I will just turn them back around to keep working if what they bring me is subpar, and they also learn the value of not falling in love with their first idea. Yes- they hate it at first- but eventually see the pay-off.

  • As a printmaker, I still use thumbnails frequently to plan out the layers of my images which cuts down tremendously on wasted materials and re-starts. I require thumbnails from my students at the intro level as the complexity of the compositions increases, and they begin to work with multiple layers in space. It provides a chance for us to talk one-on-one about more challenging considerations like scale, creating depth, and design decisions like placing strong pattern or color elements. They get “good” paper after they have talked over their plan with me.

    Some talk better than they thumbnail, and some sketch more easily than they can communicate a design verbally. I have a less-than-two-dollars-per budget, so this has cut way down on wasted materials and half-finished projects. We also brainstorm as a class and sometimes I demonstrate and let them call out design elements so I can talk through composing in real-time.

    In my Advanced course, my students have usually started to figure out their own process a bit (my intro course is the first art class of their lives for most.) At that level, I give them a blank sketchbook and simply require “a plan” of some sort for each project. I show them my own sketchbooks so they can see how sometimes I try out new materials and create color swatches, glue in references or inspiration, draw a design element over and over until I am satisfied with it, practice a certain type of rendering, etc. Their plan can be thumbnails, or it can be song lyrics, reference images, color tests, whatever. This has been working well for us so far.

    In my current group I have one student who always gathers reference images, one who plays with color mixing, one who sketches thumbnails, one who grids everything, and one who opts to buy her own materials to escape my Draconian planning demands (and because she likes to work fast and big.)

  • Chris Ziems

    this helps me think about how to teach students to consider what planning activities make sense for a certain purpose, for example, a mind map or other brainstorming activity would be great for when they are trying to formulate an idea, are stuck, or need to add details. sketching perhaps when they consider lay out. of course these aren’t hard and fast, the trick is helping students to utilize planning to help them make art. thanks a lot, made me pause and reflect about a number of things i currently do!

    • Glad this was helpful for you! Thanks for reading 😁

  • Kelly Phillips

    My kiddos use thumbnails but also use lots of other ways to plan. There are multiple ways to approach art-making and it’s important to teach kids that their preferred way works too! Thanks, Melissa! Great article.

  • Courtenay Mason

    I think thumbnails, like other ways, have pros and cons. A pro is the size – small size doesn’t take them ages both in class or for homework. It can also be a great way for kids to keep their bookwork tidy allowing the visual documentation/sequence of their process to be clearer. But it can then be, like someone has said, a hoop to jump through. I just worked at a school that was big on matrixes and different grades (e.g A, B, C etc) would stipulate how many thumbnails were needed. I didn’t completely agree, as it could be a quality over quantity issue and the creative thought, design knowledge and visual problem solving put into the thumbnails. Someone who did 2 could have really shown considered design choices or meaning of each idea, compared to someone who might have randomly drawn 4 or 5 to meet the requirements. All in how the teacher shapes the purpose of doing them.