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Although they may not be the most thrilling part of the creative process, thumbnails are vital, offering both a road map to better paintings and a pathway to greater creative freedom.
One of my favorite ways of working with thumbnails is to sit in a quiet place and create imaginary places with them. Once you get started, the possibilities are endless. I also enjoy doing a group of thumbnails from photos I’ve taken. I usually put a page together called a “contact sheet” in my IPhoto program that displays 16 small images on one page. They are already small, so I can’t be tempted to add too much detail and I tend to stick to only the large, strong elements. When painting en plein air, I try to keep the same train of thought going in those thumbnails by concentrating on the large shapes.
Contrary to what you might think, thumbnails can actually make your work more spontaneous. Once you have the foundation for your painting, you’ve built a playground for yourself. If you want to change the color or play around with the value relationships, you can. It’s much easier to be truly spontaneous, not just drifting away from your original intention. You can do it consciously. Many times I like the look of my thumbnails better than the finish upon which I based it and can be disappointed that I didn’t capture the essence of the original thumbnail. I think there are a few reasons for this. One is that painters are not as invested in the small study in either time or materials, so they let themselves be very loose with them. Limit your time in the final piece to emulate this non-precious approach. Next, keep in mind that when you translate your idea to the finish product, you’ll need to adjust the scale of your marks. You’ll have made much bigger marks in the small study relative to the scale of the elements in your piece and thus will need to compensate in the finish to get a similar look.
Finally, try to remember the carefree attitude that you took when you created the thumbnail and carry that feeling into the finish. It’s just a piece of paper, after all.
To see the full article “Good Study Habits” by Marla Baggetta, check out the February 2011 issue of The Pastel Journal here or on newsstands.