Monday, 26 September 2011

further sketchbook thoughts

Before we get to specifics about materials and sketchbook types, I would like to say a further word or two about the USE of the sketchbook.  You saw from my previous post that I like to sketch on my travels, and my sketchbooks often contain images which are simply records of what I see and want to capture.

small woodland thumbnails
However, I touched on the idea of also using your sketchbook for THUMBNAIL SKETCHES, and without going into the whys and wherefores and design elements of thumbnails, let me just say this.  When you are working on location, you sit in front of a promising subject - and it stretches on indefinitely, above, below and to each side, doesn't it!  Well, if you plan to create a painting from your subject, it really does help to get some sense of what the image may look like eventually CAPTURED WITHIN A RECTANGLE (or square of course). You can use your camera viewfinder, this helps to isolate a scene.  You can also use a small cardboard viewfinder.  whatever you choose, doing a thumbnail forces you to:

  •  take the edges of the scene into consideration, 
  • to see how your subject "fits" within that rectangle, and
  • whether it "balances" nicely. 

and when you then come to paint at your easel, you will feel a greater sense of confidence - it makes a big difference, even without knowing very much about composition and will automatically help you to trust your own judgement.

The top image above shows three thumbnails in a sketchbook which is approx  10" square.    Two pencil ones, and one with added watercolour.  In the end, I didn't like any of them very much, and didn't paint this subject at all!  But I did enjoy sitting there doing them, and it is all good practice.

Venice window
Now this one I really enjoyed.  I started with the top window, and allowed the image to grow up, down and out from there.  I knew more or less right from the start that I would paint within a tall rectangle, it was that kind of scene,  so I just had to think carefully about the placement of the main elements when I started on my pastel paper.  After about 15 mins spent on this watercolour sketch in my sketchbook, I cracked on with the painting, which happened quite quickly.  the shadows moved a bit as I worked, but I had my sketch to refer to, so it didn't affect me too much, I stuck with the sketchbook shadows.

I could have worked the thumbnail just with pencil, a tonal study,  but actually, I find it really helpful to use watercolours onto my pencil sketches;  with a tiny winsor & Newton travel box of watercolours, I can quickly capture the areas of colour and tone within the scene, more quickly than scribbling away with coloured pencils.  Watercolours are transparent, so if it dries too light, you simply add another layer.  You don't have to worry too much about technique, as it dries very quickly. If you put in a tone which is too dark, you can add some clear water and blot it to lift the colour.  If you wish, you can work with pencils over the top, even a simple lead pencil is good to add extra darks.   Remember,  it is only a sketchbook image after all - you dont have to show it to anyone, it is just for YOU, for reference!

TIP:  Just one thing.........if you do work just in pencil, pastel pencils, or charcoal, dont forget to use plenty of spray fixative, because otherwise, when you close your sketchbook, you will dirty the opposing page.

If you have no chance to work on location to complete a painting from your thumbnail, you can take photos of course, and then work at home, BUT ONE THING IS FOR SURE.  YOUR MEMORY OF THE PLACE WILL BE REINFORCED BY HAVING DONE THAT LITTLE SKETCH ON LOCATION. It makes a huge difference.  Just taking a photo and working from that photo at home is one approach, which can work,  but I absolutely promise you, hand on heart, that you will enjoy your painting experience far more if you have spent time producing a thumbnail sketch first.  Studying your subject FULL SIZE, even just for the 15 mins it might take to make that little thumbnail sketch, makes all the difference in the world.  It is a very positive way to use part of your sketchbook.


  1. Jackie, it is so great to find you blogging. I always enjoyed conversations on WetCanvas. This is wonderful and I look forward to reading all your thoughts here. I have signed up to follow your blog. Wonderful information for everyone from these posts.

  2. so great to hear from you Marsha, and I LOVE the photo! Everyone tells me I should find a new photo to publish, the one I am using makes me look like a headmistress. Ah well, c'est la vie. Your pics on your website are terrific, so lovely to see you flourishing so well.

  3. Thanks for sharing a second article on sketchbooks. Your thumbnails are beautiful. I've recently become a convert to doing gesture sketches, life drawings and thumbnails before painting. It's done wonders for my pastel paintings.

    Is your Winsor & Newton set a Field Box? I bought a Cotman Field Box back in the late Seventies when I lived in San Francisco. It became my favorite watercolor set for its portability, convenience and elegant case. Having the water bottle inside made it instantly usable anywhere I went.

    Now that water brushes (water in the handle) are available, other pocket sets have that advantage of water included. I still love my Artists' Field Box though - yep, after I had it for 25 years I replaced it with the artist grade one.

  4. Love your blog---and wish, I am sure as others will, I could show you my sketchbook!!! For the reason that some are good - -and some are good ideas, but I can't get them figured out for a painting!! I tell myself to work harder, and reading your blog will sure help! Thanks.

  5. Your watercolor sketch in Venice is something I love. That one could stand as a painting in its own right if it was taken out and framed.

    I've always been fascinated when an artist does a painting that trails out into blank paper - and doesn't look clumsy or awkward. I'd love to see an article on that type of composition, whether in pastels or watercolor or anything, where the painting gets simpler and simpler then winds up in a jazzy edge with white space (or blank colored ground) around it. How do you get that to look so good and not blocky or awkward?

  6. Robert, I will definitely make a note to talk about "vignettes" as part of what is turning into a "sketchbook series" for this blog! thanks for the suggestion.


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