Friday, 29 March 2013


I have just returned from a painting trip to a corner of Sri Lanka, which was a most fascinating place to visit. (that's me, in the middle of the pic!  And that is a king coconut which narrowly missed the other painter when it fell out of a nearby palm tree.....)

 It was a trip mostly taken by watercolourists.  By the time we got off the coach each day at our chosen location, we had, at most, perhaps 2 hours to paint, in quite gruelling conditions -very high temperatures, and humidity of 85% - NOT easy to cope with, for watercolour painters there were all sorts of problems with drying times in that much humidity.

We were presented with a myriad of interesting and challenging subjects to paint.  Almost too much to cope with, in fact. Now can you honestly tell me that when confronted with, say, a beach scene, with unusual-shaped boats, colourfully-dressed fishermen, palm trees, a dog (or cow or goat ) or two, a coconut seller  dressed in a blue sarong and Hawaii -style shirt wielding a massive knife to cut huge orange king coconuts, nets on the sand, trailing ropes, someone digging for turtle eggs, guys on stilts in the can ignore the detail???  You are positively BOMBARDED with details, and fascinating it is too.  Simplifying the scene is most definitely NOT easy.  And perhaps, if you only have a short time, you want to just get on with painting as much as you can.

With only a limited amount of time, we all had to work fast.  And I noticed that very few, if any, of the painters actually did anything resembling a thumbnail, or even carried a viewfinder, to capture their scene. I too was a victim to this problem and as a result, produced mostly sketchbook studies.

 It will take me time to digest these studies, and revisit my photos, before I begin to produce what I feel would be "proper paintings".

And before embarking on those paintings, I will  definitely do a small thumbnail or two to explore the best way to present the subject.

Thumbnails are a thorny issue for many.  Because it often feels like a waste of precious time.  But I honestly believe it will be 5-10 minutes very well spent, because a good painting is not just about the subject-matter.   And the sooner we, as painters, realise this, and begin to take it into account, the more our paintings will improve.  Why do I say this?  Because creating a painting is not just about accurately recreating the old house,  the shiny apples,  the colourful boats...whatever the subject might be.   Those are physical things, three dimensional, real things.  A painting is just is a painting. It has a life of its own.    It is simply colours and tones, in the form of shapes, put down on a 2 dimensional surface - those shapes may well represent the house,  the apples, the boats.....but first and foremost, those shapes within the rectangle need to hang together well as a cohesive design. 

So, if what you want to achieve is a painting which captures the essence of the scene, you need to first decide what, for you, IS the essence of the scene...a few words written down might help....and then I believe it helps to focus your mind if you spend a few minutes doing a little thumbnail sketch which looks as tho it has the potential to become a dynamic image.  It takes time to learn how to simplify all that information, but here is an important tip for you:


Did I shout that?  Yes, I did.  It is VITAL.  If you want to create a painting, rather than just collect information for the fun of it, then you need to practice the whole business of thumbnail sketches, make it a regular part of your painting routine. Read about, and Learn as much as you can about composition and design - those things can be learned slowly and incorporated gradually...but in the first instance, JUST SQUINT LIKE CRAZY AND DO THOSE LITTLE "VALUE PATTERN"  THUMBNAILS.

Get down the main elements of the scene - the main light area/s, the mid-tones, and the darks.  Force yourself to tie shapes together - you will see this happening when you squint, so do it in your thumbnail.  Simplify, simplify, simplify.  You need to simplify in order to make a strong, clear statement, which is expressive of your subject.  All your efforts need to be concentrated on linking shapes and values.  The building, the shadow, the tree in front ...are they all the same in tone, do they melt together when you squint? If so, put down the entire shape as a simplified, large shape.  Doesn't have to be fully accurate, this is just your thumbnail.  It will be a semi-abstract rough sketch, which will determine the underlying dark/light pattern of your eventual painting.  It is, without any doubt in my mind, the most valuable five minutes you will spend...unsuccessful paintings are usually the result of a weak underlying value pattern.

I often use just three TOMBOW felt tip pens...light grey, mid grey, dark grey.   For the thumbnail above, I only used two, a light and a darkish grey...the middle grey had dried up!   I used the white of the sketchbook page for the lightest shapes, then covered the rest with the light grey (the one above is the size of a postcard).  Then, I usually build in the mid-tones with the mid grey, and finally I put in the darkest grey, which is almost black.  I squint all the time, so I do not get involved in details at all.  I do the same in pencil, using a 6B soft pencil, if I do not have my felt pens with me.  I use a viewfinder to isolate the scene from the rest of the world around me.  A camera viewfinder will be fine for this too.  I sometimes do more than one thumbnail...I try different formats - basic rectangle;  long and wide;  tall and thin; a square perhaps -  to find a composition which best suits the subject.

I am not suggesting that you use my thumbnail as an example of "strong shapes within the rectangle" I look at it again, I feel it does not have particularly strong shapes, but it was obviously a comfortable value pattern which I felt would work, it balanced reasonably well and captured the atmosphere I was after - I could clearly "see" what I wanted,  in my mind's eye.The dark foliage and the dappled shadows on the ground encircled the central, sunlit section which the figures were walking towards,  and created the atmosphere I wanted, the sense of intimacy.    Here is the finished article:   I like the way that the colour, tones and shapes within the rectangle linked together in the end, creating a feeling of "flow".  The painting has, for me, a nice relaxed "Sunday Stroll" kind of feeling to it, just what I had wanted.  (It is not Sri Lanka, it is London, incidentally!)  Not too much detail, just enough to tell the story.

An American artist, Mel Stabin, says in one of his books "painting is a process of subtraction, not addition".  He recommends that you include only those elements that are expressive of your subject, and that you RUTHLESSLY ELIMINATE THOSE THAT ARE NOT.  Wise words indeed.  He suggests we consider carefully what we want to omit from our painting, in order to achieve simplicity.  Simplicity, he says, is the solution, to both the problems of complexity and chaos.

Doing a thumbnail when confronted with the complexity and chaos of the real world, helps us to pare down what we see, and what we eventually use.

I hope to show you some Sri Lankan scenes, once I have completed a few that I am happy with.




  1. Welcome home my friend. I've been wondering when you would return and picturing you melting into a puddle of ooze during your absence.

    Another nice article to which I have alerted a friend who really needs to heed these words right now as he's temporarily lost his way.

    Thumbs up Girl!
    (Isn't it nice to still be called a girl?)

    1. Thanks Dale, and yes, given the advancing years, being called a girl is great.
      I oozed a lot, thought I would melt, but unfortunately, there is still plenty of me in evidence.

  2. Again, a fantastic article. I know how important your words are and we still don't do them when we really need to do so. I have been better lately! And, it shows in many of my pieces. I do try to teach my students the importance of doing the thumbnail, the Notan ... the simplification of the scene. The underlying abstract dark and light pattern is so important as you said above.... and I will share this again on Facebook for my artist friends to take in one more time! Thanks Jackie!

  3. I so look forward to your postings of your trip! Thanks for the tutorial, I will look up Mel Stabin.

  4. I LOVE Mel Stabin. Both artistically and for his good advice. I like your studies and look forward to seeing more. What a great place to visit!


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