A sample of a series of thumbnails planning an interactive game.

What’s the difference between doodles, thumbnails, and comps?  Doodles are taking you from the “nothing” to the “what” (many refer to this as blue-sky thinking).  Thumbnails take you from the “what” to the “how”.  Comps take you from the  “How” to the “best how” or “more complete how”.

Thumbnails are not defined by what you are seeing on the paper, but rather the purpose and thought process that occurs in your mind.  In the end, you must define what a thumbnail is by what it means to you.  In time, you will come to discover what works best for you and your particular style.

This is a thumbnail version of one Howard Pyle's great illustrations.

Thumbnails seem to mean slightly different things to different people.  For example, an animator will describe them one way, while a landscape painter may offer a different explanation.  But there are some basic characteristics that are universal.  Let’s examine these characteristics so that as you develop your style and skill, you have something to guide and direct you.

Thumbnails for animation of Daffy Duck.

Thumbnail sketches from a painter's sketchbook.

Thumbnails are Small.  Why?  Small makes it easier to view them as a whole and not get sucked into the details.  When the size gets big enough, the natural inclination of the viewer is to start focusing in on the details.  The larger the image, the more we tunnel in on the parts rather than the whole.  By keeping it small, it is much more natural to see it from corner to corner in one glance, which gives us the ability to judge it as an entire composition, never being distracted by minutia.

This sketch isn't much larger than a postage stamp.

Another small drawing.

This drawing is getting large enough that we want to look at the details.

Thumbnails are Simplified.  Why?  We want to work from general to specific.  This works hand in hand with the small concept above.  When it is simplified there are few details to speak of, so again, it is easier to evaluate it as a whole composition.  It stands to reason that our initial efforts should be focused on general ideas and not the nuance of details.  By eliminating the details we are designing the larger, more general shapes.  If the design works at this level then we can embellish it, adding detail on top of the basic arrangement.  If it does not work well at this level, no amount of embellishment can solve its short-comings.

This drawing is composed of the simplest of lines.

These shapes are so simple they are abstract, and allow us to evaluate the composition as an abstract design.

This is only the beginning, but the details can come later if we like this simplified design.

Thumbnails are Quick.  Why?  Being able to execute one thumbnail quickly gives us the ability to execute many thumbnails in a relatively short period of time.  We are trying to generate numerous little pictures to look at without becoming burned out and spending lots of time (time is money).  These little pictures give us options, and open up a variety of approaches to our project.  The more choices we have to choose from, the more likely we can pick one that is going to work well.  Our creativity becomes realized in the process of making these choices.  Having options is always better.

It does not take a long time to sketch this sort of thing.

Since they are done quickly, we can afford to do more and throw some aside.

Another view of the same scene.

And still another, completely different view, exploring many options.

This just doesn't take that long to do.

Thumbnails explore a Variety.  Why?  There would be little point in creating a bunch of little pictures that all look about the same.  Because they are small, and quick, and simple, this is an ideal time to ask ourselves, “what if I tried an entirely different approach?”  If we don’t find out by drawing five or ten more thumbnails, we rob ourselves of the benefits of this exploratory phase.  Once we have drawn a few, we need to step back and think about what new direction we could take to make it look completely different.  We need to identify elements and deliberately attack them in the opposite way.  For example, if an object is dark in one version, let’s try it light in another version.  From there we will create a few more, then we repeat this process over and over until we have a wide variety to choose from.

See the variation on an autumn theme explored here.

Many variations are found with these sketches.

Although similar to an extent, the artist is trying the same idea in various ways.

This is a nice example of exploring variations.

Although the view is from above in both of these, the composition changes quite a bit.

They are Expendable.  Why?  Because the fact is, we are not ever going to use the vast majority of thumbnail sketches.  Think about it.  If we do 25 thumbnails for one project, how many will we wind up using?  One.  That means we throw out 24.  If we spend too much time on them, they represent too much of an investment and it’s harder to drop the poor drawings because we just spent too much time on them.  We ruin our objectivity.  If they are done quickly, it’s easier to say to ourselves, “this only took me a few minutes and it just isn’t working too well, I’ll just draw another and I think I can make it better.”  In the end, the overall improved result should justify the time spent on a bunch of thumbnails we don’t use, because the one we wound up with is great!

We pick the one that works best, and the others become expendable. We didn't spend that much time on any of them, so we can afford this exploration.

If for some reason you had to choose not to use this one, it didn't take that long to do, so you're not being hurt to leave it out.

We may have to pass on this one too.

All of these things are closely related.  Quick, simple, small etc.  A key aspect of the thumbnail is that it should be serving as a vital part of our creative process.  Creativity is defined as coming up with an original idea that is useful.  Sometimes great ideas just pop into our heads.  Okay fine, but usually we need to be able to conjure up ideas on demand.  This is not an instant event, but a process.  It needn’t be a long drawn out ordeal, but it does take a little time and attention.  And we do have to realize that one step leads to another, then another, then another.  After some time, some great ideas have emerged and stand out clearly over the rest.

In this example, the choice of how to crop it can be made after the basic sketch is drawn.

In these sketches by Scott Gustafson, notice how he has explored and searched for the right feel.

These sketches are so rough that they may only serve as notes to self, but that leads to additional thumbnails that become more and more refined.

The next pass of these same ideas becomes more refined and developed.

We should be able to start with an empty brain (devoid of any ideas), doodle around, start to get into it, generate some ideas, modify them, improve them, try some more, get excited, realize that there are some other, completely different approaches, explore them, discover some more ideas, realize that most of these are crappy, start focusing in on the ones that really seem to be working, make them a bit better still, and finally come down to two or three great thumbnails that will work quite well.  Then all we have to do is make our choice (then we’ve achieved creativity).

In this sample, the larger thumb was deemed to be too balanced and two additional thumbs explored what would happen if the darker shape was pushed higher or lower.

Do any of these seem obviously better to you?

Many of the thumbnails we’ve done will be easy to label as useless.  Instead of trying to erase and correct a bad thumb, just move on to a brand new one.  It will be a no-brainer to know which ones we should discard.  There will be another group that we may think is not too bad, but again, once we compare them to the best ones, it shouldn’t be too hard to set these average ones aside.  If we find ourselves in a pickle because we have three different thumbs that all look great, well, what a nice position to find ourselves in.  Ask some other people, get some feedback and make the choice.

Frequently, sketches like this are just a part of the process in arriving at something much better.

By the way, don’t throw any of your thumbnails away (except for the really horrible ones).  You never know when they may yet come in handy.

It’s all about exploration, trial and error (don’t forget that the error is an important part of the equation), and generating options.  This is what creativity is all about.  The concept that creativity is just having an idea magically pop into your head, is myth.

I think this one could be better, don't you?

This is what thumbnailing is all about, not the specifics of size, medium etc.

Don't be afraid to mix media. This one has pencil, ink and white-out correction pen all on colored paper.

Of course as artists, we should take advantage of the thumbnail process to refine the underlying design as we go.  In other words, with each sketch, we are looking at all of the design components and visual elements and evaluating it.  Most of what we are judging as we compare one thumbnail against another, is its design merit.  Where’s the focal point, is there unity and variety, flow and dynamics, etc?  This is a great stage to be doing this, for if we can determine that the staging is not right, it’s so easy to whip up another sketch that addresses the problem.  Once we solve one problem however, we usually realize that there is another weakness appearing, so we move on to address that problem.

The thumbnail phase is one of the best opportunities to study our composition as an abstract design.

The thumbnail phase is a great time to consider how the subtext, or basic abstract composition is contributing to the mood. See how the figure on the left is separated from the couple on the right?

If the focal point comes across in this small thumbnail, then it will certainly work when we enlarge the final image.

There are a lot of things to be looking at that will eventually make the composition work well.  If we don’t recognize or address some of these issues until we have invested hours and hours of drawing time, it can become very difficult if not impossible to correct.  It should become easier to see the problem in the simplified thumbnail, and it is certainly a lot easier to change.

This process is what accounts for so many versions being done in the thumbnail process.  We shouldn’t be creating 25 thumbnails just randomly. If you try to come up with a bunch of thumbnails just to impress your instructor and somehow avoid this process of creativity and developing the quality of design, you clearly will be frustrated and come away thinking this whole thing is a waste of your time.

It is important to thumbnail the overall composition.  To this end we must frame our thumbnails in a box with the appropriate aspect ratio.  We should know the size and dimension of the finished product, therefore, design the thumbnails in the same dimensions scaled down.

Though the unframed thumb on the left is useful to a degree, before we are done, we must frame it up to know how our composition is really going to work.

We should also do thumbnails in a full value range, meaning blacks and whites and two or three shades of gray.  The value structure of the composition is the single most important element of the composition, so don’t move onto larger comps until you have established the design with these values in mind.

These are nice thumbs in a full range of values. We need to be thinking about the mood that we are seeking.

Although done in an overall higher key, this is better than a simple line drawing.

While the gesture drawing in this sample is great, notice how the lack of lighting and shadow compares to the samples above.

You can also do color thumbnails.  Not everybody feels the need to do these, but the same principals would apply.  General colors, simplified and small to establish the basic structure.

We want to look at the basic color scheme. Cools against warms.

Again, the small size allows for exploration of different color schemes.

Keep it as simple as posible.

A lot of information for such a simple sketch.

Here's another idea, not exactly full color, but a suggestion of it.

Along with doing the entire composition, you can thumbnail any segment or part of the picture.  For example, you may want to explore the pose of the character in thumbnails.  This wouldn’t be a substitute for the entire composition, but additional studies to nail down the gesture and staging of the character.  It would be a matter of personal preference whether you did these pose thumbnails first and then added the rest of the composition around the selected pose, or the other way around.

Focusing on just the face.

These just focus on the character.

There are times that for one reason or another we elect not to spend much time on thumbnails.  We need to make sure that we are opting for this course for a good purpose and not just because we are being lazy or don’t feel comfortable thumbnailing.

Here's a sample from a children's book showing how the pages are laid out in thumbnails.

While these are nice sketches, they invite too much attention to the details and don't address the overall composition like we should in a good thumbnail.

This is what I would call a good doodle. It doesn't make a bold enough design statement to be a good thumbnail.

While some of the detail is now missing, this version makes for a much better thumbnail because it has a bold statement of composition of lights and darks.

Notice in this one how you can focus on the whole because there are few details in any of the parts.

In this one however, there are enough details to tempt us away from looking at the whole.