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Easy Composition Tips: Thumbnail Sketches

March 7, 2010

Whether you’re drawing or painting, you need to consider the composition of your work. Composition is the arrangement of the visual elements on your picture plane; or, where you put things. You need to take into consideration the relationship of the elements to each other, and the relationship of the elements to the edge of your drawing or painting.

Composition can help communicate feeling and meaning. The arrangement of objects can be balanced and harmonious and convey a sense of calm. Or they can be awkward and convey a sense of tension. You need to use this to your advantage!

Even if you’re working with a single subject, like a portrait, you need to think about composition. Where will the face go on the page? In the centre, off to the side, near the edge? Each arrangement will slightly alter the feel of the finished piece.

But how can you figure out the best composition? That’s where thumbnail sketches come in.

Thumbnails are small-scale drawings that let you play around with composition without investing a huge amount of time and effort into a single artwork.

How to use Thumbnails

First of all, you want to consider all the elements that will be in your piece. Below are some examples of thumbnails I did for an upcoming painting. I knew I was working with a horizon, a tree, two giraffes and the sun. My goal was to find the best arrangement for these elements.

Thumbnail drawings should only be a few inches big, but make sure they are the same scale as your finished piece. I know that my painting will be three feet by two feet, so I made each thumbnail three inches by two inches. This way, I know that the elements of the painting will fit into the thumbnail the same way as the painting.


Once you know what you’re working with, and you draw yourself several to-scale boxes, start playing around. Try as many different arrangements you can think of. This lets you see exactly how things will relate to eachother without just imagining it. This is important because artists are visual and need to see.

Choosing a Thumbnail

Pick a thumbnail that feels like it works. This really depends on the feelings you’re going for in your work. This is the thumbnail I chose for my composition. It is balanced and harmonious, each element is comfortably placed and nothing feels awkward. It also follows the rules of thirds.


We all know how it feels to suddenly get the perfect idea for your next piece. You’re excited and anxious to get going. It can be tempting to jump right in. But you’ll find that your finished piece will be better if you take a few minutes to do a little planning and find the best composition. The effort is well worth the result!


From → Drawing, Painting

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