Anyone who has taken illustration classes has probably been expected to conform to some sort of process involving thumbnail sketches. Thumbnails are small preliminary sketches that communicate the gist of an idea. I think sometimes students feel like the only purpose of thumbnails is to figure out an idea and if they are already thinking of something awesome it is an unnecessary step. Well, I am a believer that there is more to it than that.
In my experience both as an illustrator and as a graphic designer, translating an idea from your mind to your paper or design isn’t always as easy as it seems. When I worked for the BYU Universe, sometimes my coworkers would ask me to take a look at designs that they felt were struggling. I told them to explain to me what they didn’t like about it. The response usually included something about how the idea in their head had been significantly more awesome than the version they had actually produced. Of course, we would proceed to discuss the specifics of what was falling short, but I think problems like that could be avoided with a little more work on the front end. The purpose of thumbnails is to avoid errors in translation from mind to paper. Figure out what is important about the idea. Figure out what compositional elements can convey the important things and what can create the right feel. And remember, if the composition works small it will work large.
You might have a specific image in your head, but until you draw a little version of it, you aren’t going to realize how vague your imagination can be sometimes. Don’t forget the golden rule of creativity either: Your first idea usually isn’t your best idea. I think I’ll write more about that later… but for now, use thumbnails to try some variations, chances are they will get more creative and interesting as you go.
Thumbnails can also convey the gist of your idea to a client before you get too invested. I think most illustrators and art directors are on-board with the process of approving thumbnails, sketches/comps and then the final piece. Thumbnails can work for a lot of other people too though. Landscape commission, or portrait? Show the client a little sketch before you spend a ton of work on it. Thumbnails for graphic design could save some hassle too. My coworkers and I used to complain about all the changes for which our boss or clients would ask. Sometimes I think we were totally justified, but other times we probably could have avoided it by sending them a sketch of what we were thinking.
So don’t underestimate what a Thumbnail sketch can do.
Thumbnails can convey the gist of something even when they are really tiny. All of my thumbnails included here are 2″ tall or smaller.
Thumbnails can be used to jot down ideas for characters or objects too, not just entire compositions.