Don’t Settle

Bighorn sheep in Wasatch mountains Utah

Whether you are painting, drawing, photographing or doing whatever you do, remember your first attempt at a problem probably won’t be your best. Use the first try to learn and improve so the second, third or nineteenth attempt can be a success.

I went for a little hike with my friend on Saturday. We didn’t really have a plan, we just knew where we were starting and that we’d have to end up back at the car if we wanted to go home afterward. It was enjoyable, though the route we took up was way too steep and the route we took down was even steeper. On the way down we spotted a couple of bighorn sheep. I had to try to take a photo. The sheep were close enough to be really tempting, but far enough to make it a challenge.

The photo below was taken free standing at the 300 mm end of my zoom lens in strong wind—all this on top of the fairly harsh afternoon light. Needless to say, I wasn’t very satisfied with the results. I had to get closer.

Bighorn sheep, first attempt photo in Wasatch mountains

I managed to get within a reasonable distance and climb onto a rock that was below the ledge where the sheep were hanging out. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see much of them from where I was, so, my friend and I starting making strange noises to attract their attention.

The photo below shows one of the sheep looking over the ledge to see what on earth I am doing. It was taken in the same conditions as the previous, but I was a lot closer and was sitting on a rock which helped stabilize me.

Bighorn sheep second attempt photo, peeking over ledge in Wasatch mountains Utah

Not bad, about a jillion times better than the first, but it still wasn’t “the one”. So I climbed to a new location at about the same level as the sheep. I had better view of where they decided to sit down, so we didn’t have to squawk or roar anymore. It also put some of the landscape in the background, which made for a more wildlifey composition. I got some decent 3/4 light from there too. Still harsher than I would have liked, but it worked out ok.

The main image at the top is from that location. Not bad, I’m glad I didn’t settle for the first attempt.

After that we surfed on scree (small loose rocks) down the face, and headed back to the car.

From Mind to Paper: Thumbnail Sketches

pen and ink

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.

Preliminary sketch for illustration from Tremsin and the Firebird

Thumbnails can be used to jot down ideas for characters or objects too, not just entire compositions.

masked villain, comic book