Art Hack #1: Thumbnails

I'm pleased to introduce you to a subset of The Art Hacker: Art Hack #.

Art Hack # will cover pragmatic techniques, ranging from day to day problem solving to broad creative tricks.

So, let's start with Thumbnails.

Thumbnailing consists in working at a very small size, ideally, half of your thumb finger if you're working on a sheet in front of you. This is an old and common technique, used by artists of various backgrounds, from industrial design to illustration, concept art and fine art. 



The main benefits of this technique is that it removes a lot of the complexity in the image creation process. In the mean time, by removing the importance of details, you're free to concentrate on the core element of all visual arts: composition (which I'll cover in a later blog post).

At this size, a dot can be either a horse, a vehicle or a rock, so this forces you to give a meaning to this shape using all the other layers of the pyramid of composition. Using abstraction, shapes, values, edges, dynamics, colors, lighting, mood, you build a context that will help the viewer to understand what this shape is.

Later, details will be there to hold a second read, to differentiate a horse from a pony, a monk from a knight, a hovercraft from a space cruiser. But if you can't explain to your viewer the broad meaning of each shape at thumb size, it is very unlikely that your painting will work.

This is a key to successful paintings, even more today than ever: you want your artwork to stand out from a collection of random images. In a continuous flow of visuals on smartphones, tablets and notebooks, thumbnails help you to create strong compositions that get noticed. With today's displays, it becomes an early proofreading that you shouldn't overlook.

Whatever your talent for anatomy and perspective is, if your thumbnail sucks, your artwork sucks.


Thumbnailing also helps to judge the overall coherence of values. When an image becomes too big in your field of view, your eye has to jump from one point to another, forcing you to use your working memory to compare values. At a very small size, you can embrace the entirety of your composition in one look, making the value judging process far more accurate.

Centuries ago, artists were often limited by the size of their workshop to step away from their masterpiece and check values and colors. With today's digital tools, zooming in and out is not a problem. Even when working on a production painting, judging the coherence of your painting at a smaller size can be decisive.

See this trick about how to setting up photoshop to have a second B&W view of your image:

How To: Real Time Black and White Preview in Photoshop

Thumbnails are great to focus on composition and remove the fear of the complexity. But they are also wonderful for ideation, even more when done in batch.

You probably experienced the art block already. It can be overwhelming, discouraging and prevent you from pursuing your art goals, especially at early stages in your learning process. A great way to relieve the pressure and promote free association is to work in thumbnails sheets.


By working on 9 to 16 thumbnails at the same time, you can avoid the art block by allowing yourself to produce garbage. On a 60 to 90 minutes session, a 12 thumbnails sheet that produces 4 to 6 ideas is already very good for the time invested.

Start bold and abstract, focus on composition and avoid figuration for as long as possible. Your brain will end up seeing something in the chaos you created, generating different ideas in each frame of your sheet.

If you want to dive deeper into thumbnails, I have a few tutorials on gumroad that you might find helpful:

Speed Thumbnailing - Video Process & PSD

Graphical Color Composition - Process PSD

Environment Design Part 01: 3D thumbnails

Environment Design Part 02: Color Thumbnails from 3D


Looking forward to hear your thoughts about thumbnailng. Don't hesitate to let me know what you think in the comment section below or on the facebook group.