Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
What Is a Value Sketch?
A value sketch is a simplified drawing that focuses on rendering a simplified version of the light and dark masses in a subject and how they relate to each other. It's also called a value study.
Artists use value sketches as visual annotations to jot down the essence of a scene. They are usually done quickly, in pen or pencil, and are no bigger than a square with 3-inch (8cm) sides.
Since they are usually small in size, they are referred to as thumbnail sketches.
They are created with the goal of working out an interesting composition that will lead to a successful painting. The focus is on the dark and light masses, their position, and their relationships in value, shape, and size.
It is recommended to make several and then use the best one as a reference for the painting.
Having a set value structure to follow while painting becomes even more crucial during en plein air painting because the light changes so quickly outdoors.
(En plein air is French for "in the open air," meaning outdoors. Painting en plein air is when you bring your painting gear out with you and paint on location.)
Hue is the name given to a color.
Value is how dark or light that color is.
They are inherently related, and it is vital to be conscious of both.
— Kevin Macpherson
How to Make a Thumbnail Sketch
Start by drawing a rough frame, usually a rectangle, though proportions depend on what size canvas you are planning to use.
Very simply, start by outlining the major shapes. Ignore smaller shapes and details.
Don’t try to be careful or correct in your drawing. The idea is to design and place the shapes without worrying about details.
You may want to change or eliminate certain things from the sketch, even if you see them in the scene. Often it's very beneficial for the painting to edit things out, making the design simpler.
Draw very quickly. You don’t want an exact replication; you want to draw what strikes you. You are making an artistic sketch, an interpretation, of what you see and what you like in that particular scene.
It’s a good idea to make a short notation of the feeling that the scene inspires you. What has gotten you so excited that you felt inspired to sketch that particular scene? Write a few words next to your sketch as a reminder.
Drawing the Negative Space
Pay attention to the negative shapes (spaces between objects) as you draw the value masses. Negative spaces are also masses, and they help to get the proportions right.
Let your negative shapes reinforce the positive ones, and make sure you create variation in the design. Dark and light masses should not be equal in size, one has to be dominant.
You're doing a thumbnail sketch wrong if you…
- Draw many details. A thumbnail is a quick study of a potential composition, not a fully rendered pencil drawing.
- Draw big. It is small, not a mid or big-size drawing, where you work out many questions about value, shape, edges, etc.
- Use color. It is monochromatic, not a colorful mini-version of the final painting.
- Think about an audience. The sketch needs to make sense only to you, the artist, as an annotation. It is not meant to be seen by anyone else but you.
How Do I Use a Value Study?
So, you have done your thumbnail studies. Now what?
Thumbnail drawings represent the main value masses of a composition. You can use them either as memory aids or as planning tools. They can help you remember important elements of a subject, what struck you when you first saw the scene, why you found it interesting or beautiful, how the light was, etc.
The main reason why I use them is for planning my paintings. I like to try a few possible compositions quickly, before settling for the most pleasing, and start painting. The first composition I try is rarely the best one; it takes a few attempts and corrections to find a winning layout.
Thumbnails are also great when visiting museums, to take visual notes of paintings you like. I find that when I really like a painting, it’s not the subject matter that makes the painting successful, but the underlying composition, the distribution of darks and lights; making a sketch of it helps to visualize that.
By doing thumbnail sketches, your ability to recognize and organize the lights and darks in your work will improve and you will create better structures, with inspiring value designs.
In translating what you see, you must be able to select salient points to convey and then exaggerate them.
— Juliette Aristides, artist
Why Is Making a Thumbnail Better Than Taking a Photo?
Simplification is the first step in the creation of a work of art. When you are drawing a thumbnail, include only what is essential for the subject matter, disregard details, and focus on the big shapes.
If you use a photo as a reference for your painting, you rely on what the camera has recorded: everything in sight, without distinction, often changing the light and dark relationships.
With a thumbnail, you are in charge. You decide how to crop the scene, what is most important, and the unimportant elements and details that are better to eliminate.
How Many Values to Use in a Thumbnail Drawing?
Painting is all about relationships between shapes.
Don’t worry what the drawn shapes look like; your focus is on establishing the relationships between value masses.
I like to use three values in my sketches; in any case, no more than five total.
Leave light elements the color of your paper, and use your pencil or pen to shade darker elements. In a three-value sketch, I use white, mid-gray, and darker gray or black.
Squinting will help you group similar values together into big shapes. Some mid-values are harder to represent in a simplified way. Again, squinting will help understand what shape they belong to.
Make more than one thumbnail. Try a few potential variations, learning and improving from sketch to sketch.
Handy Value Markers
As an alternative to drawing with a pencil or pen, I often use grayscale value markers.
There are a few different kinds on the market. The one I have is a set called Dual Brush. It has six different markers, from light to dark, and each has a thin and a thick tip, that I flexibly use for lines or to fill value shapes.
For a visual demo of how to use the value markers, see the video at the end of this article.
Consideration While Drawing Additional Thumbnail Sketches
Looking at the first thumbnail, ask yourself “Is there any way I can improve it?” You can change completely the feeling of the painting by making an area darker and/or another lighter.
- What happens if you really lighten up the sky?
- What happens if you light up the building?
- What happens if you darken the bush?
Look at all your small studies and decide which one you like more.
Assign Colors to Match the Planned Values
In your value plan, you assign values to shapes.
As you paint, you are assigning colors to those shapes.
— Kevin Macpherson
Define the Focal Point
Pay attention to where you create an area that attracts lots of attention, it becomes the focal point of your painting. Play around with it. Test different options.
Looking at the outlines of the big shapes, decide what area you want to emphasize, that will be the focal point of the painting. Think about how to make things important.
What attracts attention?
Wherever dark meets light it creates an area of high interest. Also, in contrast to big simple shapes, more detailed shapes draw the viewer in.
In general, at the focal point, you may find:
- The strongest value contrast.
- The sharpest edges.
- High color contrast.
- More details.
Once I Have a Thumbnail of Choice, What Do I Do?
- Set your thumbnail of choice next to your canvas, where it’s easily seen.
- Use it as a guide for drawing your subject on the canvas.
- Paint looking at the scene in front of you, but keep your value study within sight.
- Keep looking at the thumbnail for value masses positioning and composition. Make minor adjustments as you paint.
- The value study will be your reminder of what impression you were aiming for in your painting.
- When introducing color, your value masses should stay consistent with the value plan.
- When mixing the paint, make sure you are staying within the scheme of your darks and lights.
- Keep squinting and comparing what is happening on the canvas to the thumbnail, and double-check that you are creating consistent shapes of value.
You Can Create Thumbnails on the Computer
It might be quicker for you to create a digital value study.
Here are a couple of ways you can do it:
- Take a photo of the scene you want to paint.
- Convert to gray-scale by desaturating.
- Posterize it.
This will not simplify and edit elements that may be better removed or changed (like a trash can or a street sign), but it’s a quick way to go if you already have a winning composition. You can use this digital image as a starting point for a thumbnail drawing, applying some editing and further simplification.
Digital Drawing App Method
Instead of using paper and pen, you can draw your value study using a digital drawing app, and proceed exactly the same way as you would in the paper version.
Example of Value Study and Final Painting
I've been taking en plein air painting classes with artist Joseph Lombardo. In one class he painted the demo below, starting with a nice value sketch.
Both the sketch and the painting use value contrast to clarify the ground-object relationships and to create an interesting composition. Notice how parts of the trunks are light on dark, and others are dark on light.
Lombardo mixed colors very carefully, thoughtfully representing the value relationship between each trunk, parts of the same trunk, and how they compare to the background.
Some are light trunks over a light ground, others are dark over light.
In the creation of the value study, he emphasized the value relationships, grouping darks and lights together and pushing contrast, for a stronger impact.
Painting Looking at the Sketch
Below is a painting demo by Joe Lombardo based on the value study above.
The artist carefully mixed colors, with attention to the scene in front of him and always referred to the sketch for value relationship, especially between each trunk and the background.
When evaluating object-ground relationships, always look at differences in values and ask yourself "Is it light over light, dark over light, or light on dark?"
It Might Feel Like a Waste of Time, but It’s Not
Often, we are so eager to jump into the painting as soon as possible, that taking the time to do thumbnail sketches may feel like a hindering activity.
However, those minutes spent sketching, will save time in the long run and you will end up with a better painting.
Some artists that have been painting for many years might be able to see the idea so clearly that there's no need to do a thumbnail. They may have found a way to do the exploring right on the canvas with just a few light strokes of the brush.
However, I strongly recommend always doing a few trial compositions before starting painting, especially if you are a beginner.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the composition goal when doing lights and darks? Should my sketches have a lot of dark? What proportion of light to dark should there be? Is there a particularly pleasing arrangement of lights and darks?
Answer: For a painting to be effective, it's recommended to vary the proportions of each value, applying a formula of most, some, and a bit.
Varying the values this way is much more interesting than dividing them equally.
Making a value sketch helps a lot in identifying the value that covers most of the plane, then the value you have less of, and finally, the one you have just a little bit of.
You can have situations like:
Most dark, some medium, and a bit of light
Most light, some dark, and a bit of medium
Most medium, some light, and a bit of dark
In each case, the largest value area becomes the dominant value group, and the smallest area naturally becomes the center of interest.
If the largest area is light values, the painting is said to be on a high key; if the largest is dark, the painting is in a low key.
Place the smallest area on one of the sweet spots and make it the center of interest.
© 2017 Robie Benve
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 28, 2020:
You are very welcome Mila, so happy to hear you found my writing useful. :)
Mila on March 27, 2020:
Amazing article, so well written . Opened my eyes on the thumbnail process and use. Thank you, Robie.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 23, 2019:
Thank you so much Heather!! wow, "Just ran across your article - one of the best written I've seen." I'll try not to let that go to my head. :)
Heather on September 20, 2019:
Just ran across your article - one of the best written I've seen. Very clear, concise and informative! I feel like I really understand thumbnail sketchs. Thank you!!
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 22, 2017:
Hi Deborah, I agree it takes some self-training to do this, but at the end it's totally worth it. Thanks for your coment. Happy sketching!
Deborah on June 20, 2017:
Great article I have trained myself to do this and it does help!,
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 21, 2017:
Wow thanks Penny, two great reviews in one comment, I feel so grateful! Glad you found it informative and your daughter thinks it's great as well.
Penny Leigh Sebring from Fort Collins on May 18, 2017:
Wow, this is great information. I am an artist of words, I can't even manage a straight line, but my daughter is a sketch and comic artist, and she thought this was a great article as well.