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Old 12-04-2002, 03:43 PM   #1
Chris Saper Chris Saper is offline
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Using a Three-Value Thumbnail to Resolve Composition




One of the most important tools in planning a painting is a thumbnail sketch that forces all of the shapes into three values: dark, middle and light. Although most final paintings will include more than three values, keeping the dark areas dark, the light areas light, and middle areas in between will produce strong design and good readability from a distance.

In this way, the thumbnail sketch lets you think through how you want to mass your values, place the shapes on the canvas, and experiment with a variety of negative shapes to create the design you want. Negative shapes are extremely important to me, and I spend a lot of time considering them. In so doing, I can comfortably place the center of my composition on the canvas.

The importance of a thumbnail increases as a portrait's complexity increases, especially as additional subjects are added, or when several resources go into constructing a composite.

Step 1: Resource Photographs

My client and I selected a variety of resource photos, shot over two separate days' time. Once we had decided on the gestural/body language to be portrayed, I went back again to get more detailed information, scheduling the photo shoot for the same time of day, and in the same place in her yard. If you will be using more than one photo reference in a painting, I can't overemphasize how essential it is that the lighting quality and direction be the same in every reference shot. Your position, relative to the subject, must also be the same. You cannot successfully combine imagery when you take Subject A's photo while you are standing, but kneel to take Subject B's photo.
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Old 12-08-2002, 04:18 PM   #2
Chris Saper Chris Saper is offline
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Step 2: The Thumbnail

The thumbnail sketch MUST be of the same proportion as the finished work, otherwise placement and negative spaces become something you have to just guess at. ( As an aside, I have done TONS of paintings where I have "guessed," and guessed wrong...it's better to know.) Be sure to account for the 3/8 inch rabbet that constitutes the lip of the frame. It's a disaster to see a framed portrait where the top of the head (or edge of the sleeve, or knuckle, or stem or anything else) forms a tangent with the edge of the frame.

Sometimes you may know the exact size of the canvas before you begin the thumbnail, and sometimes the thumbnail will tell you the dimensions that the canvas should be. Most conventional portraits will allow enough leeway in the design of negative edges to accommodate standard sizes. Standard sizing aids in the flexibility provided to the client in framing, and very importantly, my ability to keep some beautiful presentation frames on hand, so that I can mange the "first impression."

Sizing is another tremendously valuable feature of the thumbnail sketch. I don't' work over 90% of life size (nor under 50%), so I usually have a pretty good idea of the maximum size I want a subject's head. That dimension then gives me all the information I need to work out negative spaces and figure placement. This is especially important working on a fixed surface (here I am using oils, and I work on a linen-mounted panel), and there is no wiggle room for cropping with a matboard. I have no intention of ever having to go and get my board recut at the end of the painting.

Here the thumbnail has been constructed in three values plus a highlight, and lets me arrange the key shapes into an interlocking design. The three value sketch also will point out obvious "islands" of disconnected values, and other eye-traps...before you even start the painting.
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Old 12-08-2002, 04:22 PM   #3
Chris Saper Chris Saper is offline
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Step 3: Begin the painting

Now that I have determined the size and shape of the components of the painting, it's very easy to just begin placing the figures on the canvas. I've placed a mark in the center of the canvas to correspond to the center of the thumnail; this is the easiest way for me to ensure that I can preserve the negative spaces I have aleady spent a lot of time determining.

Here, I've toned the canvas with Terre Verte, and begin to draw with my brush, also in Terre Verte. I don't need to start by blocking in values at this point, because I already know where they will be, and what they will be.
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