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Acrylic Painting Tutorial: How to use thumbnails for inspiration

Creating a scene can be intimidating when painting. Making thumbnails can help you develop an idea without investing too much time. Sometimes just a simply gesture of a shape or a few messy lines can give you clarity on an image. Instead of trying to picture it in your head, take a few moments to use your sketchbook or scrap paper to make some shapes. In this tutorial, you’ll see how I took a tiny thumbnail in my sketchbook. I used the idea for a drawing which made the final painting very quick to execute. Any questions?

Here is the finished painting, titled “Job Search” (11×14 inches): 

Step 1: Thumbnail

I had this image in my head of a guy wearing a paper hat. Just seemed like a funny thought that could become something. I sketched a few super tiny versions of it. These are only about an inch or two. At this size, you can really just make a few lines and start seeing where they take you. It’s often like seeing shapes in the clouds. I really exageratted the poses, something I’ve been playing around with.

Step 2: Drawing

Using the app Grid Drawing Assistant on my Android tablet, I placed a grid over the original sketch and transferred it to 11×17 paper. So cool these days that you think of app and someone else has already done it. I just wanted to capture the outline and feel of the thumbnail. Only after the composition is roughly sketched in will I worry about correcting the anatomy. The rhythm of the thumbnail is more important to me first.

Step 3: Detailed drawing

I worked on the drawing until it was a full size sketch using a mirror, reference photos, and even real objects in my apartment. You’ll be surprised at how much time you’ll actually save by working out the details in the drawing. When painting, there is color, shape, form, hue, tint and line. Here we get to concentrate on the composition, anatomy and any details 

Step 4: Light

The drawing phase is also a good time to work out some of the basics of the lighting. For this one, I didn’t go too far into those details. If I had found anything complicated or interesting while playing with the image, it would be a good opportunity to work out the forms further.

Step 5: Gesso

Now starting to paint. I often use acrylic paint on bristol board. Gesso the paper, then added burnt umber to the second coat of gesso. If you’ve never used paper, it’s a really fun material for acrylic. Gesso both sides of the paper to make for a more sturdy surface. Adding burnt umber gives a neutral background. This avoids the feeling or work of having to fill the white space.

Step 6: Transfer the drawing

Using the grid again, I transferred the basic outlines to the paper using pencil. This is the same method that I used for transfering the thumbnails. There are a lot of ways to transfer an image, this always felt the simplest to me. Pencil was used here, though a small brush with watered down acrylic would have also worked. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just a close approximation. You have your original drawing and will continue to match that in paint. Some of the accidental imperfections worked in my favor, making room on the book for a mug that wasn’t in the earlier thumbnail or drawing.

Step 7: Shadows and Highlights

Add the shadows and highlights. I often use various reference images to make sure I have each element to the right proportion and details. I still see some corrections I need to make.

Step 8: Development

The pencil drawing still has a faint grid from transferring from thumbnail, so that’s a big help. I have tablet my for reference photos of anatomy and textures. The book An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists is a very affordable compilation of reference images. I also use a mirror to capture the human form.

Step 9: Underpainting

As I developed the underpainting, I have enough detail to get the idea of most tonal areas. I continue to develop details. Making this version as detailed as possible will help when I add color. Photographing the various steps is also helpful in case you want to see if a decision needs to be reversed.

Step 10: Color

First washes of color. I always keep working on the face throughout the entire painting. Even if some parts of a painting are a little under detailed, that’s okay as long as I have a really sharp and well done face and figure. This part always feels like being a kid with a coloring book

Step 11: Color and detail

At this point, adding more colors. The local colors are mixed with their complimentary colors to create contrasting shadows that are more vibrant and dimensional. 

Side by side with the drawing at the end of the night.

Step 12: Finishing touches

Sharpening the final pieces, working through the backgrounds and making each detail close to the final drawing.

Final drawing

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Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

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Brian E. Young

I'm a graphic designer (portfolio), classical pianist and artist in Baltimore, MD. I host the Uncanny Creativity Podcast helping to demystify the creative process and creator of Funlooksfun.com, an online shop for apparel and games. Twitter: @sketchee

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