Mark’s Manuscripts April

Hello fellow artists,

Welcome to a new feature here, with some fun and helpful nonsense all about art.   This inaugural issue of  “Mark’s Manuscript”  is inspired by spring and the improving weather that  provides the opportunity to study in nature’s classroom.  For some working outdoors is an  intimidating prospect, but this issue is all about the benefits of working “small” on location.  One of the greatest benefits to working small is that you can easily hide what you’re working on from the curious public … as the pesky passerby encroaches on your personal space, just place your elbow across your work, hold your chin, and pretend you are deeply pondering your subject.  Kidding aside, while it can be intimidating working en plein air, with some simple strategies you will be jacked to work outdoors and create great art while working small on location.

When I was at art school studying graphic art and illustration the assignments came fast a furious, and as students we were encouraged to use thumbnail sketches to explore several different ideas for each project, and then and only then were we permitted to continue with the strongest concept.    When I started off my life in fine art I came to rely on these thumbnails as an important and strategic element of my creative process.  Now as a teacher I am able to use this type of drawing to convey design, composition, and creative ideas to students in a more clear way that words simply can not duplicate.  My teaching philosophy is simple … teach the language of visual literacy and students can learn to paint, draw, sculpt in any medium using any techniques that inspires them.  The voice of my instructor David Mcleagan echoes… ” if you have great technique and bad design you are always going to have a bad painting – however if you have great design, technique matters little.”   The thumbnail sketch allows artists to free themselves of the trappings of technique and formula by sorting  out their composition and design elements first before executing their concept.


Work in any medium you are comfortable with, pencil, charcoal, or paint.  Restrict your size to 3-4 inches only.   Identify your centre of interest or focal point, identify the main gesture in the composition and limit your  thumbnail to 9-12  shapes.  Vary the shapes in size and character.  Allocate a distinct value to each shape (make them different in value to their neighboring shape).   For each subject explore 6 distinct compositions; vary the orientation of your thumbnail as well as your vantage point.   Quickly move to the next subject … and repeat the process, keeping your studies quick and fluid.   This is the single best way to improve your location work.

I often like to work on toned paper using black and white china markers – this is a quick way to establish your darkest darks, highlights, and mid-tones.  When using watercolours I often clean up the muddy paint in my palette by doing a few watercolour thumbnails on scrap watercolour paper (the backs of failed studies in my studio are in no short supply).  In recent years I have taken to doing small watercolour studies on location in my handmade leather journals using my leftover morning coffee, or in the evening sacrificing a little red wine, both of which make for wonderful little tonal studies which are all good practice.

I am always amazed that artists don’t practice their craft more….. for some reason many beginners and intermediate artists only want to “make paintings”  or  finished drawings.  My advice to all artists is to constantly practice.  Perfect practice makes perfect, and the art of the thumbnail is exactly that …. perfect practice.  Enjoy!

photo-20Florence, Italy, watercolour study in my Journal

photo-22Pienza, Italy, watercolour study in my journal