Introduction : War Is Hell!

A Perfect World

Know Your Enemies

Internal / External

Know Your Allies

-Media / Technology / Implements
-Drawing Fundamentals
-Design Principles

Fuel For The War Machine

Parting Orders

Combat Sim 1 :
-Virtual Art Director

Combat Sim 2:
-Virtual Feedback


THUMB WAR : Design Iteration Combat Simulation
by Paul Richards
Updated 07/04/09

Ten-hut, fellow concept grunts! The following text is a condensed adaptation of some recent workshops I've spoken at on the theory/practice of thumbnailing, and is not a verbatim transcript. Oorah!


If you've ever been in the military, you know advertisements only show half the picture. It's the glamorous half, the one depicting acts of extreme heroism, glossing over much of the arduous and mundane aspects of military life. We are given a similarly rose colored view of the entertainment industry : that it is a sort of dream fulfillment merry-go-round with our interests at the fulcrum. Like the military, working as an artist in entertainment puts you in touch with inspirational people, advances your knowledge and abilities and drops you down in exciting new places. There are moments of glory in both jobs, but at the end of the the day, both are just that : jobs.

In the military, you serve your country. In entertainment, you serve a client. This isn't about you. It's the less-than-pleasurable truth you don't see advertised. But if you can get past it -- and yourself -- there's some seriously satisfying rewards. If you want these "spoils of war" you're going to have to fight for them. Down and dirty. Tooth and nail. There's no other way.

War is hell, and so, in its own way, is design. But there's a critical tactic in winning. It's called thumbnailing : the act of using tiny pictures to communicate big ideas.


In a perfect world, there would be no war. No struggle. Thumbnailing would be an unnecessary part of drawing because we would all be perfect visionaries. Savants. We'd use our clairvoyance to instantly craft ideal solutions to our clients' problems, and they would shower us with praise every time.

But this isn't a perfect world. We're imperfect. Moreover, we're "in the service."

Our abilities give us some control over the outcome, but like generals in their tents on the mountain, the client is calling the shots. And like the Commander In Chief, the client has the power to veto.


We win wars by coming face to face with our enemies. Here are the biggest ones, and how thumbnailing is used to combat them...


Uncertainty // The artist's lament of "I don't know where to begin!" needn't apply to the thumbnailing stage, where just a few loose scribbles constitutes a start. It's much easier to come up with fresh solutions after purging the more obvious ones. The area each thumbnail occupies is small, so you are able to compare and revise them at a glance. By working around the page, the design evolves through trial and error, resulting in several variations on one theme. When you're feeling uncertain, each thumbnail will bring you a step closer to "the one."

Overconfidence // Thinking you know exactly what your client wants right off the bat can be dangerous. Rather than skimming the surface of your consciousness, thumbnailing encourages you to delve beneath for new possibilities that would never come to you immediately. While your first instincts can be your best, you'll never know how far you can push something until you try. It's fun to surprise yourself.

Fear of Commitment
// Thumbs aren't committal. Ideas that don't please you can be discarded guilt-free. It's a flirtatious act, so you needn't worry too much about the long-term. Just don't bite off more thumbnails than you or your client can chew!

Fear of Failure // "To increase your success rate, double your failure rate." goes the old saw. Failure is built into the thumbnailing process. It's especially risk-free to be daring at this phase. Better to have small-scale experiments fail than something larger and more time consuming. If you present a client with a single option, there is more risk of rejection than if you give them a variety to choose from. You are stacking your deck, hedging your bets, creating a back-up plan.

Pressure to Impress // Thumbs, by their nature, are not showpieces -- more visual brainstorming -- so they are not meant to impress, merely communicate bare-bones information. What's more, you need only submit the thumbs you like when you scan and arrange them later, if you choose to present them at all.

Sloth // Thumbnails are tiny and fast and you can do them anywhere, with any implement. You don't approach them with the same mentality you with finished work. You needn't get bogged down with detail and polish. You are focusing on big shapes, silhouette value, basic readability; if it works small, it will work big. There's no excuse to skip this step!


Deadlines // Make deadlines your ally by using them to structure your time. Thumbnails give you a plan, and eliminate options you and your client find displeasing. Imagine if you did one, took it to finish, but no one liked it. You'd have to start all over again, and be much more rushed.

Misleading/Contradictory Direction // Art directors can say one thing and mean another, sometimes changing their minds completely by the time you've finished. When your design goals can't be clarified verbally, thumbnails will help you troubleshoot just what is meant by exploring variations. "A picture is worth a thousand words."

Vague/General Direction // i.e. an opportunity in disguise! Again, when you can't clarify direction, or the person you're working for simply doesn't know what they want, use thumbnailing as an opportunity to "blue sky" many viable solutions. It's your limited window to pitch designs. So as long as you're giving your client what they asked for, in a timely manner, you have license to improvise.

Your ideas and opinions are what make you a good concept artist, not just your ability to exist within a production pipeline. While you may still be in the service, thumbnailing lets you have your say in a non-aggressive way.

Crappy/Mundane Subject Matter
// See this as a challenge. Ask yourself "How can I make this interesting? How can I learn from this? Improve memory? Try a new technique?" In your quest to "remove the suck" from a design, you'll also be showing your client what they DON'T want, which can sometimes be just as helpful.

Media // Picking the wrong tool for the job can make your life hell. Go with something that will facilitate, not frustratre, the thumbnailing step. Remember to work small and boldly! Don't be precious with it!


In this list I'm omitting "people", even though the experience and input of others is arguably any artist's biggest ally. If you want to get good at anything fast, surround yourself with people who know what they're doing.

Media / Technology / Implements
= Equipment to facilitate efficiency!

-paper, pencil / pen / marker
(good for finding images in the mess -- same principle as staring at clouds or marble tile and seeing things in it)
-compy (3D programs / Photoshop) -- Beware of ctrl. z and infinite canvases. There is such a thing as "too much freedom!"
-rulers/guides/templates (perhaps not too useful in thumbnail phase as they slow you down)
-eraser (again, not something you should be too concerned about using a lot, as you can just move on to a new design rather than constantly editing)

Drawing Fundamentals

= Basic Training

This is akin to marksmanship. Theory and practice help you hit your target. To do something well, you not only need to study it, but have daily rituals actually DOING it. What once took significant concious effort, over time, becomes embedded in the subconscious.

"Conscious effort inhibits and jams the automatic creative mechanism."
-Maxwell Maltz

Perspective // I won't go into this at length, but what you want to get out of the rules of perspective it is the ability to draw, without too much mental anguish, basic primitives (cubes, discs, cones, spheres, etc.) in foreshortened views. To create 3D objects on a 2D plane is an illusion, so you must first fool yourself into thinking you are working in Z SPACE -- that you can draw into and out of the working surface.

Be mindful of the 3 axes (denoted in 3D programs as x, y and z). Working in all 3 creates contrasting planes. Flat, mushy drawings result from paying more attention to 2 of the 3 axes, or worse, only 1.

Drawing Primitives // Whatever you're thinking of drawing can be made loosely of primitives. Think like a 3D modeler! Draw objects inside bounding boxes if it helps you keep them in perspective.

Your brain as a 3D Modeler:
-Superimpose the "gizmo!"
-alter "field of view" (basically the distance between your vanishing points)
xtrude geometry
-pull points
-use boolean operators -- subtract geometry from geometry, add geometry to geometry

This seems easy, but is HARD, so practice it!

// Overlap shows what's in front (outline thickest around things closest to you) and what's in back. Use draw-through to get overlaps correct. In addition to giving you cheap dimensionality with a minimum of perspective tricks, overlap frees you from drawing whatever's obscured. Often the viewer will fill in those obscured details themselves. Pay attention to overlap that occurs WITHIN objects. Make all overlaps obvious to avoid tangents : lines/objects that appear to touch or intersect awkwardly, weakening your depth illusion.

Design Principles

= Nav System

Layout // Use the page! Many thumbnails begin as abstract shapes filled with design. Their perimeters are dictated by the shapes next to them. By limiting the size and shape of your canvas, you reduce the intimidation of "too much freedom." Don't worry about crowding your page in this "puzzle" layout, as you can always uncrowd the "pieces" after you scan. Another non-military metaphor would be a cookie sheet. Try not to waste the dough!

Silhouette // See the design as a whole, not as individual parts. Does it have interesting cuts (ins, outs)? When you squint, can you still tell what it is? In the graphic below, I realized I'd missed an opportunity to convey info and improve sihouette value by not showing the outline of a robot's clawed hand.

Point of View // Viewing angle can make a design look dynamic or undynamic. Some views, like profiles, give less information than others. Choose POVs that "sell" your designs. Provide scale cues that show how big something is when necessary.

Readability // Readability comes not just from strong silhouette, but from intelligent distribution of detail. Try to "snipe" detail on a piece, putting it where it counts (focal points). "Machine gun blasted" detail can obliterate your best intentions. With thumbnails, the more information you put in early on, the easier taking it to the next level will be, but concern yourself mainly with the big stuff; it's okay to imply detail as mental notes for future rendering.

// Other good places to "snipe" detail are at these points : the places that hold your concept together.
Connections = where two similar parts merge
Transitions= where one thing stops and another (of a different kind) begins
Caps = where shapes terminate

This will bring solidity to drawings and plausibility to designs.

Rhythm/Gesture/Points of Origin // How does your design flow? Do the lines of rhythm lead your eye through the image, to its focal point(s)? Do repetitive detail patterns originate from a distinct point, contributing to the flow? Do they radiate like sun rays, ripple in concentric circles, etc? In the beast head below, we see four points of origin for rhythmic detail :
1 - at the snout, darting upward past the eye to the ear
2 - at the center of the chin, with stubble radiating outward
3 - at the rear of the jaw -- pleats of skin drooping to the pinch in the neck
4 - at the edge of the mouth, where the skin around it is creased

On a more micro scale, you could say the edges of the eyes are also points of origin for detail, as are the openings of the ears and nostrils. Keep your sniper scope at the ready!

Proportions // This is simply pushing the size of shapes as they relate to each other. Have you nudged a design as far as it can go before it starts to look ridiculous? Try using bounding boxes to force your proportions bigger/smaller.

Big Into Small / Thick Into Thin
// This occurs in nature. VARIETY (aka the spice of life) CREATES INTEREST. The opposite of variety is monotony, represented by repetitive, uniform shapes and rigid parallels. Contrasting shapes are important. Beware of "cloning" : 2+ identical objects in exact same perspective.

Asymmetry / Symmetry // Avoiding a purely mirrored look (different on the front than it is on the back, different on top than it is on the bottom, on different either side, etc.), creates variety, which in turn creates interest.

Psychology of Shapes
// What impression are you trying to give? What do soft shapes say about your design's attitude, vs. angular ones?

Psychology of Value // While you needn't go nuts rending light/shadow on thumbnails, some local value cues say a lot about their character.

Materials // What is the physical makeup of your design? Keep in mind a variety of materials will increase visual interest, but this is something to keep in back of your head while thumbnailing, and address more in the final image.

Functionality // You'll need to refer back to art direction, but functionality in design means "Does this look like it could serve its indented purpose?" Don't get too hung up on making every connection solid at the thumbnail stage, but avoid decisions that "cripple" its functionality.

Imperfections // "F**k it up a little!" is a mantra I picked up from my current boss. Distress/wear/wrinkles/dents in "functional" places gives a sense of history and character. Carbon scoring on a blaster, nicks on a battle axe, etc.

Before you roll out, gas up!

// i.e. daydreaming. Get your imagination cooking before your pencil hits the paper. Start with something in your mind's eye, even if vague or simple. Once you put it down on paper, it will spur other ideas and on-the-fly thinking. Your vision will change and branch off in new directions. New solutions will present themselves. Where you've gone left, go right. Where you've done concave, do convex. Where you've done round, do pointy, etc. Have an internal dialog. "To increase variety, I should..."

// Build a mental library of "stock images" you can use during visualization. You can do this by drawing from life, studying photos, and just actively observing. Passive observation, where you see things but don't absorb anything, is a missed opportunity.

Reference // Ref shows you "correct" when you need it, helping you to avoid "same factory syndrome", where everything you draw looks much like the last thing you drew. Don't let reference hinder you early on or allow you to procrastinate by assembling reams of it. The Internet isn't going anywhere! Consult it later. By relying more on imaginative approximation, you'll get happy accidents you wouldn't get by adhering to (or being contaminated by) reference.

Inspirational images // Other artists' work reminds us where the bar is, and shows where those before us have dared to tread. As with reference, process it. Interpret it. There's a big difference between "RIFFING ON" (taking what you need and leaving what you don't) and "RIPPING OFF" (taking too much or worse, copying directly).


Plan with the head, draw from the gut! Use tactical strikes, but don't hesitate to act on instinct in the heat of battle, guerrilla style! Lastly, from one lowly maggot to another, always remember your rank : you're in the service!


[see graphic below]
String together subject matter to form artifical assignments! Time yourself! You're being watched...

Expanded List

What good would your random assignment be without some equally random feedback? Revise/compromise your design as instructed. And for God's sake, hurry!

Expanded List : COMING SOON


Thanks and praise to Tony Arechiga (Diverge Workshop, Dallas), Travis Bourbeau and Alex Alvarez (Gnomon Workshop, Hollywood). Your effort and encouragement launched Thumb War!