Thumbnails, Notans, and Field Sketches

Thumbnails, Notans, and Field Sketches

Field sketches

In the class I’ve been taking with Richard McKinley, he discussed in detail a process he uses to formulate a field sketch using thumbnail sketches.

The first thumbnail sketch he does is the basic outline of the shapes in the scene. In the second thumbnail, he reproduces that sketch but fills it in with four values: white, black, and two middle tones. In the third thumbnail, he creates a “notan,” or a black and white sketch, resolving the two lightest values to white and the two darkest values to black. This black and white notan will clarify right way whether or not your composition is interesting, based on seeing if the abstract pattern resulting from this exercise is interesting or not. It you like it, then go ahead and copy your first sketch directly onto your paper, and start to fill in the correct values in pastel.

You can see several examples of this below that he showed us to explain the process, and then you can see photos from his live demonstration of these principles. Down toward the bottom, it was our turn to try it; you can see me doing this in the last couple photos.

I found this instructive and will use this method some in the future.

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  1. Liz 9 years ago

    I always forget to do this, but I think it is probably a good thing to remember to do! Yesterday I went out painting and did a couple of sketches, but I wish I’d looked at this before i went. I remembered to try to do the notan, but it isn’t second nature with me….yet. Later an artist friend called me. She encouraged me to try to paint more often, otherwise it’s a matter of starting over remembering what I forgot from the last time. Some people do a daily paint project. Another new friend recommended a book called “Daily Paint”. You might want to look for it. It looked good to me, but I haven’t gone to a bookstore yet to look for it.

    • Author
      Polly Castor 9 years ago

      I try to do art of some sort daily just to keep in the flow. Sometimes it is only a doodle in my art journal but that counts. I’m now making appointments to be sure I get outside on location every week. If I do that, then there is something fresh I am thinking about on my easel that I can tinker with in between other art projects. I’ve seen a few daily books, but not that particular one. Let me know how you like it.


  1. […] preserved both for my reference and yours. Additionally, you can see photos of the class here and here, as well as see what I painted in the class here and here. Eventually I will post photos of the […]

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