When artists embark on a creative venture, particularly one that uses Nature as its springboard, a process of discovery is often necessary.
Take, for example, a tree that may be inspiring a sculptor, a photographer, a draughtsman or a painter. Unless the artist already knows that tree very well, he or she will need to study the tree to learn of its characteristics. Height, form of growth, girth, type of leaf and bark, its flowers and seeds, its general look that identifies it as an oak, a cherry tree, or a poinciana.... Only after learning about that particular tree can the artist move on to creating art that evokes it, in some form. By finding out about the tree, you can then decide what to depict, what to emphasise, what to eliminate, how to weave the fruit of your discoveries into a composition, a work of art. In essence, the process of discovery allows one to distill some order out of the seeming chaos in front of one's eyes.
For a painter or draughtsman/woman, small thumbnail sketches are one passport to imposing some order on one's discoveries. Frequently, when one is working en plein air, there is such an abundance of information pouring into one's brain that it is overwhelming. Translating all those discoveries of form, light, pattern, whatever... into a coherent composition is daunting. So small, quick studies, trying out compositions, seeking to simplify shapes and strengthen light patterns and passages. introducing repetitions and contrasts, are a way to further the process of discovery. These studies don't take very long, one can try out lots of versions, in any medium, and each one helps further to refine what one is trying to say. They are also a form of shorthand note-taking, helping to catch fleeting light or shapes, or sorting out complex aspects. I find that they are especially valuable before I launch into a silverpoint drawing, because they can save me lots of troubles, given that silverpoint precludes any alterations or erasures.
Since I have never scanned any of the thumbnail sketches from my drawing books, I am indebted to other artists for allowing me to illustrate ways of using thumbnail sketches. At left is an example of small exploratory drawing/paintings which use knowledge already absorbed from the landscape to determine which is the best way to proceed.
This image is courtesy of Marion Boddy-Evans. (Licensed to About.com, Inc.)
These thumbnail drawings are done by George Bumann, a noted wildlife sculptor living in wild and beautiful Montana. The studies were apparently done on a visit in 2009 to Yellowstone National Park. Eloquent shorthand, they show how his knowledge of those landscapes, born of multiple discoveries and observations, helps define his art. I am grateful to him for such illustrations.
Because an artist has taken the time and made the effort to discover what it is that makes a subject notable, beautiful, interesting, relevant... the resultant distilled knowledge becomes a passport to making good art, art that rings true without having to be a faithful reproduction of what is being viewed. As the French poet, Charles Baudelaire, once remarked, "All good and genuine draughtsmen draw according to the picture inscribed in their minds, and not according to nature."
For that picture to be inscribed in the mind, there needs first to be a process of discovery.