THUMB WAR :
Design Iteration Combat Simulation
by Paul Richards
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!
: WAR IS HELL!
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.
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.
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.
A PERFECT WORLD
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
But this isn't a perfect world. We're imperfect. Moreover, we're "in
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.
KNOW YOUR ENEMIES
We win wars by coming face to face with our enemies. Here are the biggest
ones, and how thumbnailing is used to combat them...
// 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."
// 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!
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
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
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
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!
KNOW YOUR ALLIES
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
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
-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
= 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.
effort inhibits and jams the automatic creative mechanism."
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
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
-use boolean operators -- subtract geometry from geometry, add geometry
seems easy, but is HARD, so practice it!
Overlap // 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.
= 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.
Connections/Transitions/Caps // 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)
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
4 - at the edge of the mouth, where the skin around it is creased
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
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
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.
FUEL FOR THE WAR MACHINE
Before you roll out, gas up!
Visualization // 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..."
Observation/Memory // 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!
COMBAT SIM 1 : VIRTUAL ART
[see graphic below]
together subject matter to form artifical assignments! Time yourself!
You're being watched...
Expanded List :
COMBAT SIM 2 : VIRTUAL FEEDBACK
good would your random assignment be without some equally random feedback?
Revise/compromise your design as instructed. And for God's sake, hurry!
List : COMING SOON
and praise to Tony Arechiga (Diverge Workshop, Dallas), Travis Bourbeau
and Alex Alvarez (Gnomon Workshop, Hollywood). Your effort and encouragement
launched Thumb War!