It’s All in the Planning

“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” Alan Lakein, writer

So, you’ve found the perfect spot.  The scene before you is screaming at you to paint it! You set up your easel, get out your board to paint on, and lay out all your paints.  You can’t wait to dip your brush into the paint and get started – but stop!  You really need to do some planning first.

“Wait, what?” you ask. “But I have this incredible scene in front of me, it’s all there!  Why should I plan anything? I know what I want to do,” you argue.

Before I was a plein air artist, I painted from my imagination.  I would always do thumbnail sketches before I did a painting.  I would very carefully plan it out, and then meticulously copy that sketch onto my painting surface.  I was never one to just dive in and start painting – maybe because it was from my imagination, I wanted to see it realized in at least a rough form before I committed to painting it.  That was just my working method.

Then I started plein air painting.  I would head out into the bush, set up, and get to painting. I was just so excited to start that I never did sketches.  All the books I read on the subject said I should be, but I figured I really didn’t need to.  The scene was there, and I knew how I wanted it to look.  Sometimes I would produce a really nice painting, but in the beginning, more often than not, I did pieces that I was really not all that happy with.  I just chalked it up to the fact that I was just learning this new type of painting, so I just wasn’t very good at it yet.  Surely, it would all come together eventually.  I continued on this way for a few years.

Around this same time, I was hired to teach art at our local high school.  I had been waiting for 15 years for an opening, so finally I was able to say “good bye” to the elementary school I had taught at for that long, and move into the high school.  What an exciting change that was!

Because of budget issues (art is an expensive program to run) I couldn’t let the students waste materials, so I insisted that they do thumbnail sketches to plan out their paintings. Oh, did (do!) I get grief about that!  Students would often tell me, “But I know what I want it to look like, why should I waste my time drawing it out?” or they would have an incredibly vivid oral description of what they wanted to do, and not understand why they should have to do a sketch.  At first, I would often get scribbles from them, and they would tell me what those scribbles were going to look like in the final painting.  More often than not, they would end up frustrated with their paintings because they were not able to make their hands do what their brains were envisioning.

These experiences with my students only reinforced how important it was that they do thumbnails.  I got more and more particular about what I would accept for a thumbnail sketch from them.  I would still get arguments from the real die-hards, but for the most part, the students did begin to see the benefit of planning, and now they don’t complain much anymore.

As I was getting more and more demanding with my students about the thumbnails they were producing, I realized I was being a hypocrite because I was not doing them myself.  I thought I had better start practicing what I preach, or I really don’t have any credibility.  So, I started doing thumbnails.  I got a viewfinder that really helped to isolate what I wanted to paint, and I would plan out my composition in my sketch book before I put any paint down.  I block in the major shapes and values, figuring out what I want to leave in, what should be left out, how it will fit on the board, sizes and relationships between shapes – I do this all before I even touch my paintbrush.  Sometimes I do just one, but probably just as often I do more than one because my first idea really doesn’t work out the way I thought it might. I spend maybe 15 – 20 minutes doing this preliminary planning.  And do you know what I found?  My paintings have started to improve!  I have a much greater number of pieces that I’m happy with, I’m able to paint much faster (which is a real plus for a plein air painter since the light changes so fast) because I don’t have to make all the mistakes I did when I worked on my sketch.  By doing small sketches, I’m able to try things without feeling like I have invested too much time if they don’t work.  I can completely start over if my original direction isn’t working.  By the time I get to my actual painting, I really know where I want to go with it.

There are so many decisions that an artist needs to make in order to bring a painting to fruition. If those decisions can be ironed out before the actual painting begins, the final product is going to look fresher and more confident.

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An example of a recent thumbnail – it’s not much to look at, but I learned so much doing it!


The thumbnail sketches I do are pretty rough, but they are just a means to an end.  They are not the final work of art.  They are, however, an indispensable step towards the realization of my final painting – a type of roadmap.  I cannot imagine going back to my former method of “just going for it”.  As has been said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”.  If you are one who doesn’t normally plan out your paintings before you paint – even if you don’t plein air paint – give it a try.  You might just be pleasantly surprised by the results!

The final painting
The final painting

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