OCAD Studio: Urban Sketching – Thumbnails

Thumbnails are a great way to test out compositions. You can see how the major statement of shapes and values works in any particular scene without being able to add too much detail, which saves time. If you keep your thumbnails tiny, you can try out lots of variations in a short period of time. Then just pick your favorite scenes to work up into larger, more finished sketches and drawings.


  • Sketchbook
  • Pencil (HB, B or 2B)


  1. First, find a subject to work from: You can either head out into a town or city and work from life or you can collect photo references from the internet – ideally pick scenes that you find interesting.
  2. Sketch a tiny rectangle in any format (wide, tall or square). No bigger than two inches on the longest edge.
  3. Lightly block in lines for dark shapes/shadows. Identifying these major shapes is the most important step as they will determine the overall impression of the composition.
  4. Once these shapes are loosely sketched in, shade them in with tone.
  5. From there you can darken the tones and add more shapes of different values if necessary. Look for gradients – gradual shifts in tone across shapes from dark to light. Gradients are more pronounced at night and in more atmospheric scenes.
  6. Once the major shapes are blocked in at the right value, you can add some prominent details and soften the transitions where necessary.
  7. When image has all the important elements blocked in and the relationship between values matches the subject, you can stop.
  8. Now pick another scene and repeat. Try not to spend longer than 5-10 mins on any particular scene and refrain from using an eraser as this will allow you to fuss over the drawing too much!

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