Set Designers are known for creating beautiful, finished renderings of scenic environments, however, most begin their process with a quick, abbreviated drawing called a thumbnail sketch. Perhaps more like graffiti than a sketch, the Set Designer uses the thumbnail as a way to jot down an initial idea in their own handwriting.
Because of its informality (most are scribbled on a bit of stray tracing paper and hidden away in the back of a notebook or a drawer), the thumbnail sketch is usually meant to be seen by the Designer and the Designer alone.
I have become fascinated with the thumbnail sketch as a very personal document that records the Designer’s first impulse.
Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway was generous enough to share and discuss with me her thumbnail sketch for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia.
Michael Schweikardt: I am interested your initial design impulse for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can you take us back to the time when you made your thumbnail sketch? Where were you? What did you write on? What did you write with?
Paige Hathaway: I was spread out all over my dining room table, research images in front of me and listening to the Tom Waits Pandora station on my computer. I printed out a basic 3D rendering of the theater (I find it useful to make sure that I’m not lying to myself about the space), put some tracing paper on top and sketched. I use a standard-issue Bic mechanical pencil when I draw.
Michael Schweikardt: Did you ever show this sketch to anyone else?
Paige Hathaway: No! I don’t really show my thumbnail sketches to anyone. I use them as a quick and messy way to work through ideas and composition and I try not to get bogged down in the details. The thumbnail sketch means something significant to me, but I can’t imagine a director being able to read it.
Once I’m satisfied with the shape of things, I move on.
Michael Schweikardt: What were you thinking about? What were you trying to work out?
Paige Hathaway: This was the first time that (Director) Matt Pfeiffer and I worked together and in our initial concept meeting he talked about a sacred space that the actors could infuse with life; a blank canvas they could paint with words and music. He wanted a space that felt both contemporary and ritualistic, like a modern-day Globe Theatre.
The thumbnail sketch is basically my first stab at a contemporary, Globe-like structure; inner above and below, three-quarter thrust, a gesture of the heavens, all with a contemporary flair that acknowledges the structure of the Haas Theatre itself. The Haas Theater is a gorgeous space with I-beams and old brick and I wanted to embrace its spirit.
While sketching, I knew the bones on which I wanted everything to hang, but I was playing with how much contemporary stuff I could layer on top. I’m a big fan of whimsy so I knew I wanted a heavy dash of that.
Michael Schweikardt: And then what?
Paige Hathaway: I expanded upon the set that I had rendered and modeled with a lot of really fun set dressing. It was a great time. I especially adored the moon boxes. They added this great whimsical element, and the action of Puck raising the moon box while a faerie played violin was just awesome.
Paige Hathaway is a freelance Scenic Designer based in the Washington, DC area. Some of her recent design credits include Me… Jane at the Kennedy Center (Helen Hayes Award Nomination for Outstanding Set Design); The Book Of Will at the Round House Theatre, The Gulf at the Signature Theatre, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead at the Folger Theatre, A Chorus Line at the St. Louis MUNY, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre.
Paige recently received the 2018 Rising Star Award from USITT.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.