Drawing is a complex skill. You need to learn things like manual skill, pencil techniques, precision, perspective, gesture, anatomy, light and shadow… But even when you’re a master of it all, even if your picture has all these elements in place, there still may be something wrong with it. This elusive factor is called composition.
Bad composition can destroy the impact of even the most polished artwork. Yet this topic is often glossed over in drawing lessons, with only a few examples of good and bad compositions presented, leaving it all to your intuition.
In this article I’d like to take a more practical approach to composition. What is it, actually? What is it made of? And, most of all, how can you make sure your composition will pan out before you place your first line, instead of seeing it only after it’s all done? Keep reading and I’ll answer these questions for you!
What Is Composition, and Why Is It So Important?
To put it as simply as possible, composition is an arrangement of elements that makes us see them as a whole. Every artwork has some composition. You either create it consciously or by accident, but you can’t create a drawing without it.
In a more practical sense, composition is the relation between the elements of the picture. And this relation, not the elements, is the first thing we notice. At the same time, it’s actually invisible for us. It’s like the skeleton of a living creature—you can’t see the bones, but they make the body look like it does. Without the skeleton there would be no form.
Yet it’s the form that we see, and if you try to draw the form only, you may end up with something unnatural. You may accidentally create a form that looks right, but being aware of the influence of the skeleton increases your chances of doing it.
It’s the same with composition. You may try to guess how to place the elements of the picture and wish for the best, but you can also learn what makes an artwork look good, and use this knowledge to your advantage.
Good composition is all about balance. Too much is just as bad as too
little. If your drawing is a dish, composition is the seasoning. No
matter how much time you spent in the kitchen, improperly used
seasonings can ruin your work. But what does “proper” mean? And what are the “seasonings” of composition?
What Are the Elements of Composition in Drawing?
Since composition is a relation, there must be at least two elements for this to occur. That relation between them can be based on many factors, making this issue so complicated. Let’s tackle them one by one.
Framing and Negative Space
Although composition requires at least two elements to occur, you can’t avoid creating composition by drawing one element. There will always be a relation between that one element and the frame.
By “frame” I don’t mean only the richly ornamented frames of traditional paintings. The frame is the border of the artwork. Even if you don’t care about it at all, a frame is created by the edges of your sheet of paper, or, if you take a photo of it, by the cropping.
In other words, a frame is a border between what is part of the artwork, and what isn’t. This border becomes a part of the composition as soon as you draw something within it—it’s the mini-universe of your artwork. When you show your art to someone, their eyes look at all the frame as a whole, no matter where the actual drawing is.
Here we’re coming to the issue of negative space. In the picture, we don’t see only what is drawn, but also what isn’t. The area between the drawing and the frame isn’t “nothing”. We see it, even though it wasn’t created consciously. And even if we ignore that part, it still adds to the meaning of the picture and influences our perception of it.
Here, the drawing is tiny in comparison to the rest of the artwork area. The viewer will see a lot of space and the character. Actually, the space is the star of this picture! If that’s what you wanted, there’s nothing wrong with this composition—it shows the insignificance of the character, which can be useful. If it wasn’t your goal, and you wanted the character to be the star, this is a mistake.
Here we have the opposite situation. The character takes almost all the space, and in result it becomes the space. The character here is actually an artwork—not a character of the artwork. Its details become the characters instead.
Here the character looks as if it’s trying to leave the artwork. The viewer gets to see a whole lot of empty space and a character uninterested in its own display. Is it good or bad? Again, it’s a matter of intention.
How can you make these compositions more interesting? Hint: there’s no single correct solution to each.
Composition can be explained mainly by showing the comparison between the elements. Contrast is a measure of the difference between them. It’s very important, because we see by comparison—we compare white space with the dark lines to see a drawing.
Contrast makes things interesting, because it draws our attention. It separates two things, making us look at them individually. The images below have the same number of elements, but the one on the right has higher contrast. Which composition looks more interesting to you?
When you look at a picture, you compare various features of the elements to visually group them for a faster reaction. The higher the contrast, the easier it is to make such a grouping, and the more satisfying it feels. There are many characteristics we can use to measure contrast:
- Size (big vs. small)
- Shape (sharp vs. blunt, oblong vs. round)
- Shading (dark vs. bright)
- Hue (red vs. green, blue vs. orange)
- Materials (shiny vs. matte)
- Theme (a big bad wolf vs. a baby, still life vs. motion)
We can use all these characteristics to create contrast in our composition. However, there’s a catch here. Contrast needs balance to work. Too many different things become one thing—chaos. Too few become one thing as well—order. To achieve a natural effect, you need to balance out chaos and order.
Contrast is so powerful because it has an evolutionary meaning—it makes us see the head of a lion in a sea of grass, or a single red fruit among green leaves. It draws our attention to what’s important. And that’s how you should use it in your composition: to draw attention to what’s important.
Of course, this means you need to decide what is important, and what is just a background. After this, it’s just a matter of giving them opposite characteristics. There’s no need to use all of them, or to make them all opposite. It’s all a matter of stylistic choice—realism doesn’t like exaggeration, but cartoon styles thrive upon it.
Each of these objects would be dull if placed separately. Together they create a relation, and that’s what we see—not two objects, but a sense of scale.
Here the sense of scale gets lost. Too much contrast results in chaos, creating a messy pattern rather than a scene.
But chaos can be a great background for an important element we want to show! If only it differs enough from the chaos, it will be seen as the first thing, making the background insignificant.
Which of these compositions are interesting, and which are not? Why?
We often say composition is about the arrangement of the elements—their position towards each other. But are there correct and incorrect arrangements? Not exactly, but there’s one thing for sure—certain arrangements have a meaning to us.
Rhythm is a visual shortcut our brain takes. If some elements follow a rhythm, we don’t need to look at them all one by one—a row of fencing rails is a fence, a “cloud” of leaves is a tree crown, etc. But we also take subtler hints, separating natural objects (“as they should be”) from unnatural ones (“as someone made them”).
Rhythm creates a different sort of contrast. In this picture, the small flower draws our attention not only because it’s small in comparison to the big ones, but because it breaks the rhythm. It turns “a row of flowers” into “a small flower between big ones”.
But it’s not only a matter of contrast. Rhythm makes us see something that wasn’t really drawn. A row of stones means that someone put them this way. A “cloud” of leaves upon a tree means they belong to the same plant. Elements going in the same direction means that they’re driven by the same power (be it wind or fear).
This gives additional information to the picture. And this information shouldn’t be accidental, because it adds to the impact of the composition. Just look: a simple drawing themed “swimming fish” can be turned into “going against the tide” just by breaking the rhythm.
The broken rhythm of a broken fence instantly draws our attention. What happened? Was it a herd of mad cows, or just a drunken farmer on a tractor? A story unfolds just by breaking the rhythm.
This composition is all about the order. There’s size contrast in here, so it’s interesting, but we also see something more here: it’s 100% man-made and controlled. Everything drifts to chaos, but here someone keeps stopping this trend.
Here’s a similar situation, with the trees being planted by people. This composition is simple, yet there’s some beauty in this predictable rhythm.
What do these compositions tell you?
Focal Points (Points of Interest)
Your drawing isn’t just a set of random lines. They’re supposed to mean something, but even the most amazing message will be disrupted when read wrong—for example, when read from the end.
Composition can be used to lead the viewer to see exactly what we want them to see, in exactly the order we chose to be the most effective for the message to be understood. If you ignore this, the viewer may get a completely wrong first impression, giving up on the artwork before understanding its real meaning.
When we look at a picture, first we search for things to look at. The order of looking is important, because even if it takes milliseconds to see it all, in nature one millisecond can be a matter of life and death. We want to make sure we see the most important elements first.
When planning a composition, you need to decide what these “most important elements” are. Then you can use contrast to make them stand out, and rhythm to create a path for the viewer to look at them in a certain order.
Let’s look at that previous example once again. All the lines lead us towards the center. You look there before you notice the road or the trees. No matter what you put there, it will be noticed first.
Here it’s more subtle, because the lines of rhythm are all within the body of the animal. Your eyes slide along it without any point to stop. This adds to the sense of motion.
Here, contrast makes you look at that big figure first. Then, searching for complete information, you look just where they’re looking.
What do you notice first when looking at these examples? How do your eyes move? Why?
How to Create an Interesting Composition
Now you know what composition is and how to find flaws in it. But it doesn’t help if you finish a drawing and only then discover you left out too much negative space, or the rhythm made your landscape look man-made. That’s why you need to think about composition before placing your first line.
But how can you do it, if you’re not sure what you’re drawing yet? Plans tend to make everything stiff and boring, and spontaneity can’t be planned at all. Let’s see how to solve it.
You don’t need to create a finished drawing to judge its composition. Notice that I didn’t really mention details in the theory part. It’s because they don’t matter in composition. They’re seen as the last thing in the picture, long after we understand what we’re looking at.
That’s why you don’t need to finish a drawing to see what impact it creates. You just need to see the frame, contrast, rhythm, and focal points. And this is something you can sketch quite quickly to see how the elements work together!
We call this method thumbnail drawing. A thumbnail is a miniature version of an artwork that you often see before opening the original version. You can’t see any details in the thumbnail, but you see everything that’s most important to the picture.
To create thumbnails, first draw a set of frames that are miniature versions of your intended frame (for example, small rectangles with the proportions of your sheet of paper). Then sketch a very general version of your drawing. Simple shapes, simple silhouettes, simple shading—this is all you need to see if the composition works the way you wanted. You can also experiment freely without wasting time.
You can learn more about thumbnail drawing here:
“Ghost of the Composition”
It’s hard to keep the correct proportions and distances when drawing in a large format. To make sure you create your composition as intended, draw only its basic elements first.
This is how you do it: look at the sheet of paper and decide where the outer border of the drawing will be. Sketch it very, very lightly. Then sketch the outlines of the elements inside it, still very lightly. You should end up with a “ghost” drawing—something so subtle that it’s almost invisible, but it should be enough to see if your composition is set up right.
The Rule of Thirds
You have probably already heard about it, but I can’t skip this rule in an article about composition. There are many rules that you can use in this topic, but I think the rule of thirds is the most straightforward and universal of them.
To use the rule, divide (physically or mentally) your picture into three horizontal parts and three vertical parts. The crossing points of the lines are, according to the rule, natural focal points for our eyes. Place the most important elements there—the elements you want people to look at first.
This rule also tells us which compositions to avoid. For example, using “a rule of halves” is quite intuitive, but its compositions are uninteresting at best and visually confusing at worst.
Book covers often use the rule of thirds to their advantage. You can learn how to create the ones below from our tutorials:
Assigning Weights to the Elements of the Picture
There are many factors affecting composition. How can you manage them all? You can use metaphorical scales to weigh them.
There are three main weight types in composition: negative space, positive space, and focal points. Positive space is the actual drawing. Negative space is the area outside the drawing (it doesn’t need to be empty space—it can be just the sky). Focal points are the parts you want people to look at.
An interesting composition is based on the balance between these weights. This balance also has many shades, all based on the elements of contrast. In “linear” drawing, you care mostly about size. If you use shades, shading will be even more important.
Let’s see how to manage it. Here we have one element placed in a focal point described by the rule of thirds. The composition is imbalanced, because this is just one tiny element versus huge empty space. Positive space and the focal point are the same here.
Adding another, similar element in any of the other focal points won’t solve the situation, because it locks the viewer inside that central area described by the focal points. Therefore, a boring central composition is created.
To balance out the negative space, it’s best to make it a little less negative. Separate negative and positive space somewhere close to the focal points of the rule of thirds.
When positive space outweighs negative space, negative space can become a focal point.
Any element of contrast can be used to balance out composition. In fact, this whole balance thing is about achieving a proper amount of contrast. So to make it more intuitive, think about a low-contrast setting as a background, and add something contrasting to make the composition complete.
Composition is all about relation of the elements, but there’s one element beyond the frame—the viewer. If you include them in your composition, you’ll achieve another, deeper level of relation.
When the viewer looks at an image, they can see themselves being there—they just need some hints from you to find their position. Perspective can help you here. The trick is to place something close to the “camera” to accentuate its position.
The closer something is to us, the bigger it is. So if in your composition there’s a huge version of something typically normal sized, it means it’s close to the viewer. Everything else is far from them, which creates a sense of depth.
Perspective can also improve a composition if you include some kind of scale indicator. The clearest one is a human silhouette, but you can also use animals or trees for this purpose. If you do it properly, scale will become one more element of your composition.
Using a Mirror
Even when you know all about composition, it’s easy to lose your sense of it after hours of working on the same artwork. You just start seeing it as “something I’ve seen before”, and you don’t feel it like someone seeing it for the first time.
To get more distance and a fresh view, you need to change your perspective from time to time, to force your brain to readjust. In digital art, the easiest way is to flip the image horizontally. In traditional art, you can rotate the sheet of paper, or use a mirror. Do it often to keep your view fresh.
Cropping the Picture
After you finish the picture, if there’s still something wrong, there’s one last thing you can do. By changing the frame—its size or proportions—you can realign the focal points and improve the composition greatly.
In digital art, you can always use some kind of crop tool. In traditional art, you can either use a utility knife, do the proper cropping when taking a photo of the artwork, or use a frame that will add some negative space, covering the parts you don’t want to see.
Expanding Your Intuition
Theory is theory, but in the end all that knowledge must become a part of your intuition—something you can use without thinking. To expand your intuition, add one more step to your appreciation of an artwork. Try to understand why it looks so good, find the elements of composition, and try to guess what decision the artist must have made.
Intuition can also be expanded just by being exposed to good art. This way you’ll be comparing your compositions to all these you have seen, without even being aware that you’re doing it. However, it’s best to combine intuition with knowledge.
After explaining all these rules to you, I must add the most important one: in art, there are no rules. We like certain images, certain compositions, and we don’t always know why. Artists try to create some rules of thumb that will be useful most of the time, but in the end you can draw a fantastic artwork just by breaking them all.
You can use the rules of composition to find out what’s wrong with your picture, but they won’t tell you exactly how to make it right. Experiment, keep your eyes open, and create with your heart. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes—you can learn from them as well!