Drawing is a rather complicated skill. You need to learn the right movements, various techniques, accuracy, perspective, study gestures and anatomy, light and shade … but even if you have mastered all this, even if everything is in its place in your drawing, sometimes it happens that thats still not the case. This elusive factor is called composition.
A bad composition can simply destroy even the finest work. Yes, yes, this topic is often discussed in drawing lessons, though it’s just a couple of bad and a couple of good examples, leaving the rest of your intuition work.
In this lesson, I would like to consider a more practical approach to composition. What is it really? What is it made of? And, most importantly, how to know for sure whether the composition will be successful before drawing the very first line, and not seeing it only when the drawing is completed? Well, keep reading and you will find the answers to all these questions!
What is composition and why is it so important?
I will try to formulate as simply as possible – so the composition is the arrangement of the elements, due to which they seem to be one. Each drawing has some kind composition. You create it intentionally or accidentally, but without it you cannot create a drawing.
In a more practical sense, composition is the relationship between the elements of a drawing. And this is the attitude, not the elements, we notice first. At the same time, it is, in fact, invisible to us. In a sense, the composition is similar to the skeleton of a living being: we do not see the bones, but it is thanks to them that the body looks as it should, and without it the form would be lost.
The skeleton creates a shape, even though we don’t see it.
Yes, we see the form, and if you try to draw only it, perhaps you will get something unnatural. Of course, you may accidentally and manage to create a shape that will look right, but if you remember the influence of the skeleton, your chances of success will increase significantly.
The same with composition. You can try to place the elements of a picture at random and hope for the best, but you can also figure out how to create a good composition and apply this knowledge in practice.
The main thing in a good composition is balance. In this case, busting is as bad as lack. If the drawing was a dish, the composition is a dressing. It doesn’t matter how much time you spent in the kitchen, because if you mess up with a dressing, the dish can be spoiled. So how to treat it “correctly”? And in general, what is “refueling” in the composition?
What are the compositional elements in the picture?
Based on the fact that composition is a relation, we can conclude that there must be at least two elements. This relationship between them can be based on many factors, which complicates this issue. Let’s deal with them one by one.
Framing and negative space
Although the composition requires at least two elements, you cannot avoid creating it by drawing only one element, because in this case the relationship between this element and the frame will remain.
By saying “frame” I mean not only the luxuriously decorated frames of traditional paintings. The frame is the edge of work. Even if you do not really care, the edge of the sheet (or frame, if you photograph the work) on which you draw, one way or another, will create this frame.
In other words, the frame is the border between what is part of the picture and what is not. It becomes part of the composition as soon as you draw something inside it – this is like the mini universe of your work. When you show someone your work, they see the frame as a whole, regardless of where the drawing is actually located.
1 – drawing; 2 – not a drawing
And now we are closer to the issue of negative space. In the picture we see not only what is painted, but also what is not. The space between the picture and the frame is not just “emptiness”. We see it, even though it was not created consciously. And even if we ignore this part, it still adds meaning to the drawing and affects its perception.
Positive space vs. negative space – when you create one, the second is created automatically.
Here, for example, drawing compared to the rest of the work space is tiny. The observer will see a lot of space and character. Actually, in this figure starring space! If you are thinking this way, then this is not bad – such a composition shows the insignificance of the character, which can be very useful. But if you conceived completely wrong, and the main attention should have belonged to the character, then this is a mistake.
And here is the opposite situation. The character occupies almost the entire space, and as a result he himself becomes space. Here the character is the work, not its part, its details become the characters of the work.
Here the character looks as if he is trying to leave work. The observer sees a large piece of empty space, and the character is allegedly not interested in his own demonstration. Is it good or bad? I repeat, it all depends on the intentions.
How can you make these compositions more interesting? Hint: in no case is there a single correct solution.
The composition can be explained by showing a comparison between the elements. Contrast – there is a degree of difference between them. This is very important, as we see through comparison – we compare the white space with dark lines in order to see the drawing.
Contrast makes things interesting, because it draws our attention. He separates the two subjects, forcing us to consider them separately. The images below contain the same number of elements, but the fact that the contrast on the right is higher. Which composition seems more interesting to you?
High contrast allows you to quickly find an element that suddenly increases your interest. Low contrast shows you the same thing more slowly, with more effort, which translates into a calmer reaction.
When you look at a picture, you compare its various signs to visually group them to speed up the reaction. The higher the contrast, the easier it is to group, and the more pleasant it is. There are many characteristics with which you can evaluate the contrast:
- Size (large and small)
- Shape (sharp and blurred, elongated and round)
- Shading (dark and bright)
- Hue (red and green, blue and orange)
- Materials (shiny and matt)
- Theme (big and scary wolf and baby, frozen life and movement)
We can use all these characteristics to create contrast in our composition. However, there is one nuance here. For contrast to be effective, balance is needed. Too many objects merge into one – chaos comes out. Too few objects also merge into one – order. In order to achieve a neutral effect, you need to find a balance between chaos and order.
1 – chaos; 2 – balance; 3 – order
Contrast is also strong because it has an important role in evolution – it allows us to make out the head of a lion in a field of tall grass or, for example, a red fruit among green leaves. It is the contrast that draws our attention to what is important. So you should use it in your composition: to draw attention to what is important.
Of course, this means that you have to decide what is important in the picture and what is just the background. After that, it remains only to endow these elements with opposite characteristics. It is not necessary to use them all or make them all opposed. All this is a matter of stylistic choice: in realism exaggeration is not good, but here the cartoon styles adore it.
Tibi style is characterized by the contrast between a small body and a huge head – thanks to this decision, the characters look like cute kids
Each of these objects would be boring, we place it separately. Together they create an attitude, and this is what we see – not two objects, but a sense of scale.
And here the feeling of scale is already lost. Too much contrast turns into chaos, creating a messy pattern, not a picture.
But chaos can be the perfect backdrop for an important element that we want to show! If it is quite different from chaos, we will see it first, making the background unimportant.
Which of these compositions are interesting and which are not? Why?
We often say that composition is the arrangement of elements relative to each other. But is the location right and wrong? Not really, but there is one thing – sometimes a certain arrangement of elements takes on a meaning for us.
Rhythm is the visual contraction that our brain makes. If several elements follow the rhythm, we don’t need to look at them one at a time — the row of standing boards is a fence, the “cloud” of leaves is the crown of a tree, etc. But we also perceive more subtle cues, separating natural objects (“ as it should be “) from unnatural (” as if someone made them “).
Rhythm creates a different type of contrast. In this picture, a small flower attracts our attention not only because it is small compared to the others, bigger, but also because it interrupts the rhythm. From the “number of flowers” it turns into a “small flower between large ones”.
But it’s not just about the contrast. Rhythm makes us see something that in fact did not draw. If the stones lie in a row, it means that someone put them so. The “cloud” of leaves on a tree means that they all belong to the same plant. If the elements move in the same direction, this means that this is due to the same force (be it wind or fear).
This adds information to the picture, and this information should not be random, as it affects the composition. Just take a look: a simple drawing on the theme “swimming fish” can be turned into “going against the stream” just by breaking the rhythm.
The rhythm (or its violation) should not be accidental. It has a certain meaning – so don’t let that meaning ruin your ideas.
A broken rhythm, for example, a hole in the fence will surely attract our attention. What happened here? Maybe it was a herd of rabid cows? Or just a drunk tractor driver? Breaking the rhythm can create a whole story.
In this composition, the main thing is order. There is a contrast that makes it interesting, but we see here and something else: it is 100% made by man and controlled by him. Everything tends to chaos, but then someone stops this trend.
Here we see a similar situation – trees planted by man. This composition is simple, but there is some elusive beauty in a predictable rhythm.
What do these compositions tell?
Center of attention
Your drawing is not just a random set of lines. They have to mean something, but even the most incredible message can be spoiled if you read it incorrectly, for example, backwards.
Composition can lead the observer to what we want to show him, and this is the way that we consider the most effective in order to correctly understand the message. If you ignore this, the observer may have a completely wrong first impression, and he will give up on the work with his hand, without having understood its true meaning.
When we look at the drawing, we are first looking for something that you can catch your eye on. The order in which we view objects is important, since even if it takes a fraction of a second to see everything, in nature a millisecond can become a matter of life and death. First, we definitely need to see the most important elements.
In the process of planning a composition, you need to decide which elements will be most important. Then you can use the contrast to highlight them, and the rhythm to force the observer to examine them in a certain order.
Let’s go back to the previous example. All lines lead us to the center. You look there even before you notice the road or the trees. No matter what you put in the center – this will be noticed first.
It’s all a little more subtle, since the rhythm lines are inside the body of the animal. Your eyes glide over them, nothing stops you. It adds a sense of movement.
Here, because of the contrast, you will first notice this big figure, and then, in search of missing information, you look where the figure is looking.
Looking at these examples, what do you notice first? How do your eyes move? Why?
How to create an interesting composition
Now you know what a composition is and how to find flaws in it. Only it will be useless if you complete the drawing, and only then you see that you have left too much negative space, or because of the rhythm your landscape looks artificial. Therefore, you should think about the composition before you hold the very first line.
But how to do this if you are not even sure what you are painting? Planning makes everything too hard and boring, and spontaneity cannot be planned at all. Let’s see how to solve this problem.
You do not need to see the full-size work to draw conclusions about its composition. Please note that I did not pay particular attention to the details in the theoretical part. This is because they do not play any role in the composition. They are seen last, some time after they figure out what is painted on the picture.
That is why you do not need to complete the drawing in order to assess its impact. You just need to create a frame, contrast, rhythm and centers. And this you can do quite quickly – so you will see how the elements are combined together!
We call this method thumbnails. The thumbnail is a small version of the picture that we see before we open the original. You can not see the details on the thumbnail, but you can see that the figure is important.
Thumbnail gives you an idea of the image, without actually saying anything.
To create thumbnails, first draw some frames that will be a smaller version of the format you are interested in (for example, small rectangles with the proportions of your sheet). Then outline the drawing in outline. Simple shapes, simple silhouettes, simple shading – that’s all you need to see to see if the composition looks the way you want. You can also experiment freely without wasting time.
Miniature sketches should not be neat, do not waste too much time on each, just sketch out the main idea, and then evaluate them all.
It is difficult to keep the correct proportions and distances on a large format. To make sure that the composition turns out the way you planned, first draw only the main elements.
And this is done this way: look at the sheet of paper, and decide where the outer edge of the picture will be, and lightly sketch it. Then sketch the edges of the elements inside, everything is also very easy. You should have a “ghostly” drawing – so light that it is almost invisible, but this should be enough to understand whether the composition is right.
These lines should not have any relation to anatomy, these should be common spots that you will see first of all when the drawing is ready.
Rule of thirds
You may have already heard about him, but I just can not miss this rule in the lesson about composition. There are many rules that can be given in this lesson, but I believe that the rule of thirds is the simplest and most universal.
To use this rule, divide (mentally or physically) your drawing into three equal parts horizontally, and the same three equal parts vertically. According to the rule of thirds, the intersection points of these lines are natural focusing points of our eyes. Place the most important elements in these points, those elements that should be noticed first.
In fact, it will be even better if the elements are located close to these points, and not quite on them. A little unpredictability will make the drawing more interesting.
This rule also tells us about compositions that should be avoided. For example, we use the “half rule” on an intuitive level, but such compositions are uninteresting at best, and very confusing at worst.
It is possible to easily improve a similar composition, just slightly moving its center sideways / up / down.
The rule of thirds is often skillfully used when creating book covers.
Weight distribution among composite elements
The composition is influenced by many factors. How to cope with all these factors? You can use imaginary scales to weigh them.
There are three main types of weight in the composition: negative space, positive space and spotlights. Positive space – this is the picture. Negative space is the area surrounding it (and this is not necessarily empty space – it can be just the sky). Spotlights are the parts to which you want to attract the attention of an observer.
An interesting composition is based on the balance between the weight of these parts. This balance also has many tones that are based on the elements of contrast. In the “linear” pattern, your main concern is size. If you use shading, it will be even more important.
Let’s see how to handle this. Here we have one element placed at the focus point described in rule of thirds. The composition is not balanced, since there is only one tiny element on it and a bunch of empty space. The positive space and the spotlight are one and the same in this case.
Adding another identical element to any other focal point will not solve the problem, as it closes the viewer inside this area in the center, surrounded by the focal points. Therefore, it turns out a boring central composition.
To balance the negative space, it is best to make it a little less negative. Separate negative and positive spaces somewhere close to the focal points according to the rule of thirds.
When the positive space prevails over the negative, the second can become a focal point.
To balance the composition, you can add any element of contrast. In fact, this whole story with balance actually means reaching the required level of contrast. Try to work more intuitively, think about a low contrast scene as a background, and add something more contrast to complete the composition.
On this image, balance is based on rhythm disturbance.
We already know that composition is a relation of elements, but there is one more element beyond the edge of the figure — this is the observer. If you include them in your composition, you can achieve a different, deeper level of relationship.
When the observer looks at the image, he can imagine that he, too, is there, only a couple of tips are needed from your side. Here the prospect may come to your aid. The secret is to put something near the “camera” in order to focus on the position.
The closer an object is to us, the larger it is, so if an enlarged version of an object is present in your composition, it will mean that it is close to the observer. Everything else is far from him, which creates a sense of depth.
Also, perspective can improve the composition if you turn on a certain scale indicator. The most obvious is the silhouette of a person, but you can also use animals or trees for this purpose. If you do it right, the scale will become another element of your composition.
Using a mirror
Even if you have mastered the composition, after long hours of work on the drawing of the eyes, it can become blurred. You start to see the drawing as “something I’ve seen before,” and you don’t feel its just like someone who sees him for the first time.
To get a fresh look, you periodically need to change the perspective, forcing your brain to adapt. Drawing on the tablet, the easiest way to reflect the image horizontally. If you paint on canvas or paper, you can turn it, or use a mirror. Do this often – so you will always have a fresh look.
Inverted image turns into a new composition, which your brain has to figure out
Cutting the picture
After you finish the drawing, if something is still wrong, there is a final trick that can help. By changing the frame – its size or proportions – you can move the focus points and greatly improve the composition.
When working with the tablet, you can always resort to some kind of clipping tool. In traditional painting, you can either use a stationery knife, take a picture of the work, and cut it as needed, or use a frame that will add a bit of negative space, covering those parts that you want to remove.
The same image may have different values depending on how it is cropped.
Expansion of intuition
Theory is theory, but in the end, all this knowledge becomes a part of your intuition — something you can use without thinking about it. To improve your intuition, include one more step in evaluating the drawings. Try to understand why everything looks so good, look for compositional elements, and try to guess how the artist made the decisions.
Intuition can be improved simply by observing good work. So you will compare your compositions with those that you have already seen, without even realizing that you are doing this. However, it is best to combine intuition with knowledge.
After explaining all these rules, I should add the most important thing: there are no rules in art. We like certain images, certain compositions, and we do not always know why. Artists are trying to create some rules of thumb that will be useful in most cases, but in the end, you can create fantastic work by breaking them all.
With the help of composition rules, you can understand what is wrong with the pattern, but they are not the exact recipe for creating the perfect picture. Experiment, be observant, and create with your heart. Do not be afraid to make mistakes – you can also learn from them!