Step 2 in the Drawing Process in Art: Create an excellent drawing composition with some guidelines and useful tips
There are a few rules, I prefer to call them guides, for how to plan a composition in drawing. These guides are a good starting point to create an aesthetically pleasing composition. We briefly discuss two popular types of composition in art, the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio, and then present useful tips in drawing composition that beginners sometimes overlook.
- Rule of Thirds
- The Golden Ratio
- Golden Rectangle
- Useful Tips For Drawing Composition:
What is Good Composition in Art?
An excellent composition is composed of elements arranged in a way that shows their significant connection to one another. A good composition directs the viewer’s eye around the drawing from the most important element (the focal point), to the least important element, and back to the focal point.
Composition Using the Rule of Thirds
A composition using the Rule of Thirds divides the drawing surface into thirds, or nine equal parts. The focal point of the composition appears on one of the intersections. Since the viewer’s gaze naturally falls toward the center of an artwork, the Rule of Thirds composition pulls the eye away from the center and directs it to the focal point. From there, thoughtfully placed elements then guide the viewer’s eye around the rest of the piece.
Chardin, Monet, and the Rule of Thirds
The still life painter Jean Siméon Chardin used the Rule of Thirds in many of his paintings. In his work Soap Bubbles, the young man’s forehead appears on the upper right intersection of the Rule of Thirds grid. The glass, the man’s arm, and the face on the right all line up with the bottom third of the piece. The painting of the countryside, by Monet, positions the haystack on the lower third intersection. The tops of the trees coincide with the upper third of the painting.
Composition Using the Golden Ratio
Composition utilizing the Golden Ratio is another way to guide the viewer’s eye to the focal point in a drawing. A bit more complicated than the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio uses a mathematical formula, a proportion, to designate where the point of interest appears on the page. This method creates an aesthetically pleasing composition.
Vermeer, Hokusai, and the Golden Ratio
Vermeer masterfully uses the Golden Ratio composition in his painting Young Woman With a Pitcher. He positions the woman’s head at the center of the spiral. The far end of the spiral and the left side of the Golden Ratio rectangle intersect at the bottom of her dress. The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai utilizes the Golden Ratio to create the graceful curvature of the towering ocean wave.
Why are compositions using the Golden Ratio so compelling and pleasing to look at? An article in the Arts and Design section of The Guardian discusses a possible reason:
‘According to Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, the human eye is capable of interpreting an image featuring the golden ratio faster than any other.’
Composition Using the Golden Rectangle
Let’s simplify the discussion of the Golden Ratio, and describe the Golden Rectangle and how it’s used in a composition.
In a Golden Rectangle, the length and width of the sides of a rectangle correspond to the Golden Ratio proportion. An artist need not struggle with the math because there are many apps that calculate the dimensions of the Golden Rectangle for us.
Finding the Golden Rectangle Focal Points
This technique is similar to using the Rule of Thirds. All we have to do is find the optimal locations to place our compositional elements. These locations are called the ‘eyes’ of the rectangle:
– Draw a line from each corner to its opposite corner. These two lines intersect at a middle point.
– From the middle point to each corner, find the halfway point.
These points are called the ‘eyes’ of the rectangle. Using these eyes as a focal point, or focal points, yields an aesthetically pleasing composition which guides the viewer’s eye around the artwork.
Van Gogh, Pissarro, and the Golden Rectangle
Below on the left, Van Gogh’s painting First Steps, shows the woman and man situated on the eyes of the Golden Rectangle. The painting on the right is The Harvest by Pissarro, where we also see figures positioned on the eyes of a Golden Rectangle.
Useful Tips for Planning a Composition
In addition to the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Rectangle, here are some important tips to help the beginning artist create a compelling composition.
Give Your Elements Breathing Space
A drawing in which objects are too close to the edge of the paper, or to other elements in the composition, feels claustrophobic. Breathing space means that there’s some blank space around either an individual compositional element, or around a group of elements so the composition doesn’t appear cramped.
Breathing Space in Landscape Composition
Organizing elements in a landscape drawing is pretty simple. Keep focal point objects, such as large plants, rocks, or hills away from the edges of the paper.
The watercolor painting The Lake of Zug, by J.M.W. Turner, uses breathing space to elicit a feeling of expansiveness. Although the landscape runs off all sides of the paper, as most landscapes do, the major focal points (circled in pink) are surrounded by ample space. There are people close to the edge on both right and left, however, they are supplementary compositional elements and not major focal points. Note also, each major group of people sit directly under one of the mountain peaks.
The snowy landscape of Isaac Levitan utilizes breathing space to convey a remote, isolated feeling, depicted by the lone mill surrounded by snow and a vast sky. Note also how the winding river comes toward us off the page, bordered by snow on both sides.
Breathing Space in Still Life Composition
Ensure ample breathing space in a still life composition by making sure that all objects fit on the page before starting to draw. A beginning artist sometimes gets halfway through a drawing and finds that everything won’t fit on the paper. There’s an urge to squeeze it all in by placing things too close to the edges of the artwork.
Here’s an easy way to ensure that all elements of a composition fit nicely on the page. Measure the width to height ratio of the subject. Establish how wide you want this to be on the paper. The width can be whatever you wish, but the width to height ratio has to fit on the paper. Draw a box with this proportion on the paper and see if it fits. If the box doesn’t fit, then modify the width my making it smaller, and check the proportion again. Then, make sure there’s space from the object to the paper.
A fine example of breathing space in still life composition is Raphaelle’s Still Life with Cake on the left. There is ample room surrounding objects on all sides, inviting us to partake of the cake, fruit, and drink. On the right is Pissarro’s Still Life with Apples and Pitcher. Again we see a composition that utilizes breathing space to draw the viewer into the artwork. The angled position of the knife at the lower left guides the eye toward the fruit and vase.
Plan Your Composition with Aesthetic Relationships Between Still Life Objects
When planning a still life composition, create harmonious relationships between one object and the next. Avoid odd gaps and irregular spaces between compositional elements. Below are two examples of compositions where elements lack positional harmony with one another. (I’ve converted these images to black and white to more easily see the adjustments marked in yellow.)
In the image of the fruit and flowers, there’s a small and visually annoying gap between the flower vase and the fruit bowl. The vase is also too close to the end of the table. A more pleasing composition results when the vase moves down on the page, and the fruit bowl moves a bit down and to the right, obscuring 1/3 of the vase. The composition would also be better if the vase’s rightmost flower were removed, creating some breathing space near the paper’s edge.
In the picture below, the placement of the wine bottle and glasses are fine. The location of the candles makes the composition look awkward and cluttered. In fact, it’s difficult to discern what relationship exists between the candles and the other objects. Relocating the candles to the right and removing the tea lights, the composition becomes more aesthetically pleasing.
Breathing Space in Portrait Composition
Things to consider when drawing a portrait is the size of the head, and its horizontal and vertical placement on the page.
What Size Should I Draw the Head?
The size of the head in a portrait is up to the artist. Remember to draw the neck and shoulders as well, so that the head is not floating in space. For example, on a 9”x12” sheet of paper, I’ll draw a portrait such that the head measures around 7” from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head. This gives me enough space to comfortably draw the facial features and gives room to draw the upper body.
Where On the Paper Should I Draw the Head?
Vertically, place the head high on the page, with some breathing space at the top. This ensures plenty of room to draw the neck and shoulders.
Horizontally, place the head to account for the ‘gaze’ of the subject. For example, if a person is looking toward the right, draw the head to the left of the center of the page. Placing the head off center produces an interesting composition.
Vermeer’s beautiful portrait, Girl With the Pearl Earring, shows the head placed high on the canvas with plenty of breathing space around both sides of the head and upper body. The girl’s eyes, nose, and mouth are placed slightly off center. Isaac Levitan’s self portrait is an interesting example of portrait composition. Although the head seems somewhat large with respect to the size of the paper, lots of breathing space gives balance to the composition.
When Planning a Composition, Guide the Eye
Compositional elements with clear positional relationships produce a captivating drawing. Provide a straight or curved path leading the viewer’s eye from one element to the next, thus guiding the viewer’s eye around the composition.
Chardin, Pissarro, and Leading the Viewer’s Eye Around an Artwork
The French artist Jean Siméon Chardin, known as the master of still life painting, skillfully directs the viewer’s gaze from one element to the next. Shown below on the left is his painting The Kitchen Maid. One path goes from the woman’s head, to her knee, and ends at the pan on the floor. The second path extends from the gourd at the bottom left, to her knee, then up to the chopping block at the upper right.
On the right we revisit the painting The Harvest by Pissarro. In addition to using the Golden Rectangle in his composition, Pissarro skillfully leads the viewer’s eye around the artwork. The visual path begins with the large figures in the foreground. Starting with the woman on the left, the eye moves down the leafy path to the lower right, up to the center trees in the background, to the small figure of the harvester on the upper left, then back down to the woman in the foreground.
Below on the left, Chardin’s painting Fruit, Jug, and a Glass shows several triangular relationships existing between objects in his composition. On the right, we revisit Pissarro’s Still Life with Apples and Pitcher. Pissarro masterfully directs our eye around the entire piece. Our eye starts its journey at the top of the largest object, the vase, proceeds to the knife at lower left, then up to the glass on the right.
Account for Matting When Planning a Composition
Sometimes a beginning artist creates a very nice composition only to find that, after matting the drawing, the elements are too close to the edge of the mat.
In general, the opening on pre-cut mats is at least 1/2” smaller than the size of the artwork. For example, a mat for an 11”x14” drawing may have an opening of only 10.5”x13.5” at most. In this case, 1/4” is lost on each side of the paper. It’s important to take the mat opening into account when planning a composition so that there’s breathing space around all elements of the drawing.
Here’s an example of a composition where the subject is too close to the edge of the paper. In the first photo, the foreground paintbrushes in the jar are visible, and most of the bowl appears in the lower left. The second photo shows a mat placed around the image. With the mat in place, the rightmost brush is cropped off, and the bowl at the bottom is barely visible. The lower rim of the jar is also cut away.
Guidelines for How to Plan a Composition in Drawing
In summary, use the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, or the Golden Rectangle to plan your composition for a compelling drawing. Make sure there is adequate breathing space and that the elements have a relationship to each other by providing linear or curved paths to guide the view’s eye. Remember that a mat obscures the paper’s edges when framing. If one composition isn’t working, try another. Move elements around till it looks and feels right.
Forward to Step 3 in the Drawing Process in Art: Pick the drawing media
Back to Step 1: What Should I Draw?