The Design Elements of Composing a Drawing

Composition refers to the organization, arrangement, and combination of objects within the borders of a drawing space. For a great drawing, you want to bring the eyes of the viewer toward your center of interest within an aesthetically pleasing composition.

Composing a drawing well engages your viewers. Many “rules” define a good composition, but these rules are only guidelines. Your personal preferences and natural instincts are also important.

When planning the overall appearance of a drawing, you need to be familiar with the following:

  • Focal point: A primary center of interest (or focus) in a drawing.
  • Overlapping: The visual separation of a drawing into foreground, middle ground, and distant space by overlapping (or layering) objects.
  • Negative space: The space within your drawing not occupied by a focal point, important subject, or area of interest.
  • Lines: Navigation tools used to guide the viewer through the different elements of a drawing.
  • Balance: A stable arrangement of subjects within a composition.
  • Contrast: Extremes of light and dark values that create shapes and patterns in your composition.
  • Proportion: The amount of space allocated to the various components of a drawing.

Emphasizing the focal point

A drawing becomes much more interesting when it has a focal point — a specific area where you want your viewer to focus the majority of their attention when looking at your drawing.

Your drawings illustrate your choice of subjects from your own unique perspective. Think about what you want your drawing to say and choose a focal point that helps you express that message.

In a portrait, the focal point may be the eyes, and in a landscape it may be one specific tree or flower. You may choose to have more than one area of focus in your drawing; in this case, you have a primary focal point and secondary focal point(s).

After you choose your main point (or points) of interest, you can use many artistic devices and techniques to highlight the point. In Figure 1, the Headde Family illustrates the following tips for emphasizing your focal point:

  • Always place your focal point off-center in your composition. Stay away from the bull’s eye. A focal point placed in the very center of your drawing space is a big NO unless you have a specific expressive or artistic reason to do so. Any object that you place dead center commands the viewer’s full attention. All the other important elements of your drawing may be ignored, and the drawing loses its impact.In Figure 1, the main member of the Headde family appears right of center. Your eye may go to this figure intuitively at first, but you still register the other members of the family off to the left.
  • Make good use of secondary focal points. Drawing less interesting objects close to the primary focal point helps direct the viewer’s eye toward your center of interest. In Figure 1, the small cluster of family members off to the left draws your eye, but then the eyes on these figures direct you straight back to the main figure on the right.
  • Use objects within your drawing space to point to your focal point. The lines of the two steps on the platform in Figure 1 lead the view’s eye to the focal point.
  • Define the focal point with more detail and a stronger contrast in values than other aspects of your drawing. The shading of the hair, eyes, and nose is more detailed in the focal point. Also, a very dark value is used to shade the pupils of his eyes and for the shadows under him.