The Design Elements of Composing a Drawing

2 of 7 in Series: The Essentials of 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.

Figure 1: In the Headde family, a primary focal point out-stages the secondary focal points.

Overlapping for unity and depth

Overlapping objects, or placing some objects over (or in front of) others, unifies a drawing, enhances depth of field, and creates an aesthetically pleasing composition.

Observe your subject carefully before you begin your drawing and plan for places where you can utilize overlapping. To overlap subjects in a drawing, you simply draw closer objects in front of those farther away. For example, if two trees appear side-by-side in a scene, consider drawing them in such a way that one is slightly in front of the other. When you overlap objects, you create a strong three-dimensional illusion.

In Figure 2, the larger child (with lots of hair) is in the foreground (the front), the light haired adult and the baby are in the middle ground, and the dark haired adult (with the grumpy facial expression) is in the distant space (behind the others).

Figure 2: Creating depth by overlapping your subjects.

Using lines to your advantage

In the cartoon drawing in Figure 1, the lines outlining the family members and objects are actual lines. The lines of the steps, on which the largest character is standing, point toward him. But of course, bold black lines, like in this cartoon or a coloring book drawing, do not outline objects in the real world around us.

Representational drawings that include realistic three-dimensional subjects can use implied lines to strengthen a composition. This means lines that are not really there, but are formed (or implied) by the edges of the shapes of the objects in your drawing.

Following the leading line

Effective leading lines can invite and encourage the viewer to enter the drawing space, explore the focal point, and linger to investigate the many facets of the composition.

Either actual lines or implied lines can be used to navigate the viewer around a nonrepresentational drawing. However, in a representational drawing, leading lines are usually implied, rather than actual. For example, in a realistic landscape drawing, a leading line can be a pathway, a river, a row of trees, or a fence. When properly rendered, the eye follows this line (or lines) directly into and through the drawing.

Most viewers begin looking at a drawing in the lower-left hand corner, making this corner the best location for a leading line.

Placing leading lines on the right side of your drawing may take the viewer's eye out of your composition. Also, don't put leading lines exactly in a corner. When a leading line points directly to a corner it forms the shape of an arrowhead, pointing the viewer directly out of the drawing, just as effectively as a big bold neon EXIT sign.

Lining up emotions with composition lines

Various types of lines put diverse emotions and moods in your compositions. Remain conscious of the following effects lines can have in your drawings:

  • Curved lines reflect beauty, gentleness, and calmness. The s-curve denotes balance and grace.
  • Horizontal lines create stability, peace, and serenity.
  • Vertical lines reflect strength, grandeur, and dignity.
  • Diagonal lines offer a sense of movement and power. When diagonal lines meet to form an arrow, they can direct the viewer's eye.

Balancing subjects in a composition

Most good drawings result from carefully planning the balance of the various subjects. A balanced drawing is more aesthetically pleasing and harmonious. When creating this balancing act, you must take the sizes, placements, and values of the subjects into account.

Playing with the teeter-totter principle

Think of your drawing subjects on a teeter-totter. If your subjects are the same size, then they balance perfectly with both the same distance from the center point, as in the first drawing in Figure 3. On the other hand, a tiny object on one side balances a larger object on the other end, by being farther away from the center point, as in the second drawing in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Balancing subjects of the same and differing masses.

Without balance, your drawings may end up visually lopsided and inharmonious. Of course, if you want a particular drawing subject to appear distressing and jarring, using an unbalanced composition can help.

Arrange your objects asymmetrically. Taller objects usually look better off to one side.

Balancing values and shapes

Masses of light and dark values become shapes. These shapes need to be identified and planned before you begin to draw.

Balance dark and light values in your drawing space, in much the same way as objects. Grouping all the dark objects or all the light objects on one side of your drawing space can create a visually lopsided composition. Sometimes simply moving objects slightly to the right or left in your drawing space, or making them lighter or darker than their actual values, can balance the composition.

Placing an odd number of objects into a grouping (rather than an even number) makes a composition more artistically pleasing. Balancing three objects on one side of a composition and five on the other is much more interesting than a static arrangement of four on either side

Delegating proportions to your subjects

When you plan a drawing, you have to decide how big to make each object in the composition. The proportion of each element relative to the others depends on what you want to emphasize in your composition.

It's completely up to you to call upon your creative mind to help you make decisions about the proportions in your composition. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I consider to be the most important subject within this composition? The answer to this question may decide what your focal point (center of interest) should be.
  • Where should I put my focal point and how much of my total drawing space should my focal point occupy? Many beginners choose to make their focal point the largest object in the drawing.
  • How much of my drawing format should be background (negative space)? Negative space is sometimes thought of as a resting place for the viewer's eyes.
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The Essentials of Drawing