5 Top Tips For Composition!

I suspect that there are closer to 50 as opposed to just 5 top composition tips! 

There are SO many wonderful and incendiary concepts to grasp when you are learning to master the art of drawing! Concepts that are designed to make drawing easier. 

Composition is no exception to the rule. It is a subject I spend time teaching in my courses. 

I can’t work out whether to laugh or cry as I discover more and more about how to improve my drawing skills. Not via the skill of drawing itself but through the understanding of things like composition, proportion, colour or cornucopia. 

All of these concepts act as levers and leverage in creating impactful drawings. 

And here is the wonderful realisation that I have come to. 

Sometimes your drawing of a subject doesn’t have to be perfect, or polished or even nearly accurate. That famous saying of “work smarter and not harder” definitely applies to today’s blog post. These incendiary support mechanisms designed over centuries are ours for the use of improving our drawings and creations. 

But…we never really define what these are or how to use them properly. 

This week one of my students, the lovely Sue from Leeds, wrote to me following a lesson on composition stating,

“After watching these two recent replays for Week 2 (on composition) I feel more encouraged and less serious.  It is a massive learning curve but the structure in which you are presenting the elements make so much sense to me so I must stand back and think enjoyment more than perfection.”


If only we didn’t hamper our efforts with all these preconceived ideas of how we should perfect a drawing. 

I for one, worship at the temple of whatever it takes to get me to the place of enjoyment and contentment with what I draw. I will use any tool available to get it too! 

Composition is one such tool I’d love for you to feel you can add to your toolbox alongside your pencils and paper. The 5 top tips of composition that I outline here are just the starting point.

Composition should jump out at you before you even begin a drawing and be one of the first considerations you make as you assess how you want to convey what you want to draw. 

Before I launch into this post I want to make absolutely certain that you grasp the practicalities of this post and morph from stressed perfectionist to the lightness of being via these 5 top tips of composition. 

Grab one of your drawings, sketchbook or your scribbling and have a think about how you naturally tend to use composition in your drawing.

Where to start? 

The dictionary definition of composition is “the act or process of composing, the arrangement into specific proportion or relation and especially into artistic form. 

How do you choose to arrange what you draw? Do you simply look at it and then get it down on paper or do you put any energy into thinking about how you might want to arrange the page and subject you are drawing? 

Or do you just look at your object and get it down on the page whichever way it comes?

I wonder too whether you draw what you see the way in which you choose to take a photograph. I love taking cropped and balanced photos – we all compose our pictures in certain ways too! 

Marc Awody on composition wrote,” The anatomy of a picture is always more important than the anatomy of the subject.” 

Agreed. It momentarily takes the pressure off when drawing the object in too much detail. How it is anchored and placed in the whole of the picture can change the dynamic of the object you draw, and more importantly how you decide to draw it.

I am a HUGE advocate of contour drawing as the first principle of learning to draw and believe that we should approach our creations as the “whole.”  By whole in this instance I also include the entire picture you are looking to draw. The surroundings within which your subject sits and how you choose to arrange it, creates balance, movement, proportion and focus. 

A confirmatory hallelujah to Alessandra Bitelli’s comments, “developing a composition is a creative process involving intuition and thinking more than following rules.” 

We so often launch ourselves into immediately drawing as opposed to really looking at the subject we want to draw, allowing our brains the space and time to process and think through how we want to convey the subject and then allow the  brain to connect to vision to hand to paper. 

The first top tip to follow; 

1. Create a frame around what you want to draw!

Imagine you are being tasked with drawing exactly what you see in front of you now. Ask yourself these questions. 

How do I frame what I want to draw? What do I want to include? How big / small is it going to be? Am I drawing the whole object or cropped versions of it? Could I consider multiple arrangements to draw? 

Get into the habit of framing what you see. Make an arrangement of an assortment of objects and draw them from different angles, zooming in on elements of the still life, cropping your drawing and so on and so forth. 

You can even use a viewfinder if you feel this will help! I simply employ a visual viewfinder in my mind’s eye. 

Get into the habit of employing a framing approach as one of your first steps to drawing. 

You can then explore which of the 5 top composition layouts you prefer. 

A note on how to use these. Ask yourself which composition layout you’d like to use when you first start your drawing. 

2. Practice Cropping!

You can intentionally “chop” parts of the subject you are drawing out of your picture. This is quite a severe and intentional drawing move to make. My sequence of hands holding a spoon with a blue background is an example of this technique. It shifts the focus of the pieces whilst still conveying that they are hands holding spoons. It creates intimacy with the subject. In addition, the background becomes as important as the subject itself, almost muting and detracting from the importance of the hands, whilst ironically still drawing attention to it.  The background colour of blues oddly stand out more too as importantly as the hands themselves. You create an oddly balanced drawing. I like the cropping format. Every part of the drawing becomes powerful. 

3. A Vertical or Horizontal Arrangement.

This sounds obvious but I suspect that for most of us we tend to stick to one of the two. For both you could experiment by using the same image but arranging it in a different way. Note how I have done so with my quick sketch of the chair and pot plant. The dynamic of a drawing changes dependent on whether I construct a vertical or horizontal composition. (The two sketches to the left of the drawing.)

4. To Zoom in or Zoom out?

Much linked to the first concept of cropping draw two different scenes of an object, this time getting up close to it vs from a distance. So sticking to the above sketch example, the bowl of fruit is my zoom in (as well as cropping example) and the pot of wooden spoons is the zoom out example. From personal experience I started my drawing journey and practice always drawing what I could see at a distance working hard to keep everything centred on a page and “just so”. Zooming out accentuates background and is really great to use for drawing landscapes for example. Getting up close and personal is a great composition technique to employ too if you want to focus on the details of a subject that you are drawing. 

5.Can you Draw Your Picture Within a Set Number of Basic Shapes?

So believe it or not this dubious sketch of my open dishwasher was drawn in 5 shapes. The slanted rectangles for the draws were 2 of them, the little triangle to the left and right of the top shelf were 2 more and then the final shape was the one running around the bottom shelf of the dishwasher to create my border.

Create a jigsaw puzzle of pieces on your paper of no more than 5 – 6 shapes.

Here comes the teaching technique that forces you to appreciate the negative spaces. I drew a bowl of apples using this technique.

You can watch the entire tutorial on my apple bowl sketch here. (You may need to watch about 15 – 20 minutes into the video.) I started by focusing on the spaces that drew my eye, forgetting that I was drawing a bowl of apples and seeing beyond the positive shapes. There is something liberating about this technique where you challenge yourself to get the skeleton of the picture down on a page in its entirety by drawing its shapes. It also then releases you to work on the details comfortably within the overarching frame of shapes! Setting my bowl on a striped cloth was also part of the composition. 

Thinking about composition is a wonderful way to keep the momentum going with your drawing. It can spark ideas about different areas you can practice working on as well as interesting new blends of composition you can add to your work. 

I love thinking about how I am about to arrange a drawing to support bring it to life in the pages of my sketchbook. 

Rather than obsess about how perfect a drawing will eventually appear I rely on an intuitive approach which is truly liberating. Drawings do not have to perfect for them to still be powerful and effective once they are framed within a worthy composition! 

I shall leave you now, hopefully with a better understanding of how you can approach composition, but also with a closing quote from Peter Ciccaricllo; 

“Composition, an arbitrary, inexact process, appears to be guided best by intuition and change rather than science!”

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