Basic Composition for Beginners

New readers are always coming to this blog, just like new artists are always finding colored pencils. For those of you who have been drawing for some time, allow me to talk about the basics of composition for beginners.

Even if you’ve been making art for a while, it’s always worth reviewing the basics!

Basic Composition for Beginners

Artists can talk about composition for hours. How it works. Why it works. The rules that make it work. That’s not the purpose of this article.

You don’t have to know everything about composition in order to use it any more than you need to everything about your car to drive it. But you do need to understand at least a few basics.

That IS the purpose of this article. So I’m beginning with a basic definition.

What Is Composition?

When used as an art term, the word “composition” refers to the way a drawing or painting is arranged. It’s the things you chose to put into a drawing (and leave out of the drawing.) It’s the way you arrange those things within your drawing.

And it’s the sizes, colors and values of those things as they compare with one another.

This design very simple design has a composition. I decided what shapes to use, where to put each shape, what color to make it, and what size to make it. I also decided which shapes to put in front and which ones to put in back. All of those decisions are composition decisions.

Basics of Composition with a simple, graphic design.

You might be thinking, “But that’s just a bunch of shapes. What does it have to do with a portrait or a landscape?”

Short answer? Everything!

But lets start with the easiest reason.

Why Size is Important

If you have several objects that are all the same, but you make them different sizes, the largest shape looks closest. The smallest shape looks the most distant, with all the others in between.

Of these three purple triangles, which one looks the closest? The largest one, right?

Change those triangles to trees, and the same principle is true.

No matter how many trees you add, the smallest ones always look the most distant. It doesn’t even matter if they’re different kinds of trees.

I put together three different types of trees at different size and—wa-la—I have a simple landscape!

Basics of Composition - A More Complex Composition

A Couple of Other Principles of Composition

The illustration above also illustrated a couple of other principles of basic composition beginners need to learn.

Overlapping to create depth

When you overlap objects in a drawing, you create the illusion of distance, of space. The object that’s not overlapped by anything else is the object that’s closest. The more an object is overlapped by other objects, the further into the background it is.

In this drawing, the weeds are the closest so they overlap everything else. The sky is the most distant, so everything else overlaps it; even the rainy clouds overlap the sky.

The Basics of Composition for Beginners

Using value and color to show distance

The hills in the drawing above are different values of gray. The lighter the gray, the more distant the hill looks.

But even the closest hill is still lighter than the brown hill just beyond the weeds, so the brown hill appears to be a lot closer than the nearest (darkest) gray hill.

The visual path

One is something called a visual path. The visual path in a drawing or painting is the path a viewer’s eye travels through a picture. Most of the time, you want your viewer to look at the center of interest first. In an animal portrait, that’s most likely going to be the eye.

In a landscape, it’s the main subject. The star of the drawing.

But you want viewers to look at the other things, too. The supporting cast, if you want to think of it that way. That’s what a visual path is.

Let’s look at an actual landscape drawing.

The Basics of Composition for Beginners

The center of interest in this piece is the large group of trees. That’s the star. The other trees, the grassy meadow, and even the sky are all supporting actors. They’re important because they showcase the center of interest. They give it a place to be.

But they’re not as important as the center of interest.

The way they’re positioned in relation to one another leads your eye from the big trees, to the smaller tree at the left, then to the still smaller trees on the right.

The meadow is brightest around the center of interest so it contrasts with the center of interest, drawing attention. Those are all subtle cues.

The dirt path is a more obvious cue. It enters the picture at the bottom, winds it’s way through the drawing, and disappears near the big trees. I deliberately put in a path leading back to the tree to lead a viewer’s eye to the place where I wanted viewers to spend the most time.

Getting Beyond the Basics of Composition for Beginners

What I’ve described in this post are the most basic of the compositional basics; the things new artists should learn first. There’s a lot more to composition than these, though, so I encourage you to continue exploring composition no matter how long you’ve been drawing.

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6 Replies to “Basic Composition for Beginners”

  1. i think i learned more about composition in this article than i did in my college art class on composition. Of course, an extra 40 years experience helped, but you made it VERY clear. Thank you!

  2. Thank you so much perfect time for this lesson Im most greatful for sharing. I intend on donating in the future, I’m just starting off with my career but I’m planning on doing automotive airbrushing theres not 1 shop within 500 miles here and i already know Harley Davidson is interested, I’m working on airbrushing a show car for next feb and have been focusing on studying various subjects in pencil for 10 years and just did my first color pencil piece which I’d have no idea if it weren’t for your teaching g so thank you

    1. Thank you for reading and for leaving a comment. I’m glad to have been of help to you.

      Best wishes on your air brushing work. Composition is even more important on a limited surface like a car or motorcycle because you have so little space to work with and such odd shapes.

  3. Wow, this was super helpful, although, I don’t draw these same tips can be applied to making cards and where you stamp an object. I have been having trouble with which one to stamp first when I want something to appear in the background and this will help me make it work now. Thank you.

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