How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper

Let’s take a look at something that scares the wits out of a lot of us: How to sketch a composition directly on paper. (And no, I don’t mean a preliminary sketch on any old sheet of paper: I mean sketching on good drawing paper!)

I know it’s scary, because it was years before I started doing it.

Want to know the truth? I didn’t start sketching directly on good drawing paper until I started doing landscapes a year or two ago, and I’ve been an artist for fifty years!

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper

Landscapes are ideal subjects to begin with because you don’t need to get every detail correct in order to draw an accurate representation.

I’m using sanded art paper for this tutorial because it’s so easy to remove color and make changes. The goal is to reach the point at which you don’t need to make changes to your sketch, but it’s nice to have that option.

Don’t worry! If this is the first time you’ve ever sketched directly on good drawing paper, it’s not that difficult. Just focus on the big shapes and don’t worry about getting everything exactly right! If it looks too difficult, do a couple of practice sketches first. That’s always a good way to improve drawing skills, anyway, so the time will not be wasted.

I also recommend starting small. This project is 6 inches by 8 inches. Large enough to give you plenty of wiggle room, but small enough to keep it from being too intimidating.

And choose a relatively simple landscape to begin with.

Step 1: Draw compositional guidelines by dividing the paper into thirds horizontally and vertically.

Divide the paper into thirds, as shown below. You can also divide the long side into thirds if you wish. I didn’t because this composition is so horizontal, but in hindsight, I could have saved myself a little time by dividing the long sides into thirds, too.

TIP: Most landscape drawings are best if they are divided roughly into thirds. A composition that’s divided into thirds is generally more interesting that one that’s divided into halves, especially if the halves are nearly equal. If, for example, the horizon line is right in the middle of the drawing, the composition may look more like two compositions cobbled together, than one unified composition.

This illustration shows my paper with the short sides divided into thirds.

You don’t need to draw lines all the way across the paper (though you can if you want to.) Marks along the edges are sufficient. If you taped your paper to a rigid support, mark the tape and not the drawing.

If you do draw lines on the paper, draw them lightly and with a color that fits the final color scheme, so the lines disappear into the drawing.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 1

NOTE: The red lines shown above were added to point out the marks I made on my paper. I didn’t draw lines all the way across the paper, though you may if that helps you.

Step 2: Decide where the horizon line should be.

The horizon line is the line between the land and sky. It should be at or near the the top mark you made in Step 1.

Use a light touch, and keep the strokes loose. Your lines should be dark enough to see through a couple of layers of color, but not so dark that it’s difficult to cover them.

It also doesn’t matter what color you use to sketch, so long as it fits into the color scheme of the drawing. I used a gray-green because that’s the of the most distant hills. It’s also a good base color for the rest of the greens.

I could also have used a sky color had I wanted to.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 2

Step 3: Draw the big shapes first.

Draw the large shapes that make up the “thirds” of the drawing. The horizon line marks the sky and the lower line, which swoops down in the center, defines the foreground.

While it is a good idea to divide your composition into thirds, it’s not absolutely vital that the thirds be precise or equal. As you can see in this illustration, the horizon line peeks over the red line that marks the top third of my drawing.

It also dips below the line. Most of it is below the line.

The same holds true for the sloping line at the bottom.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 3

The rule of thirds—and most other art rules—are only guidelines. Follow them strictly every time and all your drawings may begin to look the same. Like all art rules, the rule of thirds is a good place to begin and a good guideline, but there are times when a subject benefits from ignoring or adjusting the guidelines.

Step 4: Add more details and begin drawing smaller shapes.

Draw the rest of the details within the larger shapes using slightly lighter than normal handwriting pressure.

You can either draw from the background forward, or start in the foreground and work back. I usually work from both directions, though it can be easier to draw foreground shapes first. If you do, the shapes and lines behind them can be drawn around them.

Whichever way you draw the landscape, remember it’s not necessary to draw a  lot of detail. The basic shapes and placement of trees and hills are sufficient to provide guidelines for layering color.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 4

Step 5: Add any additional details

Finish the line drawing by adding any other details that may be necessary. Some of the final details I added were the small tree right of the three trees near the center, and a few lightly sketched lines indicating the slope of the hill below and to the left of those trees.

This is also a good time to make changes to the composition if that becomes necessary. For example, after I finished the line drawing, I realized the composition in the photo is too static. The horizontal lines are well placed, with the horizon about 2/3 of the way up the composition, and the trees a little bit below that.

But the pair of small trees in closest to the foreground are too much in the center, so I added a third tree to the grouping, and placed it to the left of the original two. I also thought about placing other, rounder trees either further to the left or the right, but decided against that for the time being.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 5

NOTE: This where my drawing would have benefited had I divided the paper into thirds along the long sides. That just shows you that you should always be learning as an artist!

Conclusion

And that’s how I sketch a composition directly on paper.

If you don’t feel comfortable making a line drawing directly on sanded art paper, that’s okay! It took me a while to get comfortable beginning a drawing this way. Make a few practice drawings to familiarize yourself with the composition. You may also want to try rearranging the parts of the landscape a little while you’re at it.

When you’re ready, put your drawing on the sanded paper.

And remember, if you don’t like the sketch once you’ve drawn it, it’s very easy to remove and start over. Sanded art paper is very forgiving that way. So take your courage in hand, and start sketching!

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