How to Make Your Subject Stand Out

Do you know how to make your subject stand out in every drawing?

Ideally, you plan in advance to make your subject stand out before you ever put pencil to paper. You do that by “setting the stage” around your subject so whatever you’re drawing naturally takes center stage.

But what about a drawing that’s already in progress? Or one that you gave up on because it just wasn’t working. Is there any way to rescue those?

How to Make Your Subject Stand Out

Let me assure you there’s hope for those unfinished drawings hidden away in drawers and closets. If the problem is that the subjects blend in with the surroundings, here are a few tips to get them to stand out more boldly.

How to Make Your Subject Stand Out

There are lot of ways to make sure your subject is the center of attention. Where you place it in the composition is one method. So is increasing the amount of detail in the subject while leaving the rest of the drawing less detailed.

Sometimes, a drawing takes a wrong turn, even when you’ve done everything else right. What do you do then?

The following methods will help you turn unexciting drawings into good drawings.

Add Detail to The Subject

This is Tough Day at the Office. The horse was nothing special according to its trainer, but I liked the weary expression when the horse came back to the barn after a morning exercise.

How to Make Your Subject Stand Out - Tough Day

When I started the drawing, the plan was to do a portrait of that specific horse. But after getting it about 3/4 finished, I threw it away because it wasn’t working. I’d chosen a support that was too dark, and I didn’t know how to finish the drawing so the horse stood out from the background.

Then I decided to add the white marking on the face. It wouldn’t be a portrait of that horse anymore, but maybe the lighter value would save the drawing. (And if it didn’t, the drawing wouldn’t exactly be ruined.)

When the blaze proved helpful, I also brightened the values on the metal parts of the bridle, and increased the brightness of highlights and reflected light. Those things saved the drawing, and it eventually sold.

So if you find yourself dissatisfied with a drawing  because it doesn’t stand out from the color of paper you’ve chosen, try adding brighter (or darker) details and see what happens.

Shade Around The Subject

I didn’t know it then, but I now know that I could have salvaged the portrait above by shading lighter values around the horse as I did with this portrait.

This white dog was drawn on gray paper because the dog is backlit, the sun is behind it. Most of the dog is in shadow, and the gray paper provided the perfect base color. It also allowed me to do the portrait more quickly because I needed to draw only the darker values and highlights.

But even with the bright highlights, the dog didn’t stand out from the background until I shaded the dark greens around it.

How to Make Your Subject Stand Out - Sasha

The subtle gradations around the edges of the drawing and the darker values next to the dog help keep attention focused on the dog.

When you find your subject disappearing into the background, and if the background is plain, try shading a darker or lighter color around the subject. You don’t need a lot of shading, just enough to make your subject stand out.

And even if the background is more complex, you can still darken the values to emphasize a light-colored subject, or lighten the values to highlight a dark-colored subject.

Go Bold

Boldness comes in many forms. Dark darks next to bright lights. Strong complementary colors side by side. One large shape in the midst of a field of small shapes.

If your subject is disappearing into the composition, creating bold contrasts is one way to make it stand out.

I drew this small, plastic utility flag during a plein air session. My eye was drawn by the bright color, and by the evening sun shining through it from behind. I wanted to draw the color and the back lighting.

So that’s all I drew. The result was this yellow shape on a white sheet of paper. Not very exciting.

How to Make Your Subject Stand Out - Yellow Flag 1

The flag was in complete shadow by the time I finished drawing it, so I decided to make a nearly black background. I began by burnishing with a very dark purple-black, then adding black and dark green over that. Other than the black, they were the same colors I’d put into the shadows on the flag.

The result? A very light-colored object against a very dark background.

How to Make Your Subject Stand Out - Yellow Flag 2

The background colors complement the color of the flag. Yellow is the complement of purple. So there was double the boldness.

The flag now glows; exactly the look I wanted.

This method may not work with every drawing, but it is worth considering if you don’t know what else to do to salvage a drawing. My philosophy is that once I think I’ve ruined a drawing, it doesn’t matter what I try; I can’t ruin it any further!

So when you reach that point, go bold and see what happens!

Conclusion

Almost every failing drawing can be rescued by using one of these three methods. So don’t give up. There are ways to make your subject stand out!

Want to see how they might look in practice? Read How to Change an Old Drawing (And Why You Might Want To), which I wrote for EmptyEasel some time ago. It includes a step-by-step tutorial showing how I radically changed the background on a finished drawing.

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