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.

Preparing a Reference Photo

Today, I’d like to talk about preparing a reference photo. There are a lot of ways to do this, so I’ll keep it simple and describe some of the things I do almost all the time.

Most of my work in the past was for portraits, but I’ve also used these methods to turn so-so reference photos into great (or at least better) reference photos for my own work. They can help you do the same.

NOTE: This post is not intended to be a step-by-step tutorial. There are too many photo editors on the market to make that possible. I use three different pieces of software as needed, and I will link to them below.

Preparing a Reference Photo for a Portrait

Preparing a Reference Photo

Preparing reference photos is important whether you’re doing a portrait, an exhibit piece, or something for yourself or a friend. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it should be an important part of your creative process.

My sample was for a portrait, but I’ve also taken the same steps with my own pieces, with animal art, landscapes, and the occasional still life.

I used a photograph taken by photographer Mark Adair, whom I want to thank for allowing me to use his work. Thanks, Mark!

Mark provided a great selection of images, so there was a lot of material at my fingertips. This is the image the client chose.

Photo by Mark Adair


The first thing you should always do is start with the most basic stuff: Configuration and composition.

The portrait was 16 inches by 20 inches in size, so the first thing to do was crop the reference photo to the same dimensions as the final portrait. I usually make 8 x 10s of printed reference photos (unless the drawing is complex,) so I cropped this image to 8 x 10 as well.

I used Irfanview for this image. Irfanview is a free down-loadable program. Somewhat limited in scope, it still does almost everything I need to do to prepare digital reference photos.

Since this is a pretty straight forward project, there wasn’t much to do with composing. I placed the horse a little bit to the right of center, so he was trotting into the space. I also placed him a little bit above center. That put his head next to one of the four “sweet spots” according to the rule of thirds (see below.)

You’ll notice that the knee of the raised front leg is also near one of those sweet spots, and a third one falls over the crossed back legs. All three are centers of interest, though the head is the most important of the three.

That wasn’t my intention. I usually focus on the head, even in full body portraits, but this is icing on the cake, so to speak.

Preparing a Reference Photo

Once you have the composition nailed down and the digital image is the same proportions as the your artwork, you can start making smaller adjustments.

Fine-Tuning the Reference Photo

Most photo editors provide the opportunity to adjust photos in dozens of ways from adding special effects to creating halftones or sepia tones (or almost any other tone.)

When you prepare a photo reference for portrait work, you probably won’t care about all those other features. But there are some adjustments you should consider.


The key to a successful portrait is contrast. The light values need to be light enough and the dark values need to be dark enough.

If your photo reference doesn’t show clear light and dark values, now is the time to tinker with contrast.

Adjust the contrast and brightness of the photo a little, reviewing the results after each adjustment. Continue to experiment until you either find a contrast setting you like, or decide to go with the original settings.

Changing the contrast even a lot didn’t do much for this photo. The initial adjustment made so little difference that I tried a more dramatic adjustment. Here’s what I ended up with. Can you tell the difference between this and the original reference? I couldn’t.

Color Corrections

Sometimes it helps to adjust the color settings. Most photo editors can adjust each of the three primary colors individually or all of them together. Depending on your software, you may be able to make a lot of complex adjustments, or just a few simple ones. Whatever the case, it’s worthwhile to experiment to see what happens.

Canva is a good online option. Canva is a graphic designer. I use it to create the memes in my posts and to make illustrations that contain more than one image.

But they have a great photo editor and it’s free to use. Just open an account, upload images, and try any number of adjustments without changing the original image.

GIMP is also a good option. It’s a free download and works a lot like Photoshop, but the learning curve is pretty steep. I’m still trying to figure out a lot of the features.

I made color corrections in Irfanview and came up with the photo below. Again, I didn’t see a lot of difference between it and the original image, so I decided I was finished preparing the reference photo. Contrast and color could be adjusted as I worked on the portrait. That’s one of the advantages of drawing horses for over 40 years!

Preparing a Reference Photo


Additional changes to the composition—such as leaving out elements or moving them around—could be done in a photo editor, but I usually prefer to do those things while making the line drawing.

The real secret to this process is taking your own reference photos and making as many of these changes as possible in that process. The better the photographs you take, the fewer adjustments you’ll need to make now!

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos

No reference photo is ever perfect. Even with the best images, you can make changes to improve the composition.  So the question is: Do you know what to keep and leave out of reference photos?


Then you’re in luck, because that’s the topic of this article!

The subject for this article is a colored pencil drawing titled The Sentinel, and the reference photo on which I based it.

The drawing was created using the complementary under drawing method, and I described the process step-by-step in a three-part series for EmptyEasel. If you’re interested in that tutorial, here are the links.

How to Draw a Complementary Underpainting for your Green Landscape

How to Add Rich, Vibrant Color on Top of Your Colored Pencil Underpainting

Finishing Up a Traditional Colored Pencil Landscape Painting

What I want to do today is talk a little bit about how I changed the reference photograph for The Sentinel to create a better composition.

To get started, here’s the original reference photo.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Reference

This is the drawing that resulted.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Drawing

I know what you’re thinking! How in the world did I get from the reference photo to the drawing?

Some of you are also no doubt wondering why I made the changes I made.

Grab a cup of coffee or hot chocolate (or whatever), and I’ll tell you all about it.

The Perfect Reference Photo

Before I go any further, let me stress the fact that something about the reference photo drew my attention the moment I saw it. The original scene was so appealing that I made my husband stop the car so I could get out and take pictures. That appeal came through in this photo.

The reason I mention this is to tell you that if there isn’t something appealing about your reference photo, find a different photo. Colored pencil drawings take long enough to finish that you had better be excited about the subject before you put pencil to paper. Otherwise, it’s likely to end up unfinished.

But, having said that, I can also assure you that no reference photo is ever perfect. There’s always some way to make it better. Something to leave out, something to add.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos

Now lets take a step-by-step look at the changes I made, and talk about why I made them.

Step 1 – Find the Right Configuration

Believe it or not, I did not want to draw horses this time. I’d already done that with Afternoon Graze. This time, my subject was the landscape itself, with the largest trees as the center of interest.

So the first thing I did was crop the reference photo so that those trees were not dead center in the composition.

Step 2 – Eliminate Obvious Distractions

The next change was removing all the animals. I did that with the first, basic sketch.

Those fences also had to go because I wanted a landscape without “additives.”

Since I didn’t want to draw any of the animals, I removed them too.

I did this quick work in Irfanview. It’s not pretty but it’s enough to show me what I wanted to see without having to do a lot of sketches.

You can do the same thing in almost any photo editor.

In this case, it was actually faster to do quick thumbnail sketches!

Step 3 – Move Things Around

Once the distractions were removed and only basic elements remained, I considered how to arrange them for maximum effect. (Yes, it is all right to move things around!)

About the only thing I moved was the little tree on the left. I needed something to balance the trees in the background on the right, so I “moved” the small tree on the left so it nearly overlapped the large tree.

It’s also not as far in the background as the first row of trees on the right, so it helps establish the illusion of  distance.

Step 4 – Change Size & Shape

Next, I emphasized the center of interest by making those trees larger.

I also changed the shapes of some of the trees in the background, to serve the same purpose, by making them similar in size and shape to one another.

Step 5 – Changing Color

From the start, I wanted a green landscape. I love earth tones, but the earth tones in the reference photo were simply too dull and flat to provide much interest. So I changed dry summer grass to fresh spring grass by replacing most of those earth tones with greens when I began color work.

I also brightened the greens in the trees to liven things up still more.

Step 6 – One Last Change

Finally, as the drawing neared completion, I realized it needed one more change. The colors were shaping up nicely, but there wasn’t much to lead the eye into the composition. Despite my best efforts to add interest with color, value, and texture, the foreground was, well, pretty blah.

What to Keep and Out of Reference Photos - Final Change

So I erased a narrow, winding strip of color in the foreground, and added a path. Then I finished drawing the grass around the new path.

Comparing the before and after version, it’s easy to see that the path makes a big difference in the composition.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Drawing

So What’s the Purpose of All This?

First and foremost, I want to let you know that you can change reference photos. There is almost always some way to improve upon even the best images if you know in advance what you want to draw and how you want it to look.

Second, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve gotten at least three drawings from this reference photo just by changing things around or by taking things out altogether. Just because you’ve made one drawing from a reference photo doesn’t mean you have to set it aside forever.

There’s an endless number of ways to change a reference photo enough to get different drawings from it.

So if you have a favorite image that keeps drawing you back, try some of these tips and see what new drawings you come up with.