Beautiful composition affects you, even when you don’t know how it’s been done.
I’m going to describe for you a very practical technique for improving your compositions that you can start applying right away. Today, if you want.
And I believe it’s relevant to you no matter what kind of art you create, from intricate, highly realistic still life to abstract.
I call it connections. Another way to think about it is “lining things up” – taking parts of your drawing and connecting them with a pattern of overlaid lines.
Let’s start by looking at some examples of it in action.
Andrew Loomis: Informal Subdivision
I first came across this idea in Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis. He uses something he calls “informal subdivision” to create a framework to fit a composition into.
This works by creating a network of straight lines, which are then used as the basis for a composition. Here’s an example from Loomis of a composition built this way:
And here’s the framework of lines he based it on:
It’s obviously effective. If you want a bit more detail, here’s how it’s done:
First, draw a vertical line down the picture, wherever you feel is good. Then, draw a diagonal from one corner to another. Where the two cross, draw a horizontal. You end up with something like this:
Next, draw diagonals in each of the new rectangles that are formed. Only ever subdivide a rectangle diagonally one way, don’t make a cross. You’ll end up with something like this:
Now add more verticals and horizontals where the lines intersect, and you have your framework:
This is a generative approach, in that the framework is constructed before the design is drawn. The result, in a nutshell, is that elements of the composition line up with each other. Connections.
This is perhaps a more common application. There’s certainy no shortage of people writing about it online. There are certainly compelling examples of it:
A word of caution here, though. Whilst it’s very likely that many of the old masters did use geometric pattern to arrange their compositions, I personally find many of the supposed examples of it on the web – old master pictures with geometric patterns overlaid – somewhat optimistic. Often, the connections are tenuous at best, particularly when people are trying to prove the prevalent use of the golden section.
My own opinion is that making connections between elements of a picture is effective no matter the basis, geometric or more informal. You can try this out for yourself, and I’ll describe a simple exercise you can do in a moment that will show you how this works.
I believe that lining things up in a drawing works because we feel the element of design, of pattern, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. Perhaps that feeling is even more compelling because we’re not aware of it.
Here’s an example of an unfinished painting I did a while back to test out designing a composition around golden section divisions of the canvas. The geometric framework I used as the basis of the arrangement is on the right, superimposed.
It’s ok, but honestly? I’m not feeling an mystical emanations from the golden section being all over that canvas. It isn’t even that good a composition.
My impression is that there is a feeling of something behind the painting, something more than simply a random flinging together of objects. But I don’t think it’s necessary for that something to be based on the golden section for it to work.
When its done well it looks like this:
Veronese’s paintings are often more explicit version of this, with the connecting lines more obvious to the eye – at least, to the experienced eye that knows what to look for.
The Conversion of Mary Magdalena has some great examples of this. Here’s the painting:
And here it is again with some of the stronger connecting lines highlighted. They fairly shout at you when you know they’re there.
I’ve only highlighted a few there. The painting is built on an “X” shape, that centres on Mary Magdelena herself. Can you see the lines that make it?
Here’s a surprising example of it (at least for this blog!) Guernica by Picasso.
The aesthetic is rather different of course, this is a modernist work and picasso wasn’t trying to create beauty in this painting. But as dubious as I am about some of Picasso’s output, I do feel that the use of implied lines here is exactly what Veronese was doing above, and is equally effective in creating an overall feeling of design and a unified composition- if not a beautiful one. It’s also a little more obvious – I don’t think these connecting lines need highlighting!
You can use this too. Here’s how to do it
Although the examples above are done by starting with the lines and connections in mind, and then developing the design of the picture to fit, you can effectively practice this technique on drawings you’ve already done. It’s equally effective.
Here’s how you can start to experiment with this in your own work, a simple exercise with clear steps you can follow, to see for yourself how hidden connections can create a feeling of design and beauty in your compositions.
First, take a simple line drawing. A great way to start with this is to do a line tracing of one of your existing pieces. It will help to create a negative space design drawing of it too, like this.
The first stage is to look for opportunities for parts of the drawings that we might be able to line up. Looks for parts of the drawing that are already near to lining up.
Now draw the lines between them. Once you have a few of these lines (you only need a few) take another sheet of tracing paper and a pen, and trace your drawing again, moving parts of the drawing slightly so that they line up exactly on the line.
You’ll end up with something like this:
You can see how I’ve moved some of the elements of the drawing above to line up exactly with those lines (I’ve also made one of the leaves smaller – the one on the top right – to emphasise the gesture of the composition).
The next stage is to retrace the drawing without the lines:
Then finally add back in the detail in a final tracing of your composition
What do you think? Can you feel the design beneath the drawing?
If you’ve been following the last two blog posts, you’ll have seen the manipulations I’ve already done on this plum drawing. Here’s the drawing as it was at the end of the last stage:
Here it is again with the lines superimposed, and a few subtle changes made to line up element of the drawng (notice how the leaf on the right edge has moved up to form a horizontal with the plum on the left):
Now, this wasn’t a geometrical design, the position of the lines was suggested entirely by the existing composition. But I think you can feel the connections, the impression of an intelligence beneath the drawing, and that subtly affects how you feel about the drawing. It’s more satisfying. It has a sense of unity – unity is beauty.
Why you should do this
These techniques are effective because although viewers won’t know you’re doing it, your pictures will have a satisfying unity to them, the same unity we find in some of the greatest of old master and more modern works.
And the best thing about it is that it’s not difficult to do. You can learn the basics of how to use these techniques in an afternoon. They will then change everything you do. And the more you use them, the better you’ll get at designing pictures.
Putting together these three compositional techniques will make your compositions more affecting. They take you from creating a snapshot of a visual impression to creating art.
Here’s a quick recap of the journey I’ve taken this little drawing on in the last three posts: First, the crop I took of the original drawing.
And here’s where we ended up:
Look at the first crop, and then the final version, tell me whether or not you think there’s been an improvement in the composition of the drawing.
Of course, this is just a very simple drawing, and a simple approach to developing it. But simple is often best, wespecially when you’re practising and developing your drawing skills.
By focusing only on the skill you want to develop, you practice more efficiently. This exercise is intended to be done repeatedly (as I have, many times) to stretch your design skills and deepen your sensitivity to spacing and proportion.
But you can also use it as an approach to designing your pictures. If you had colour studies of those plums, you could paint a final picture from the line design that would be much improved from simply copying what you saw.
Too often, these days, I see realist painters working directly from photographs, with the main objective being apparently to produce as close a copy as possible to the reference.
It’s impressive, when done well.
But it’s not art.
Using an approach to picture design like this, you take your work beyond your visual impression. You infuse it with your creativity, with your personality, with unity and beauty. You create something new that can speak to people more fully and deeply.
That, to me at least, is art.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little series on practical composition techniques. And I hope it’s given you some ideas that you can take away and use to develop your own composition skills, and to create more beautiful drawings and paintings. These ideas are widely applicable – from Veronese, to Picasso, to simple little drawings of plants and fruit.
They might well have a place in your work too. I hope you find that they do.
Best wishes, and thanks for reading,