Composition Drawing Guide

Updated: 01 May 2022

How to draw compositions with pencils

As artists, we like to deliver a memorable experience for the observer.

In this guide, I will demonstrate how I plan and place my compositions, and why.

I will start by explaining some important drawing terms, and then show how to use them for composition.

Note:

All drawings in the composition section are from life. While drawing from images is great in many cases, drawing from direct observation gives us the power to change the scene to our liking, or to our angle of sight.

Overlapping

Overlapping means an object that covers part of another object.

Quick sketch of overlapping trees

When drawing flowers, draw overlapping petals (in most cases), to deliver a realistic result.

Gazania flower front view pencil drawing

In addition, when one object covers part of another object, the observer assumes that it is in front of the object it covers.

Therefore, overlapping attests to depth.

Foreshortening

Foreshortening is a distortion that occurs when looking at objects or planes that are along the line of sight.

In the next example, a circle, while in front of the observer, keeps its shape, no matter how far or close it is.

But, when the angle of sight is changed, the circle is no longer in front of the observer. It is now along the line of sight, and its shape is distorted to an ellipse.

In other words, its height becomes much shorter than its width (in this case).

Paper towel cylinder shape foreshortened

So, in many cases, it is more interesting and natural to look at a drawing of a foreshortened object.

Gazania flower pencil drawing, side view

If you like flower drawing, like the examples below, you might like my beginners guide to drawing flowers.

Pen drawing of flowers

Remember:

When drawing an ellipse (or any other shape), the closer it is to the horizon, the more that plane is foreshortened.

How to draw a vase using foreshortened ellipses

Two common mistakes to avoid:

1. Do not draw the bottom of a cylindrical object flat (unless it is exactly on the horizon).

2. Pay attention to the amount of foreshortening for each plane. In the example below, when there is not enough foreshortening, it looks like the top part of the vase is facing the observer.

How to fix foreshortening mistakes

Perspective

Perspective is a set of simple rules for drawing in a realistic way, especially when drawing from imagination.

Basic perspective drawing example

The use of perspective can produce unnatural results if not done correctly:

The use of vanishing points to draw correctly

Use the power of linear perspective to create quick sketches, and explore different composition ideas.

Curved road sketch in linear perspective

If you are new to perspective, read my article on perspective drawing for beginners, or click the perspective category in my guide for best drawing tutorials on YouTube.

Composition

Composition is the way artists compose and arrange a scene.

When it comes to still life, it means the placement of objects in an interesting manner.

Since composition is a personal preference, there are no rules on how to create it.

That said, there are some things to avoid.

For a natural composition, it is best to avoid patterns, or anything that looks staged, uniform, or symmetrical.

A squarish object, which is in front of the observer, is quite boring. When rotated, two sides of the object are foreshortened.

This results in an interesting composition with a sense of depth:

Composition pencil drawing for dish soap bottle

To learn more about depth, read my article on how to draw with a sense of depth.

Cylindrical Objects:

What about a cylindrical object? Rotating it does not change its form.

While the form does not change, symbols or text on the object rotate and create a spontaneous look, and therefore authentic!

Composition pencil drawing of a deodorant stick

In addition, some cylindrical objects do have interesting features that can be rotated.

A view slightly from above is much better than a side view:

Composition pencil drawing for a juice squeezer

Objects Placement:

Placing objects with space between them, or ordered by size (or any other pattern), is not interesting:

Objects in a row, pencil sketch

The use of overlapping and random placement (not in a row), renders better:

Correct composition drawing for objects

Tip:

Keep your empty containers. You can use them to practice object grouping and placement.

Empty bottles, boxes and other containers

Additionally, you can use any type of objects for composition practice. Even complex ones:

Plastic toy figurines of animals

Thumbnails:

Sometimes, when you are not sure how to build a composition, you can use thumbnails with quick sketches.

This should not be a long process. A few minutes for each thumbnail, to see what works, and what does not.

Use of thumbnails to build still life composition

It is beneficial to sketch some thumbnails for different compositions ideas. For example, different object placement, or close up vs long shot.

When drawing from imagination, it is helpful to use thumbnails.

That is when perspective has a major role in creating true to life compositions.

Thumbnails sketches for drawing from imagination

On the other hand, when drawing from observation, there is a better way.

Cut a hole in a piece of paper and look through it, to find an interesting composition.

Looking through paper hole for good composition

Focal Point

When one main object is the center of attention, it is the focal point.

Give it the most contrast and details, in order for it to stand out.

In addition, for a pleasant and inviting composition, whether it is a still life or a landscape, it is usually better when the main subject is not in the middle.

When the focal point is a bit to the side, you can balance it with something on the other side. Something small and gentle (mountains and shadow in this example).

Composition drawing of a tree in desert

If you like drawing trees (like the examples below), visit my tree-drawing guide.

Examples of my tree pen drawings

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is not exactly a rule.

It is a suggestion to put the main objects on the lines that divide the paper into three parts (either horizontally or vertically), or on the meeting points where these lines intersect.

Grids for rule of thirds composition drawing

The idea behind the "rule of thirds" is that placing an object in the middle or at the side, is not that interesting.

In many cases, I draw and paint my objects (roughly) according to the rule of thirds, without giving it much thought. Meaning, it happens naturally:

Examples of my painting using the rule of thirds

That said, in some of my drawings and paintings, the focal point is in the middle:

My drawings and paintings with focal point in the middle

And for some, the focal point is at the side (the main tree):

My drawings and paitnings with focal point to the side

When I draw quick sketches for characters, I sometimes use the intersection points as a place to draw their heads:

Two characters drawing using rule of thirds

Composition from Photos

Images you find online are NOT free to use for commercial purpose.

To compose your own unique drawing from images, use images that are free to use.

Here are several websites that let you download free images:

Unsplash

Pexels

Pixabay

StockSnap.io

FREEIMAGES

In the next example, I used 3 images to compose a drawing:

Using photos to create unique composition

Then, it is a personal preference how to compose them.

For example, how big you want the characters to be (they are the focal point in this example), and their location (placement).

Composition drawing of father and son fishing

Tip:

When combining several images for a composition, try to use images with same placement of horizon line.

What Else Can You Compose?

Drawing (or painting) is story telling!

Start by choosing a subject to draw.

You can draw beautiful things like landscapes or the animal kingdom.

Realistic graphite drawings of the animal kingdom

Or, you can create our own stories. Like comics and graphic novels.

I drew these comics in different periods:

My comics drawings from different periods

You can use your drawing skills for a statement, message, protest, or to present (display) an event in your own unique way.

Pencil drawing for the Castellammarese War

With some knowledge in perspective and attention to foreshortening, you can draw from imagination.

For example, draw your own product design.

Patrick from SpongeBob backpack product design

And give it context.

Product design, Patrick backpack

Or, you can draw unique concept art (for the film industry or computer games).

Weapons concept art, drawing from imagination

Here are my steps for drawing from imagination.

The first step is to get the structure right (paying attention to foreshortening and perspective).

Different degrees of circle foreshortening

Next, I plan my composition.

To add depth to my drawing, I used overlapping, meaning I positioned the poles in front of the well and behind it.

Water well realistic pencil drawing

Here is my guide on drawing from imagination.

Rendering

Drawing takes time. In order not to waste valuable time, it is best to plan for a beautiful composition.

While object placement and other subjects covered in this tutorial are very important, the final render should be of a finished artwork.

Here are some tips for creating a final render.

Contrast:

Contrast helps to create a drawing with a presence, and with a sense of depth.

To achieve that, draw areas with highlights and shadows.

One way is to illuminate the object/s is using a table lamp, at an angle.

Another way is to draw light and shadow from imagination (requires some knowledge and experience).

Pencil drawing funnel with highlights and shadows

Cast Shadow:

In most cases, use cast shadow. Cast shadow helps with a sense of space and three-dimensionality.

Funnel pencil drawing with cast shadow

Pen & Markers:

For a render with well-defined lines, you can use technical pens.

Colors add richness to the final render. Here is my review for recommended markers.

Drawing juice squeezer with pen and markers

Summary

If some drawing terms discussed above are new to you, read my guide on how to draw realism.

For the equipment I used in this article, view my recommended drawing materials.