Mastering Composition in Drawing (Part 1)


Composition in DrawingHave you been wanting to improve your composition in drawing and in your paintings?

Do you know and fully understand all the principles of composition in drawing?

Mastering composition in drawing and oil painting is necessary to create the best paintings and drawings possible.

This blog post and the next are going to go in-depth about how to design a full composition on paper or canvas.

You may have to this point just been focused on creating a simple drawing without regard to designing a full-page composition.

So now, get ready to start designing a full composition on your paper or canvas. Click here to read Part 2 in this drawing series.

Mastering Composition in Drawing Using Balance

I will begin our discussion of composition in drawing with Balance.

In order for a composition to be successful, it must have Balance.

There are basically two types of Balance in drawing composition: Symmetrical and Asymmetrical.

For most compositions, you will want to use Asymmetrical Balance.


Because Asymmetrical Balance is usually more interesting.  Let’s take a look at some examples of these two types of Balance.

Symmetrical Balance

composition in drawing
Example of Symmetrical Balance

Here you have an example of Symmetrical Balance.

You see that all elements of the design are equal on both sides if you were to draw a line right down the middle of the illustration.

Symmetrical Balance is the least interesting of the two types of Balance. This is not to say, however, that you should never use it in your compositions.

Symmetry has its place, and there are no exact hard and fast rules in art about what you should and should not use.

Rembrandt used Symmetrical Balance in many of his most successful and famous portraits.

I have personally studied many of Rembrandt’s portraits first-hand in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and in the Riijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  From my studies there, I have concluded that Symmetrical Balance can be used successfully to design a composition.

Asymmetrical Balance

composition in drawing
Example of Asymmetrical Balance

In the paragraphs above, I recommended that you design most of your compositions using Asymmetrical Balance.

Here is an example of this type of balance to the right.

Asymmetrical Balance is usually more interesting and appealing to most viewers.

And it is easier to get a composition to work  and be successful using this type of balance.

Let’s take a look at a work by James McNeil Whistler to further understand Asymmetrical Balance.

The painting below is titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 and is best known under its colloquial name Whistler’s Mother.

I have drawn a blue line down the middle of the painting.  Also, I have circled the important elements of the composition in red.

Note that there are fewer shapes on the right side of the painting, but that these shapes are more important. They include the face and hands of the mother, which carries more weight psychologically.

Always keep in mind that psychological weight can come from subject matter as well as color or other elements not related to size only.

There are more shapes on the left side of the painting, but each of these alone carry less weight.  When they are all added up, they equal the weight of the mother on the right side of the painting.

Thus, Asymmetricial Balance is achieved in this American masterpiece by Whistler.

composition in drawing

Study Old Master paintings as much as possible to learn how they created Balance in their art.

Drawing Exercise:

Spend 20 minutes each day for the next 7 days creating quick compositions in small, thumbnail drawings. These can be still life or landscape.

Don’t worry about finishing the drawing.  Just try to create a complete composition using the light, set-up lines.

Mastering Composition in Drawing Using Center of Interest and Emphasis

The Center of Interest, also called The Center of Attention or Focal Point, is the area that first attracts and holds attention in your composition.  Emphasis can be created with subject matter, color, value, contrast, or placement.

A representational work of art usually needs a strong Center of Interest to make the composition successful. A strong Center of Interest in the right proportions on your paper or canvas can lead to a dynamic composition.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend a strong Center of Interest for any representational work of art.

Non-representational or Abstract Art is not so dependent on a Center of Interest for a successful composition.  Jackson Pollock paintings are an excellent example of successful abstract art that has no Center of Interest.

Picasso, on the other hand, used a strong Center of Interest in many of his most famous and successful pieces.

composition in drawing
Composition demonstrating the “Rule of Thirds.”

Let’s take a look at a strong Center of Interest in some examples.

In the frog photo to the left, we see the frog placed in the correct proportions to create a dynamic and extremely interesting composition.

I have overlaid a grid on this photo to showcase the “Rule of Thirds.”

The Rule of Thirds is a simple device to quickly ascertain where on the canvas the Center of Interest should reside.

Lines are drawn at one-third intervals on the canvas or paper, both horizontally and vertically.

The four intersections of the grid create an ideal home for the Center of Interest or Focal Point.  In our example, the frog sits on the lower left-hand intersection.

Veteran in a New Field by Winslow Homer

The painting below is titled “Veteran in a New Field” by American painter Winslow Homer.  I have studied this oil painting first-hand for many hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

It is an absolute American masterpiece.

Homer was a master of composition in both his watercolor and oil paintings.  The Center of Interest is, without doubt, the most powerful element in this composition.

It pulls your eye back, almost hynotically, again and again.

The Center of Interest or Focal Point is a human subject, which is a powerful psychological emphasis. But notice how there is also strong emphasis using contrast, which is developed using the whites in the man’s shirt.

The combination of human subject and strong contrast create a powerful focal point in this masterpiece by Homer.

composition in drawing

Composition Drawing Exercise: 

Spend 20 minutes each day for the next 7 days creating quick compositions in small, thumbnail drawings. These can be still life or landscape.  The focus on these drawings is to create a strong focal point in the composition.

Make sure the focal point is in the right place and in the proper proportions to create a pleasing composition.

Don’t worry about finishing the drawing.  Just try to create a complete composition using the light, set-up lines.

If you have any ideas about mastering composition in drawing, please let us know about them in the comments below.

Recommended Art Supplies for Practicing Composition Drawings

Are you ready to be a better draftsman and painter?

Then pick up your pencils, charcoals, paper and join us.

Do you need some art supplies?

I recommend two things to get you started:

  1. A nice set of pencils, charcoals and erasers
  2. A small sketchbook, 9 x 12 inches or smaller

For the pencil set, try this 18 piece drawing set by Pro Art. It has all the pencils, charcoals, erasers and sharpeners that you will need.

It is perfect for beginners. And perfect for this challenge.

You will want to experiment with different drawing medium from pencils to charcoal. That way you can learn what works best for you.

Some people are better with charcoal. Some people are better with pencils. Again, experimentation is the key here.

Here is what you get in this set:

  • 8 graphite pencils (2H to 6B)
  • 3 charcoal pencils
  • 2 charcoal sticks
  • 1 sketch stick
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Charcoal sharpener
  • 1 kneaded eraser
  • 1 White Pro art plastic erase
  • Great for beginners
  • Holding and toggle clamps included to keep wood steady and ensure precise cuts every tim
  • Additional two sharpeners and two erasers

I recommend a small sketch pad  for this challenge. Try a 9 x 12 inch or smaller spiral bound.

drawing and painting
This smaller size 9 x 12 inch sketch pad allows you to take it with you on the go. That way you have it with you anytime inspiration strikes. It's a sure way to make sure you get your daily drawings going.

The smaller size allows you to take it with you on the go.

That way you can sketch whenever you see an object that inspires you.

Being able to quickly take out your sketch book and start drawing is an important aspect to this challenge.

The convenience of having it with you at all times is what keeps you on track and able to do the daily drawing, regardless of your schedule.

Does that make sense?

Here's why I like this sketch book:

  • BUY ONE GET ONE FREE - 2 Pack of 75 Page Sketchpads. 50% More than the Competition
  • High QUALITY 60lb (90GSMS) Paper - 100% Acid-Free and Neutral PH. Perfectly Textured for a Smooth Non-Reflective Finish
  • DURABLE SPIRALED BINDING - Each Page has a Perforated Edging for Easy Tearing. Ideal for Framing or Presenting!
  • IDEAL FOR ARTISTS, WRITERS, & ILLUSTRATORS - Highly Universal Product for Beginners or Professionals. Can also be used as a Journal, Diary, or Watercolor Canvas
  • FULL 100% MANUFACTURER MONEY BACK GUARANTEE - If you find any flaw with this book, or any of our products, you get a free replacement or a full refund.

Just to let you know, all of the product links in this article are affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy anything, but it doesn’t cost you any extra. Don’t worry, I’m always honest, open, impartial with my reviews – I only recommend the good stuff – but this affiliate income helps keep the site running.

Join our composition drawing challenge today and start capturing the magic of your everyday on paper.​

Please share your images on Instagram and Twitter by using the hashtag #CompositionDrawingChallenge. I can't wait to watch your journey!

Let us know in the comments if you have further ideas about composition in drawing.

Click here to read Part 2 in this series about mastering composition in drawing.

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