Two examples of drawings that use bad orientation.

Composition — Yes, You Too Can Draw – Ch 8


Welcome to another chapter of Yes, You Too Can Draw! We’re going to go over the basics of a topic that often gets overlooked, composition. This can often make or break a drawing.

Before we begin, let’s review what we’ve learned in the previous chapter:

What We Learned From Last Time

What is Composition?

Composition boils down to how visual elements are grouped and placed within your visual space, paper, and/or canvas. You can not only use composition to stir up interest, but you can also use it to direct the viewer’s eye. If you look this subject up in Wikipedea, you’ll notice how vast the topic of composition is. For our purposes, I will go over what I consider the most basic aspects of composition. Plus we’ll go over some techniques that we can use to help improve our drawings.

Your Orientation For Composition

What I’m talking about is the orientation of your page. I know for a lot of you, this is a “no duh” subject. But giving little thought to the orientation of your visual space can easily hurt a drawing. The reason is that creating an excessive amount of space will kill the balance of your work. Let’s take a look at some examples:

Two examples of drawings that use bad orientation in their composition.

When considering your drawing, think about what type of orientation would best serve your subject.

There are two types of orientation, horizontal (running long ways or left to right) and vertical (running up and down). If your drawing a subject or a scene that’s vertical in nature (a landscape is a great example), you will use a horizontal orientation. If your piece is a subject that’s vertical in nature (a portrait), you will use a vertical orientation.

Correct use of page orientation of the composition.

Use Odd Numbers in Your Composition

This is a tip that I learned from my high school art teacher. Grouping in odd numbers is more appealing to the human eye. This is referred to as The Rule of OddsThis can apply to patterns, superheroes, or any other group of subjects. The rule is also used as a means of sparking interest. Let’s take a look at an example:

An example of using an even number of dots in the left square of a composition, and an example of using the rule of odds to the right in thier compositions

To the left is a simple example of using an even number of dots. In the right square, we have an example of using an odd number of dots. Comparing both examples, which square has the most interest? Which example is more visually pleasing to the eye?

A group of mini-superheros demonstrating the rule of odds in its composition.
A group of mini-superheroes demonstrating the rule of odds.

The example above is a common example of the rule of odds, a group pose. Now that I’ve taken a second look at the drawing, I can admit that it’s not particularly balanced. But it utilizes the rule of odds with its five characters. As you can notice, four of the superheroes surround and draw attention to our mousey crime-fighter. Surrounding the main subject with an even number of subjects is the method of using the rule of odds. This next example below drives the point home:

An example of the use of the Rule of Odds in a composition. An even number of circles surrounding a main circle


The Rule of Thirds in Your Composition

The rule as The Rule of Thirds in your composition is meant to create interest in your work. Instead of placing your subject and/or eye-level (horizon) within the center of your drawing, you’ll shift them to one of the sides of your visual space. To take advantage of the Rule of Third, you’ll divide your visual area into thirds both horizontally and vertically. This will leave you with nine equal spaces to work with. You will use this grid as a guide to planning your image, finding opportunities to add visual interest.

A drawing of a mouse out in the desert not using  in a composition the rule of thirds
An example of a drawing not using the Rule of Thirds in a composition. The mouse and horizon line are centered inside the visual space.

Above is an illustration that I quickly whipped up. It doesn’t use the Rule of Thirds. Both the horizon-line and Willard are right smack in the middle of the visual space. The common refrain is that such placement is considered “boring.” This may not always be the case. Centering a subject is quite natural and human nature.

Drawing of a mouse out in the desert using the rule of thirds in a composition.

The next example above is of a drawing taking advantage of the Rule of Thirds. Note how both the horizon line has been shifted upwards. Willard is positioned in the upper right-hand corner to add further visual interest. The vast visual space seems to draw the eye towards him.

A mouse in the desert with a drink in his hand in the composition

Another example of the use of the Rule of Thirds. Here I shifted the horizon line downwards, and Willard was moved to the bottom left-hand corner of the drawing.



Simplify and Focus in a Composition

Unhappy face surrounded in smilies within its composition.
Can you spot the subject in this composition?

This is something that irks me a lot when I’m reading Shonen Jump. In fact, it frustrates the hell out of me. I’ll read a chapter of a popular manga series, and then something major happens like an explosion, a major move, or anything else dramatic. But the moment I look at the panel, I can’t even tell what the hell’s going on due to the immense amount of crap that’s cluttering the panel. I have to give it a couple of looks to figure out what’s going on. That’s a huge faux pas in the comic book business. In any panel, or any other visual medium, the subject and its action should always be clearly defined.

Unhappy face bigger than smilies within its composition
One method of bringing focus to a subject within a composition is by making it bigger than the surrounding objects.

Simplifying a composition doesn’t necessarily mean removing objects. It could be achieved by making the main subject the largest object in your image. Photographers use field of depth to blur just the background surrounding the subject.

Unhappy face on top of field of depth technique in the composition
A rough example of using Field of Depth.

Color can also be used. For example, in the Italian series “Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine” (The first few chapters of the series were reprinted in Spain within a volume called “Don Miki Especial Serie Negra”), color was often used to focus the eye by surrounding characters with an environment containing desaturated colors from the cooler parts of the color spectrum. (Purples, blues, greens) The colorists even did this in reverse using warm colors. (reds, oranges, and yellows.)

Purple sad-face in a sea of smilies in a composition.
Using a different color, preferably from the opposite side of the color spectrum, will make your subject pop.

Your big goal here is to drive the focus directly to your subject. You don’t want the viewer to lose it within a visual morass.

Your Composition Home Work:

I want you to try the different methods described here for creating a more compelling composition. Start with basic shapes. Then draw more complete pictures using each method. Post them for the rest of the class to see on  Twitter. (Use the hash-tag #DrawingComposition) I’d love to see what you’ve learned.