How to Draw


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Category: Composition

Composition can seem boring and formulaic, but if your drawings and paintings will improve dramatically if you’re willing to study even a few basic composition principles.

Summing up about composition

If you have stained your canvas with a tint derived from your color scheme, you will see that unlike painting directly on to a white surface, the colors you start with don’t seem so out of place. They sit nicely on the canvas. On a white surface they would stand out sharply and only settle back after you had covered the canvas completely. This is another advantage of staining your canvas with an underpainting. It allows you to judge your color better.

Whatever you do, it is a good idea to paint in the largest shapes first and then the lesser shapes, finally finishing off with all the smaller stuff, detail and so on. You can try to paint up all the detail from the word go, but it is not recommended. The difficulties in controlling and shaping your picture are intensified if you do.

If you paint up one part too thoroughly and find that when you have finished coloring your canvas it doesn’t fit with the other parts, you have to go through all the business of scraping it out and repainting it. The best approach is to paint up each part, but only up to a point, leaving the final surface details until the very last when you are sure that everything is working together.

With your color schemes and cartoon drawings always by your side, you need have no fear in letting yourself go so that in turn the picture will let itself go as well. There comes a point in any painting when, however carefully you have worked out what you want to do, the painting wants to take over itself. Let it. From this point onwards all the surprises and excitements start happening. Should the picture run away with itself and get out of hand, you can always go back to the original idea contained in the cartoon.


You will see from all this that you will have to be more patient in the initial stages than with other forms of painting and drawing. If you take care with all the stages of building up your picture you will not only gain valuable knowledge about painting, and get into good workmanlike habits, but you will be more assured of a successful result.

Composition is not easy to get into, but once you have acquired a little experience, you will find that the enjoyment you derive will be much greater than any other form of improvised painting. Possibly for the first time, you will be really in control of what you are doing. Perhaps this is the reason why so many artists have elected to work away from nature. Because then they can be truly creative, like nature.

Completing the Picture

When painting up the picture on to the canvas, you may find it useful to have all your drawings ready to hand to refer to. You may also wish to have a color scheme to work from. You will get a better result if you have some idea what colors you are going to use, rather than if you muddle on with only a vague idea of what you are going to do.

The notion that inspiration will descend on you once you hold a brush in your hand is better replaced by the more practical one of knowing a little about what you are going to do. If you have spent so much care in arranging your picture, you may as well spend just that little bit longer and do a color scheme as well.

A simple scheme of color, one that can be added to later without any disastrous effects, is one that relies on two colors and white at the most. Or, if you have a natural way with colors and feel more adventurous, keep your colors in families: browns, reds and ochres; or blues, greens and lemon; or browns and yellows, with just a touch of red. You can even work out a scheme with greys and black, adding just a touch of pure blue or red. Whatever you decide to do, remember to keep it simple, keep it fresh and have some idea what you are going to do.


To paint directly on to a white canvas can be disconcerting, although if it can be managed without a great deal of overpainting the result can look fresh and charming. But with oil the most exciting qualities lie in its ability to cover well and to be used thickly and juicily. So that it is sometimes more useful to stain your canvas with a light wash of umber, or any other fairly quiet color you like, and stain it over your drawing. For convenience, have a number of canvases ready stained and draw on top of the stain. However, if you stain over your drawing you can select a tone or tint that will be in keeping with your color scheme and this will aid you when you start painting.

When your stain is dry, you can then start. You will find that however lost you may get when painting, if you have done your rough composition and your color scheme, you will always be able to refer back to them. You may want to enlarge and alter your original idea. This often happens. It is a good thing it does. It means the painting is growing.

How to square up a cartoon

Some painters find squaring up their final drawings or cartoons irksome and feel that they would like to go straight on to painting up their final design. I hold no firm ideas about this. If you are confident and have the skill, you might manage to do this without any muddle. But for those who prefer to tread more cautiously, squaring up is the next step.

Squaring up a cartoon is merely a convenient way of enlarging your composition on to a canvas. Provided the proportion of your cartoon is the same as that of your canvas, by covering both with the same number of squares you will be able to transfer the cartoon on to the larger scale on your canvas. To square up simply and quickly it is advisable to have your cartoon measured off in inches, so that if it is say 15 in. x 12 in., it will enlarge up to a canvas size of 30 in. x 24 in. and you will only have to measure off 1 in. or 2 in. squares on the cartoon to be in proportion to 2 in. or 4 in. squares on the canvas.

Another method is to divide your cartoon and canvas into halves, quarters and eighths (Fig. 40). This method, however, does not give you squares to guide you but rectangles and rectangles are not so accurate when it comes to helping you to judge the drawing you are putting on to the canvas. This last method is better if you have an odd shaped composition or canvas. You can’t do your cartoons accurately in inches every time.

When you have squared up both your cartoon and canvas, carefully copy what is in the squares of your cartoon on to the equivalent squares on your canvas. Numbering the squares by the edges will eliminate error (Fig. 41).

You can draw up your canvas in charcoal, making sure you blow off any excess dust or it will get into your first coats of paint and mess them up. Or you can use lead pencil, or thinned out umber oil paint and paint in your drawing with a brush. It isn’t necessary to do any more than outline your composition. Any detail will only get lost with the first few coats of paint. Neither is it essential to use tone to state the masses and light and dark. But this last rule is flexible and need not be adhered to if the situation does not warrant it.

How to create a composition

If you have the drawings, lay them about you, think about them, choose a central theme and, on a separate sheet of paper, draw out some rectangles, say about 4 in. X 2 in., and fill them with different arrangements. Play about with these arrangements, try this combination and then that. Don’t be afraid to make a mess. Try to make a rough but effective looking design. Use different media. Wash over pencil, color over carbon, and so on. Do as many as you can. Do not overwork them at this stage, keep them rough and free.

When you have settled on a satisfactory composition, you can then start working it up on a slightly larger scale ready for the canvas. Use a shape that you can either cut easily out of hardboard or which is one of the standard canvas sizes. Remember the composition you settle on must grow, not be tailored to fit the wrong shaped canvas. If you start with a horizontal shape, you must finish on a horizontal shape. Once you have begun don’t alter your canvas shape at all. It is much better to start all over again with more rough doodles if you do.

When you have settled the size of your canvas, start to draw up the drawing to a more finished state, ready for transferring to the canvas. It is a good idea to use plenty of tracing paper. When you are trying to sort out your little roughs into something clearer, and are referring back to your details, you may find that by over tracing you will be able to change and alter the design within your rectangle with greater ease and fluidity.

You can push odd items about without the burden of re-drawing all of it. Detail paper is good for this (it is also good for roughing out ideas). You can trace off as many arrangements as you like this way and preserve different parts of the drawing without destroying the whole.

If you have a drawing that is nearly right, or even two drawings you would like to amalgamate, tracing paper can be very useful. Never try to change your original drawing. This is precious. It is all you have to refer to. Trace it off and fiddle about with it that way. It will be easy to see one drawing over another, using tracing paper.

Bear in mind the strong masses and movements when you are doing your small roughs. Avoid timid shapes and movements. Be positive, so that what you have to say is clear. The bolder your design at this stage the better. Think also in terms of what colors you are going to use. But don’t use too many of them. The simpler the scheme of color the better. You could, in fact, do the design in just two colors, adding a third at a later stage or reserving a further color for when you are actually working on the canvas.

Simplicity is the aim. You can add and complicate later.

When you have settled on your composition and have it clearly drawn out, then it is time to transfer it on to the canvas. The final drawing is usually called a cartoon.

Beginning a Picture

Because everything must be contained in a rectangle we must allow for a certain compression. However, no matter how much we are forced to change our original idea or drawing, the vitality and force of that idea will be retained when all the changes take on a unity. To make a picture function, each part must interlock with the other and finally with the canvas rectangle itself.

Actually the unity need not be forced into being. We all have within us the ability to judge when a thing looks right or not. It is one of the greatest strengths we possess.

Unfortunately this valuable instinct is so overladen with prejudice and acquired bad habits of thinking, it becomes swamped and blunted. After you have done a few paintings, however, you will soon overcome that difficulty and very quickly assess your shapes and arrangements spontaneously and correctly.

You will also see the need for the simple placing of unequal rectangles, triangles, simple directions and movements discussed above. These simple shapes are easily unified and so give authenticity and truth to your painting.

However, I don’t wish to labor this point too much. The fun in picture making is similar to any form of drawing or painting. With experience you will come to arrange your pictures naturally to suit your subject, breaking or adapting the laws of nature as you feel inclined.


For hundreds of years, at least from the beginning of the fourteenth century, it has been the practice first to make drawings and then compose these drawings into pictures. The drawings would be made from nature and drawings would then be made from these drawings. Finally, they would be made into paintings. This way all the most awkward problems in making nature fit into a picture were solved. What held then still holds good today.

When you begin you may have an idea, a landscape, say, with figures, and a certain mood is conjured up. You remember the scene well. You think it will make a fine picture. It means something to you. Well then don’t start painting it up right away. Think about it first on paper. Make a few drawings.

On the other hand you may have a series of drawings and sketches you did last summer, all fragmentary, but well detailed and documented. You think that you would like to make them into a picture. Your problem will be the same. To sort out the drawings and to put them together into a composition that will fit your canvas.

Again. you may have a drawing that is almost right for painting up but just needs a few alterations here or there. The same principle applies. Make further drawings until those alterations are just right.

Working with space and perspective

Space, actual three-dimensional space, cannot be achieved in any way on a canvas, but by illusion, perspective, tonality and the like you may be deceived into thinking that the picture has depth. Space and the painting of space has occupied various artists from time to time throughout history.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), an Italian painter, was said to have devoted most of his working life to the problems of space through the medium of perspective. But in the picture shown (Plate 15), ‘The Rout of San Romano,’ a fine, lusty painting of great movement, action and superb composition, the one thing that doesn’t come across is space. Many artists have pondered over this problem. They have employed color to help them to create space, like Cezanne or Braque, or perspective, like Uccello and Canaletto. Rembrandt used dark, gloomy backgrounds and in their Cubist phase Picasso and Braque tried the effect of cubes and distortions.

To me this is no problem at all. It may happen or not as the case may be. To try and force a flat canvas to blossom into three dimensions is an impossibility. Much better to let it happen naturally without any theory or any fuss as the Chinese do. Space to them is the empty part of the painting that must balance with the full parts, because, as they tell us, you cannot have one without the other. Pots are useful because they are empty and so are windows – and doors.

So far as space in a picture is concerned, my advice is: use perspective, color, large spaces in the foreground and little shapes in the background; distort if you must; leave empty parts of the canvas, anything in fact you want, provided it relates to the canvas edges and moves the eye.

Uccello tried very hard to capture space. But he made a fine painting in spite of this. More important than the space he did not achieve, is the grand flowing movement that takes the eye round and round the canvas, until you can almost imagine the noise and clatter, the shouts and cries of the soldiers, the neighing of the horses and so on.

It is also interesting to observe the way Uccello has packed the left-hand side of the canvas with lances and helmets, so that there seems to be a considerable army clustered there.

In actual fact very little is happening. Yet in spite of this, the effect is one of confusion and activity. The only real fighting is being done by the three horsemen on the right. There is only one dead soldier. The soldiers in the background seem to be playing games.

Without blood, horror or space, Uccello has given us a wonderful picture of a war in the fifteenth century. Yet all the qualities of the battle are here, nothing has really been left out. The secret lies in the wonderful way in which he has related this gigantic scene to the confines of his paints and canvas.

Movement on a Canvas

We cannot make our paint move, but by a careful placing of our lines and shapes with the canvas we can make the spectator’s eye move. And because it is so important to achieve movement within a frame we must consider it in the same way as we did the simple placing of our shapes in an unequal pattern. We can use a bold flowing movement across the canvas, or we can force the eye to move round the picture by a series of cunningly placed accents and shapes that entice the eye willy-nilly to move whether it wants to or not.

In the painting ‘The Deposition’ by Ugolino da Siena from the National Gallery, we have a good example of the simple way this device is used.

There is little or no depth in this picture to draw the eye away from the central dramatic theme. Instead the eye is concentrated on the main action. The displacement of the figure is perfectly balanced and the eye is moved from the bottom of the picture on the right, round and upwards and along the heads and down and round again, this time coming up through the cross and through the body of Christ and round again (Fig. 39).

Apart from the movement, the placing of the cross is just right and to avoid any thin shape made by it, a figure with its arm over the cross is carefully placed. Triangles abound here, and though, in the main, it is a simple, uncomplicated picture on the face of it, in fact it is both complicated and simple at the same time, a feat not often attempted in European art and much more in evidence among the paintings of China and Japan.

A study of Dutch composition

For example, look at the painting by Pieter de Hooch, a Dutch painter who lived from 1629 to 1683. This is a charming picture of seventeenth-century Dutch life. De Hooch wanted to convey the peace and domesticity of an ordinary Dutch household; the clothes people wore, the architecture of the house, the utensils that were used and so on. But over and above this was his desire to weld all these ingredients into a picture. And this desire almost, but not quite, took over.

Observe how cunningly he placed his figures. The maidservant and the child are off center. The doorway is off center as well and cuts off, very successfully, in a long rectangle the left hand edge of the picture. Through the door is seen another figure and the window shape on the left is repeated by the open door through the passageway only the other way round to avoid monotony.

On the right of the picture, where the two figures walk towards us, the dark area behind them is a nicely broken geometric series of shapes to contrast with the upright shapes through the doorway and passageway. A long pole of wood, leans inwards to direct the eye back into the picture. The cunningly placed broom that cuts off the lower right-hand corner stops our eye falling out of that corner and brings it back into the picture again (Fig. 38).

The variety of simple, geometric shapes that de Hooch has used are repeated again and again. Sometimes they are larger or smaller than each other, or are reversed in tone or shape. As you can see, one can go on analyzing his paintings for a long time, finding new and more subtle things in which to delight.

Another Dutch painter who spent most of his working life in constructing paintings from a composition standpoint was Vermeer. Vermeer was most careful in his composition, often using only a simple interior with one or two figures as his subject, which he repeated time and time again in different ways.

The triangle can be traced quite easily in the work of both artists. See if you can find them. There are many to choose from. Both de Hooch and Vermeer are well represented in the larger museums.

Composing on a Canvas

It will be seen from all this that when you look at nature, you will be looking at it with a different eye and from a different point of view. You will be looking at it more selectively. You will be choosing those elements that will be useful and effective on a canvas. And this is where outdoor drawing and sketching will become so useful.

Because it will be from those drawing and color notes that your picture will be built up. You will know what you are looking for. You will always have at the back of your mind what you can do with your paint on a canvas and it will help you to look more carefully.


Because nature is so wonderfully balanced, is never boring or monotonous, we must try to emulate her and avoid boredom or monotony on our canvases. A simple way to do this is to make sure that you do not repeat the same shape too often, especially a rectangle shape, and to avoid symmetry (Fig. 36). Balance will be more interestingly achieved by assymetry. You will see that painters often deliberately place the most important shape in their pictures not in the center, but a little to one side. This relationship with the edges of your canvas is better than putting all the interest bang in the center.

Another shape, that relates well with a rectangle, is a triangle, and many great paintings have been constructed either wholly or in part on the basis of a triangle.

A horizon, or any strong horizontal line, is always put above or below the center of the canvas. The two shapes made by this bisection must be unequal, otherwise we will become bored with them. It is so with any vertical lines you use (Fig. 37).

From these simple beginnings: unequal placing of the main lines, putting the main shape off center and built up in the shape of a triangle, a great number of famous paintings have been constructed. It is good fun to try tracing out the major lines and directions of any great painting to see if this is so, and to find out any other interesting devices painters get up to to make their composition interesting to the eye.

Picture Making continued

No, the only way in which to compete with nature is by a careful approach through the terms of your medium, letting your medium dictate the way. Where, then, does this dictating start? Well, in the first place, nature is not confined in her activities to a rectangle as we are. Nature is not static, yet canvas and paint are. Nature is three-dimensional, a canvas is two-dimensional. The range of color that nature can achieve will outdo the largest palette and the shapes, tones and variety of nature could never be squeezed into a rectangle without there being a hopeless muddle.

We must tackle the problem in another way. We must start from a completely new standpoint if we are to make pictures and appreciate pictures. We will have to think again about the whole question. Now where do we begin?


First of all, what do pictures consist of? What are they all about? Pictures can be of things seen, things remembered or ideas about things seen and remembered. There is no end, in fact, to the number of different kinds of pictures. Pictures can be decorative murals, or used to brighten up a room or match the furniture. They can be for propaganda: advertising the church, the state or soap flakes. They can be used for flattering the great and wealthy: portraits and possessions, or for the passing delight of the fashionable.

But the pictures that have most interest are those that have been done for none of the above obvious reasons. Those that have been done for private, personal motives: expression, the desire to find out about the world or just for a sheer love of seeing and painting. The pictures that have been done for the private experience alone will have something in common. They all obey certain laws. They must work within the
bounds of canvas and paint. Naturally artists from time to time have struggled to enlarge on these limitations and the history of art is a succession of their successes and failures, see the Impressionists, the Cubists.

And it is this tension, this struggle to enlarge the confines of painting, that has given art its vitality and its purpose. Often we can see in a picture the tension caused by the conflict of an artist between his idea and the limitations of his medium, or how he has been sidetracked from his original purpose in order to solve the problem of squeezing the essence out of nature so that it fitted comfortably into a rectangle in paint.

Well, we cannot compete with nature as nature moves too quickly for us. It cannot be transferred in all its beauty and wonder to a canvas, with conviction, by directly confronting her. So what can we do? Give up nature as some modern artists have tried to do?