Using smart composition to enhance your drawings.

There is an element to drawing that illustrators pay attention to but seems to go unnoticed among street sketchers – good composition. In photography, composition is ingrained into the fabric of any professional instruction, which is similar to people learning to become illustrators – that framing your piece will enhance your subject, and bad composition can make any subject dull and uninteresting, no matter how interesting it is.

There are a few ways that people approach composition, but I think the most important is the rule of thirds. It’s simple and straight forward, and you can probably use the grids that you created earlier to help you frame your work using this principle.


The main thing to consider in the rule of thirds is where the main subject lies in the frame. Create a grid (even a loose one will do) that breaks the frame into thirds, both horizontal and vertical. How you frame the drawing depends on the subject. In my case, while I was mindful of trying to place my subject using this principle, I did not use a grid, and the results could have been better.


For a human subject, you have even more options. You could place the subject within the three sections, or place them on the line. (As I did with my non-human subject above) In this example I am taking one of your self portraits, which I cleaned up, to illustrate how you could place it interestingly in a frame (I hope you don’t mind! If so, let me know and I will swap you out)



RuleOfThirdsGrid_PortraitRuleOfThirdsGrid_Right   RuleOfThirdsGrid_FarRight

All of these lend themselves to interesting embellishments, though the extreme right and left practically demand some other material be in place to fill out all of the negative space now available.

If you have taken any art classes whatsoever, you may have been introduced a composition theory of the “Golden mean” also known as many other names (Golden Curve, Golden Ratio). I’m going to save you the effort of learning about it further: Don’t bother. It is a beautiful thing to see in nature, but so rarely applied to anything worthwhile that it is not a standard worth chasing. There is a great write up that gets into this subject more here.

Side note: Tangent lines. This is something you have to attempt to avoid. It’s true in both photography and drawing. Below I quickly wanted to show what I mean, so I took a photo of my daughter. In the first one, her head looks as if it is touching the edge of the hill behind it.


What happens when one element touches along the edge of another element is the illusion that those two elements are the same distance from you. We naturally know that they are not the same distance away, so the affect is jarring and uncomfortable. I did it again without the tangent created. Neither are earth shatteringly good photos, but one of them gets something wrong that is particularly not nice to look at.


Ignoring composition is a mistake, in my opinion. When you simply put down what is in front of you with no regard to composition, the quality of your work is dependent on you being either a brilliant draftsman (draftsperson?) or someone with a quirky and interesting style. But even artists who fit into either of those categories can benefit from framing their subject smartly. I dug through recent Urban Sketchers group images and pulled some that use the principle, and one that could have used it better.


This is a beautiful piece, but maybe could have been trimmed a bit and stood out a little more.

RuleOfThirdsGrid_Example01_fix2 RuleOfThirdsGrid_Example01_fix

The trees are lovely, and this artist can totally get away with keeping them in, but not everyone can get away with that.

RuleOfThirdsGrid_Example02_wBar RuleOfThirdsGrid_Example02

It works for non standard sized images too. This is a perfect example.


I’m not sure the above artist even knew how close they were to nailing the thirds principle.


I have been using a rigid grid, but the truth is there is a fair amount of flexibility with this principle. Once you start training yourself to look for it and then implement it in your drawings, you will very quickly start to see it everywhere you look and think “Oh, that would fit nicely in a frame!”


Here is a photographer’s breakdown of the rule of thirds, which is totally valid for artists to use as well.

No lesson for today, I just want you to go forward knowing there is one way you can frame your work that will make it just a little more interesting and satisfying for others to look at.