Composition basics for landscape drawings

The composition basics on this page relate directly to landscape drawings, but could equally be applied to any other subject matter, or even photography.

What is composition in art? 

The word composition relates to how the elements of a drawing are arranged on the paper or canvas. Some arrangements work better than others, and over the years certain 'rules' have been taught to new artists. Although you don't have to stick to these rules rigidly, they do provide a framework around which you can plan your compositions.

To clarify, a composition is not what objects are shown in a drawing, but where they are placed within it. 

Before you decide where to place them, some composition basics may help guide you. 

Surveying the scene

Because your eyes can take in so much more of the landscape than you can possibly include in a drawing, the first essential is to find a way of reducing the amount of information you are looking at.

This can be done with a camera (using the viewfinder and zoom facility) to concentrate the mind on a particular part of the scene. Anything outside of the viewfinder is not visible when you hold the camera to your eye. You don't necessarily have to take a photo the instant you bring the camera to your eye. Try moving your body into different positions first, to investigate the scene from different viewpoints. For example drop to one knee, or even lay on the ground. If you are energetic you could climb a hill or some stairs to get a view from higher up. When you are happy, snap your photo. You can continue to refine your composition later by cropping it, or combining more than one image.

Instead of a camera you can go 'old school' and use two pieces of L shaped card as a viewfinder. This is often used when selecting an area to draw as a still life in the studio. 

Not got any card either? Use your index fingers and thumbs to form a square to look through! 

Anything within the viewfinder, card or fingers would be included in the composition. In the photo below I would move to the left, so as to have the pigeon facing into the picture rather than out of it!

Composition basics - picture shape or format

When deciding on your composition you also have the choice of which way around to have your paper. Most pictures follow a standard proportion as to shape, with the longest sides around a quarter longer than the shortest. Photographs usually comply with this arrangement, with most images being able to be printed at around 7 x 10 inches, 

Landscapes can also be worked up to a more panoramic shape, and this can add interest. There is no rule that a painting must be shown in a standard rectangular mount. the working of an image for an oval shape can have benefits if it cuts out an area of no interest and can provide the eye with a pleasing design. 

If you wish to slightly modify the shape but keep to a standard frame, bear in mind that you can surround your picture within the mount by adding silhouetted darker areas of trees and suitable features which frame the area of interest. 

Don't be restricted by what is in your reference photo. You can change anything to improve your drawing or painting. If you merely repeat the photograph in full glorious detail, you might just as well print out the photo and hang that on your wall! You need to bring a part of your own personality to your work of art.

Unless you are working a commission, your buyer will not be too critical of parts of the scene being re-arranged and re-composed.  If you are taking on a commission, and get the chance to discuss the scene with the client, check whether any particular areas of concern have to be included.

I can recall a friend losing a lot of sleep over whether to include or omit a red telephone kiosk outside the house he was portraying.  He left it out and crossed his fingers that the client wouldn’t mind.  He was right - the client hated the telephone box, but it could have gone the other way.

Composition basics - find the focal point

Have you heard of the Rule of Thirds? If not, think of a noughts and crosses board (tic tac toe for our American cousins) and place two imaginary lines from top to bottom and side to side, evenly spaced to form 9 squares. The best places to position your main point of contrast are where any of these lines cross each other, or at the very least on one of the lines. These lines are often superimposed on the camera viewfinder making it easier to see where they intersect.

The main point of contrast is where the darkest dark and lightest light meet. If drawing a portrait of a human or animal this could be the eye.

In a landscape it could be where a white cottage shows against a dark mountain, as in the photo below, which I took in the Yorkshire Dales. At first glance it would appear that the tree is the centre of interest, but if you continue looking it is likely that your eye is drawn to the cottage. If I were to paint this scene I would make that wall on the right a little lighter so that it doesn't lead the eye out of the picture. 

The white cottage is positioned according to the Rule of Thirds

What you don't want is to place the focal point dead centre as below! The cottage grabs our eye and hangs on to it. What we want the viewer to do is travel around the picture starting and ending at the focal point. In the top crop the dry stone walls help us to do this and our eye moves in a circle starting at the house moving to the tree, and then the walls take us back up to the house again.  

Don't place the centre of attention dead centre of your picture!

In the bottom image our eye tries to look at what else is in the scene but it doesn't flow as well. 

Low contrast version of the photo

By reducing the contrast of the uncropped photo in Photoshop you can see that the cottage no longer grabs the eye instantly.

In fact the eye doesn't really know where to start. It could be led up the stone wall from bottom right to middle left and out of the picture without even spotting the cottage as the wall is a little lighter than the grass surrounding it.

Or it could travel straight to the darker hills on the left where there is a slight contrast with the white cloud. However, there is nothing much of interest to the eye there and most people would pass over and onto another image. 

Composition basics - Counterchange

In planning the composition of your picture, the final image can benefit a great deal from the interaction of shapes and tones within it.  The play of light against dark, and one shape or colour against another is known as counterchange. 

For example, areas of light flowers highlighted against dark backgrounds gives a zing to a picture which may not have been apparent from the original photo.

Remember that the viewer of your picture has not seen the photo you are working from.  You have a fully paid up and valid artists licence to move and remove parts of your scene if it makes a better picture.

Even a very familiar scene can have parts ‘adjusted’ without a viewer who may know the scene well, realising what has been done.  

Using complementary colour to provide the focal point

Colour mixing and complementary colours are covered elsewhere on the site, but they can also be considered amongst our composition basics section. 

We have already discovered that the eye is drawn to an area of high contrast in a picture. This contrast does not have to be in value; it can also be a contrast in colour. 

Remember that every colour has a complementary colour, the one that is opposite to it on the colour wheel.

For green you have the complementary colour of red. This is why a bright red poppy is so striking as it is often seen against the dark green background of the leaves. Green is composed of blue and yellow primary colours, and has very little red in it. Poppies are normally an orange red (one with an element of yellow in the red pigment). The exact complementary of this type of red is the dark blue green of the poppy foliage. 

Where you have a 'busy' background in a localised scene of a garden, a focus can be provided by large foreground shapes in a stronger and more contrasting complementary colour. Note that it can be of advantage, when showing a garden with lots of different flowers and colours, to modify some of the busy colours to give the eye a chance to focus and not be dazzled.  In this case we could tone down the bright colours of flowers in the middle distance to allow the foreground flowers to stand out from the crowd.

Make sure in any landscape with distant elements, that you keep all your sharp detail and high colour to the foreground and allow arial perspective to work for you. Cooling down the colour of those elements that are far away can give the feeling of distance. Picking blues, greys and purples for mountains tends to work well, even if in real life they are covered in green grass or trees. Use some artistic license to help implement the composition basics. 

Shadows and Silhouettes

When you start to paint you tend to think of shadows as being the colour of the observed surface, but darker - and you add grey or even black. A red wall becomes a dirty red for example. 

As you gain experience, you see more and more that shadows tend to include more of the blue end of the spectrum. This is where the infamous Paynes Grey came from. It was an attempt to simulate a darker colour which included blue and could be used to produce dark colours. You now paint your shadowed brickwork with the addition of a little purple or violet to your red mix. 

Shadow suggests that we have light, and strong shadow indicates strong light. In coloured pencil we can use complementary colours to darken, as well as to attract attention.  Layers of the complementary colour underneath the main colour, helps to keep the overall colour 'clean' and not deadened by the addition of black. I tend to use the black pencil only in the darkest areas and then as a top layer near the end of the painting, to intensify shadows and build contrast. 

When we are underpainting, we can plan for deep shadows and apply the complementary colour in the appropriate density. 

In painting a picture on a white surface we cannot get any more light into the picture than the original white of the paper. We have to build our shadows to make the whites look brighter. 

The colour of snow

We have spoken about dark shadows, but what about an element of a landscape that is opposite in tone - snow?

Snow is actually full of colour! Shadows are blue, but the surface of snow in sunlight can be anything from pure white to gold. Look at it when you next get the opportunity or look at pictures painted by renowned artists in galleries. See how they simulate the cold but crisp surface of frost and snow. It’s a real challenge, but one worth taking. 

The first example of Peter's work, below, shows a small acrylic snow scene set in Holland, taken from an original oil that he once saw in a Dutch house. The dark, stormy sky emphasises the white of the snow. 

The second image is a pastel painting of a winter snow scene with blues and purples shading the white snow. 

Composition basics - leading the eye

When drawing landscapes, one of the composition basics that works well is to include a road or path that leads the viewers eye into the scene. But do ensure that the eye is not brought to a sudden standstill by a closed gate! When creating artwork you can open gates in your picture without risk of letting farm animals escape.

If the path or lane is covered in snow, the shadows within the ruts made by vehicles can lead the eye even if the path surface is not visible.

If your scene contains a stream, or even better a bridge over a stream, you can use that as a leading line. A bridge could even be the centre of attention by itself, especially if it has dark arches under lighter coloured brick or stonework giving contrast. If possible position yourself so that you can see the bridge from a 45 degree angle, not sideways. 

Leading lines can also be implied. For example a skein of flying geese could lead the eye as could a diagonal row of trees. Seen from a different angle these separate elements may overlap and not work in the same way.

Composition basics - Reflections

One of the composition basics we haven't looked at yet, is the inclusion of reflections in your picture. Adding some water with a reflection gives you the chance to enhance the area of interest by doubling up, so to speak. 

Always carefully draw your image and its reflection, as nothing is worse than a mirror image which isn't! Depending on your eye-level you will see more or less of the reflection. For further details about this, complete with illustrations check out the drawing a boat page.

Another point to keep in mind is that a mirror reflection in still water will usually be a tone darker than the actual scene above it. 

However if you include puddles of water in a road or lane, the reflected area of sky could well be the lightest part of your picture.

Observing the nature around you

One of the major benefits I have found from painting (in all media) is that you become much more observant about the world around you. 

  • You see a sky at dusk, and instead of 'just' a sunset, you see all the purples and golds included in the orange colour range. 
  • You look at a lake and you actually 'read' the reflections in the water rather than note them. 
  • You see how the ripples affect the reflections. 
  • You notice far more of the shape and colour of things and how they interact.
  • You look a trees and the shape the branches take, how the darker shadows fall rather than seeing a mass of green leaves. 

Painting opens your eyes to nature. Using the composition basics above will help you to portray what you have seen for the benefit of those that were not there at the same time. 

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