Composition basics for landscape drawings

Composition basics - the term used to describe the physical arrangement of all the elements that make up a piece of art. 

The arrangement of these elements – the shapes of the objects, the colours used, and the way they are placed in relation to each other – can have a huge impact on the final look of your work.

Traditionally, artists have relied on 'rules' to create successful compositions. These rules include: 'keep your shapes simple' and 'follow the rule of thirds'. Although you don't have to stick to these rules rigidly, they do provide a framework around which you can plan your compositions.

The first essential is to find a way of reducing the amount of information you are looking at when you draw.

Studies have demonstrated that people's attention quickly wanders when they look at too many things at once; in fact, most artists will tell you that it's almost impossible to take in more than three or four things at a glance.

Surveying the scene

So your first task is reduce the clutter as much as possible so that you can focus your full attention on the centre of attention.

Decide what you want your viewer to look at first. Is it the mountain in the background, the cottage in the mid-ground, or the flowers in the foreground?

Unless you are going for an extreme close-up, you will need to place your focal point within its surroundings. But how much of the environment do you want to include?

A camera with a zoom lens, two pieces of card or even your fingers can come in handy here.

The viewfinder of a camera allows you to look at a particular part of the scene without distraction. (You can have the lens focused at infinity so that everything in the viewfinder is in focus.) The zoom facility allows you to select the part of the scene that interests you most.

If you don’t have a camera to hand, use two L-shaped pieces of card, or touch the index finger and thumbs together to form a viewfinder to look through.

I asked my husband to do this so that I could take a photo to illustrate better what I mean. In this example, I would have him move to the left to have the pigeon facing into the picture rather than out of it. This move would also bring the dark green tree to the right-hand edge of the frame eliminating the boring brown area that adds nothing to the scene.

Composition basics - don't be afraid to change things

When deciding on your composition you also have the choice of which way around to have your paper.

Traditionally, landscape paintings have the longest edge at the top and bottom, but don't be afraid to experiment with different orientations.

You can crop the original photo reference to create a portrait-style picture or work with a more panoramic shape. There are no strict rules about the shape of a painting, so feel free to explore different options and choose what best suits your composition.

Resist the temptation to copy a photograph exactly; instead, use it as a reference to help you make something original and unique.

The great advantage of being an artist is that you can re-arrange and re-compose your scene a dozen times or more. However, if you are working on commission, beware of any changes that could upset the client, and check with them before changing anything in the original photograph.

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 drawing.  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

The gridlines in a camera viewfinder are a guide to help you compose your shot. The "rule of thirds' overlay divides the shot into thirds vertically and horizontally. The idea is that the focal point should be positioned on or very near these lines. The most compelling images are often strongly composed, and following the rule of thirds is one way to ensure a strong composition is achieved.

The eye is drawn to any area in a picture where the darkest dark and lightest light meet. You, as the artist, can therefore manipulate this contrast to direct the viewer to what you want them to look at first.

I took the photo below in the Yorkshire Dales. My intended focal point was the bare tree against the dark sky so I placed it according to the rule of thirds. However, when you first glanced at it, what grabbed your attention?

Most likely, the white cottage against the dark hill behind it. Then your eye moved around the image and was perhaps drawn to the dark shadows around the bottom of the tree or even the dark wall leading out of the frame on the right? If I were to use this as a photo reference, I would need to make some changes to improve the composition. This could either involve brightening the tree or darkening the cottage.

The white cottage is positioned according to the Rule of Thirds

Maybe, on the other hand, I wanted the cottage to be the focal point. What happens if I place that white spot in the centre of the picture, as in the photo below?

Again, it is likely the first thing you notice, but this time your eye stays there, as the tree and dark wall to the right of it, no longer redirect your attention. 

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

Now look at the next image. What do you see first?

Low contrast version of the photo

This wider view reduces the white cottage to an insignificant blob in the distance. It no longer grabs the eye. Now the area of most contrast is the dark portion of the wall on the middle right, or maybe even the dark cloud on the left (due to its position roughly on the rule of thirds). 

Our knowledge of composition basics tells us that this would not be the best photo to reproduce as a drawing. There is no real focal point. 

Composition basics - counterchange

The vagaries of light and shade, or counterchange, have to be carefully weighed against one another in the arrangement of elements within the picture. These combinations result in a piece that leaves a lasting impression on the mind.

This contrast can enliven the image and contribute to a depth that the picture otherwise would not have had. Counterchange is integral to painting and can lead to a final image where the arrangement of tones and colours produces an immensely satisfying result.

For example, areas of light flowers highlighted against dark backgrounds give a zing to a picture that 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 artist's license 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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