Composition Basics for Coloured Pencil Art

Composition basics refer to the physical arrangement of all the elements in a piece of art. This arrangement can impact the mood and balance of the artwork.

But what are these elements and how do they interact?

The fundamental building blocks of art are: line, shape, form, value, colour, texture, and space.

Each element has unique characteristics, that can be manipulated and combined to create various effects. 

For instance, lines can be used to define shape, create movement, or convey emotion, while shapes can be geometric or organic, and forms can be two-dimensional or three-dimensional.

Using Elements Effectively

To create a cohesive composition, consider the principles of balance and contrast.

Balance involves arranging elements to create stability and harmony, while contrast uses different elements to create visual interest and draw the viewer's attention.

By combining these principles and elements, you can create engaging, thought-provoking, and emotionally resonant compositions.

The Focal Point

Decide what you want the viewer to focus on first in your artwork.

This focal point should be intentional and meaningful, guiding the viewer's gaze.

Use visual anchors, such as bold shapes or bright colours, to direct attention, and consider the negative space around these anchors to maintain balance and flow

Visual Weight and Placement

Visual weight measures how much an element draws the viewer's attention.

Factors influencing visual weight include size, colour, contrast, placement, complexity, and texture.

Experiment with different placements and weights to develop an intuitive sense of where the focal point should be positioned in relation to the edge of your picture.

Composition basics - paper orientation

The orientation of your paper affects the balance of elements on the page.

Choose a landscape or portrait orientation based on the dominant element in your design.

You can also experiment with unconventional formats, such as panoramic views, to create a more immersive experience for the viewer.

Using Artistic Licence

When working from a photograph, don't replicate the image; instead, capture its essence.

Identify the key elements that resonate with you, and reinterpret them in a way that feels authentic to your vision.

Experiment with different techniques, and enjoy the unexpected surprises that arise from the process.

Let's Put This Into Practice

When composing a photograph, the gridlines in a camera viewfinder serve as a guide.

The rule of thirds overlay divides the shot into thirds vertically and horizontally, helping you position the focal point on or near these lines. This technique ensures a strong composition, often resulting in more compelling images.

Something else to keep in mind is that the eye is naturally drawn to areas where the darkest dark and lightest light meet. As the artist, you can manipulate this contrast to direct the viewer's attention.

For instance, in the photo above I intended to focus on the bare tree against the dark sky, placing it according to the rule of thirds.

However, upon first glance, the white cottage against the dark hill likely caught your attention. Did your eye then move to the dark shadows around the tree or the dark wall leading out of the frame? If so, you probably missed the bare tree altogether!

If I were to use this photo as a reference, I would need to make changes to improve the composition. This could involve brightening the tree or darkening the cottage to better balance the contrast.

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?

This time, your eye stays on the white spot, as the tree and dark wall to the right no longer redirect your attention.

Now look at the next, washed out, 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. Instead, 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).

The image lacks a clear focal point, making it challenging to recreate as a drawing and leaving the viewer's attention wandering.

Composition basics - counterchange

The interplay of warm, golden light and cool, dark shadows, known as counterchange, is essential in composition, producing a satisfying result when tones and colours are balanced.

For example, delicate, pastel-hued flowers against rich, velvety dark backgrounds create a striking visual contrast. This contrast draws the viewer's attention to specific details that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

You have the creative freedom to modify your composition by rearranging or omitting elements, even in familiar scenes.

Use complementary colour to provide a focal point

Using complementary colours can provide a focal point.

A colour wheel illustrates how each colour has a complementary colour, situated directly across from it, forming a contrast. For instance, green's complementary colour is red, making a fire-engine red stand out against a rich, emerald green background.

In a busy background, a focus can be provided by large foreground shapes in a stronger and more contrasting complementary colour. To avoid overwhelming the viewer, tone down middle-distance colours to allow foreground flowers to stand out.

In landscapes, keep sharp detail and high colour in the foreground, and use aerial perspective to create a sense of distance. Cooling down colours in the distance can enhance this effect.

Shadows and Silhouettes

When you start painting, you might think of shadows as simply darker versions of the observed surface colour. 

However, as you gain experience, you'll notice that shadows often lean towards the blue end of the spectrum. This is why Paynes Grey was created - to simulate a darker colour with a blue undertone.

Remember, shadows imply light, and strong shadows indicate strong light.

By layering complementary colours underneath the main color, you can maintain a "clean" overall colour without deadening it with black. I reserve black for the darkest areas, adding it as a top layer near the end of the painting to intensify shadows and build contrast.

When underpainting, plan for deep shadows by applying the complementary colours in the appropriate density. Since we can't add more light to a white surface, we must build shadows to make the whites appear brighter.

The colours in snow

After exploring dark shadows, let's shift our focus to an element of a landscape that's opposite in tone - snow.

Snow is full of colour! While shadows appear blue, the surface of snow in sunlight can range from pure white to gold.

The pieces below show how renowned artists capture the cold, crisp surface of frost and snow in their paintings.

Peter's acrylic snow scene, set in Holland, features a dark, stormy sky that highlights the white snow.

In his other example, a pastel painting of a winter snow scene showcases blues and purples shading the white snow.

Composition basics - leading the eye

When drawing landscapes, incorporating a road or path that leads the viewer's eye into the scene is a fundamental composition technique. However, avoid sudden stops, like a closed gate, that disrupt the flow. As an artist, you have the freedom to open gates without worrying about farm animals escaping.

Snow-covered paths or lanes can also guide the eye, even when the surface is invisible, thanks to the shadows within the vehicle ruts.

Streams and bridges can serve as leading lines, with the bridge itself becoming a focal point, especially when its dark arches contrast with lighter-coloured stonework. For maximum impact, position yourself at a 45-degree angle to the bridge, rather than sideways.

Leading lines can also be implied, such as a skein of flying geese or a diagonal row of trees. These elements may not work as effectively when viewed from a different angle, so it's essential to consider the perspective.

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.

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. We go into detail on this topic on the drawing reflections in water 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

Painting, in any medium, has a profound impact on how we perceive the world.

It heightens our observation skills, allowing us to see beyond the obvious. A sunset, for instance, transforms into a canvas of purples, golds, and oranges. When gazing at a lake, we no longer just notice the reflections; we study them, observing how ripples affect their appearance. We become more aware of the shapes, colors, and interactions of objects around us.

This increased awareness extends to the natural world, where we begin to appreciate the intricacies of trees, noting the shapes of their branches and the way shadows fall.

Painting opens our eyes to the beauty of nature. By applying composition basics, we can effectively convey these observations to others, allowing them to experience the world in a new light.

You might like these


Would you like our occasional newsletter?