Create a composition sketch to plan and arrange the structure of your artwork before you begin. This way, you can ensure that the proportions are correct, on top of the painting appearing harmonious and well balanced.
If your reference photo isn’t up to scratch, or if you are drawing from imagination, planning a composition sketch will help you bring all the different elements in an artwork together. It will also help you plan how you create your intended effects in the painting. For example, whether you want to elicit feelings of drama, or peace.
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How to create a composition sketch: the process
This is an example of how you can plan the composition of a painting. The process of planning a composition with a sketch starts with a series of small thumbnail sketches, then progresses to a value study from which you can base your final artwork on.
You could also create a notan before creating a value study. A notan is a black and white rendering of your painting. This can be helpful because it converts the image to just two values, which allows the artist to see the broad value masses and abstract shapes and forms. This way, you can plan the design of the spacing, and darkest and lightest forms in the piece, to create a sense of balance. You can also plan how you will place the focal point in the painting and lead the viewer’s eye in, using values and placement of elements. This is an optional step, but it can be helpful!
Step 1: Draw a series of small thumbnail sketches
Draw several small boxes in a sketchbook, or in Photoshop if you would prefer to plan the composition of the artwork digitally. A good tip is to divide each box into segments, for example thirds, so that you can structure and arrange elements geometrically. Make as many small thumbnail sketches as you like, refer to your painting reference and consider how you can rearrange the elements to create balance and lead the viewer’s eye to the focal point.
The purpose of this step is to plan the structure of the artwork and placement of the main focal point. You don’t need to spend time on any details or shading at this point.
The next optional step is to create a value sketch.
Step 2: Create a value study
Values are like the backbone of a painting. It’s not necessary, but it can be useful to plan the broad tonal masses in a painting and establish where the lightest and darkest values will go, and how they will relate to one another. A value study can be completed with pencil, paint or digitally. Choose your favourite thumbnail sketch and draw in the values, focussing on the contrast between the shadows and highlights.
Step 3: Plan colour combinations
Depending on your painting style, you may want to plan a colour scheme to create a sense of harmony in your artwork. Again, this is an optional step, but can be useful if you paint in a more expressive style with a more surreal approach to colour mixing, or equally if you are a beginner and are new to colour mixing. When creating a colour study, experiment with colour temperature, saturation and how this affects the feel of the artwork.
Step 4: Compile your references and get painting
Use the materials you made to create your painting. You can use the grid technique to scale your composition sketch up onto canvas, to create an accurate drawing. Look at your value study to refer to the placement and balance of shadows and highlights in your painting. Then use your colour studies to inform how you will mix the colours in your piece. Refer to the photo reference for information about the details in painting.
Basic composition principles
Composition is the arrangement of various visual elements to provide context and meaning for the viewer. The idea of composition is subjective and is based on a series of decisions made by the artist about the placement of different subjects and objects in the painting to show how they relate to one another.
Visual elements are line, shape, colour, value, texture, form and space. These can be arranged to create balance, a focal point, the impression of movement, contrast, pattern and proportion. For example, in Van Gogh’s painting ‘Irises’, he uses shape, colour form and space to spread the flowers evenly across the canvas, rather than focussing them in just one area. This creates a sense of balance and unity.
Additional compositional techniques can be employed, such as creating symmetry, negative space, simplifying the image or using a framing element. Another example is in this painting Sunset on the Seine by Claude Monet. Monet frames the sunset with neutral dark grasses at the front; this leads the eye to the horizon.
In this painting of the French Alps I completed in 2020, I used proportion to make the mountains on the right recede into the distance. I also chose to create drama with a stark contrast between the values in the tones of the snow and the sky. However I used a limited palette to create unity. Another compositional technique I used in this painting, was the rule of thirds. This is a type of geometrical framework used to give a feeling of balance in a painting.
Why make a composition sketch?
Composition can be improved and developed with practice. By considering the layout and structure of a painting before you begin, artists can ensure that their painting will be as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Plan the arrangement of all the different visual elements first to ensure the piece conveys the intended meaning and has the maximum impact.
There are many instances where additional planning is required to achieve a more effective composition. It may be that you are working from imagination or combining multiple references and you need to plan the painting to ensure that the subjects fit with the scene. Or it may be that you are painting a commission. In this case, create a plan to help you paint the best piece possible for your buyer.
What supplies do you need for a composition sketch?
You don’t need many supplies to create a composition sketch. There are a number of ways to create composition sketches too.
If you want to create a mock-up digitally, use either a program like Photoshop with a graphics tablet to compose drawings or digital paintings. Or, you could use an iPad with an Apple Pencil and an app like Procreate.
Another way to create quick composition sketches is with gouache paint. Gouache is an opaque, water soluble medium that is wettable when dry. It performs in much the same way as watercolour in that it is easy to set up and clean up, but you can layer paint like acrylic due to its opacity. This gives the flexibility to work from dark to light. Get a set of gouache, some small sized watercolour paper, watercolour paint brushes and start planning your composition.
Edit photo: crop, adjust colours
When working from a reference photo, it helps for the reference photo to accurately resemble the composition you want to create in your painting. Easily alter the reference photo with software like Photoshop by cropping the original.
Alternatively, make some basic corrections to alter the values and tones of the image. Or change the colour temperature to make the colours appear warmer or cooler—this can bring unity to a photo. Another way to plan the colour composition is by using the camera raw filter to colour grade the image.
If you are combining multiple references, create a collage. For example, use the quick selection tool to select particular elements in the photo to cut them out. You could swap the sky in one image and paste it into a new landscape using this technique.
To create a thumbnail sketch, draw a small box in a sketchbook that has roughly the same proportions as the surface you will use for your final piece. Map out where you want all the different elements of the artwork to go and omit any tiny details. Think about the proportions and positioning of the main subject, the horizon line and any other predominant features in the painting or drawing. Think about negative space, values and how different elements relate to one another.
Try employing some compositional techniques to your thumbnail sketches to see how they work out. Think about structuring the canvas geometrically, such as using the rule of thirds, or spatial dividers to segment the subjects and secondary subjects. Create multiple thumbnail sketches and decide which you think is the most aesthetically pleasing.
Create a digital mock-up
If you want to create a digital mock-up, Photoshop is an excellent tool for creating quick digital paintings and drawings.
Download some Photoshop brushes that emulate the effects of pencil, oil paint or watercolour for more realistic effects.
Get Photoshop and a graphics tablet and draw on the artboard to decide where the main elements of the artwork will go. Toggle colours and values to plan the perfect composition for your piece. Make sure to start a new layer for each element, so that areas are easily separated or deleted if a mistake is made. Take this Skillshare class to brush up your skills on digital painting in Photoshop. The full adobe suite can be used on iPad too, if you prefer to work in this way. Photoshop has many uses for artists, aside from planning compositions and editing reference photos. Use it to digitise artworks ready for print, or edit art ready to share on social media. If you are interested in getting Photoshop to assist you with various art related tasks, read our Photoshop guide for artists.
A great tool that is free to use for everyone is Adobe Color. Plan colour schemes, like triadic, or complementary, to create harmony, balance and contrast in your art. If you are an Adobe subscriber, you can save colour palettes and implement them in your Photoshop artworks.
Many artists work with an iPad, Apple Pencil and Procreate to create digital mock-ups and digital art. Procreate is a great option, it feels intuitive and easy to use. Procreate has similar functionality to Photoshop. Watch this course on how to create beautiful compositions in Procreate to learn how to plan compositions in artworks using the software.
Create a gouache composition sketch
Gouache is great for the purpose of creating composition sketches, as you can work super quickly. Quickly lay out your scene, test colour combinations and where to place different elements
I always keep my mini composition gouache sketches too! You can do it in a sketchbook or on small sized watercolour paper, but of course, you can frame them or even sell them if you like your own creations. Gouache is a beautiful medium in its own right too, if you’re interested in learning more about how to paint with gouache, check out our guide.
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