Sketching and Painting: 10 Steps To Drawing Up & Composing A Framework!

Sketching and Painting: 10 Steps To Drawing Up & Composing A Framework!While you can simply look at something and paint it, there’s a little more to it than that if you really want to make your art interesting. In this article I’m going to talk about going from preliminary sketches to painting your canvas and the mighty, mighty power of composition.

By carefully selecting your views, colors, and shapes you can make sure that anyone who views your work is going to be looking where you want them to. Once you’ve learned a few basics about composition, that’s exactly what they are going to do.

Lets take a little trip into the world of sketching and painting and the little tricks that make it so much more fun to do!

What is composition?

Some artists seem to be able to just whip up a still life or a scene with no effort at all. The thing is, that’s either because they’ve practiced composition enough that a lot of it comes automatically to them or because they haven’t actually had a grounded in composition.

If it’s the latter, that’s a shame.

Composition can make the difference between someone looking at your painting and just thinking to themselves, ‘eh, they can paint’ or taking a look and thinking to themselves, ‘wow’.

So, what is composition? Composition is essentially two things. It’s the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. What you are showing someone and HOW you are showing it to them. To elaborate further, let’s use a practical example. Let’s say you are painting a crowd of people and everyone looks sad but the focus of the painting, one person who looks guilty or might even be smiling.

That different expression draws the eye, but you can do better than that and make things more subtle. Make the emotion almost ambivalent and hard to spot, while the scene around is colorful, maybe you add some slightly muted colors close to the ‘guilty’ party.

While it can get much more advanced, getting into things like specific angles and geometry, we’re just going to give you a ‘grounding’ in composition in the form of some tips that can get you started in developing your own compositional tactics.

I’d like you to try each of the techniques that I’ve listed today to do a little composition of your own. Pick something you’ve already painted and this time, use composition to meticulously craft every little aspect of it.

I think you’ll be surprised what you get!

1/ Choosing your subject

First off, you need to choose your subject. This is basically just what you intend to paint. It can be anything that you like, of course. You can do a still life if you want to keep things simple or you can get a little more esoteric with a dusty workbench that looks like it hasn’t been used in a while (what happened to the craftsman?!) or paint an abandoned building in your neighborhood.

Paint the backyard if you like. The important thing is that we pick a subject so that we can take it from a sketch or even better, a series of sketches and then carefully work a little composition voodoo to turn the mundane into something magical.

2/ What is your viewpoint?

Sketching and painting exactly what you see is fine… to start with. The thing is, playing with the viewpoint of your subject is an important tool in drawing in the attention of your viewer. So, instead of just drawing what’s in front of you, why not mix it up a little instead?

Draw from a viewpoint above, for instance. A landscape with a birds-eye view might reveal something in those woods that you are painting. With our ‘dusty workbench’ example, you could draw the workbench as if it is being viewed by a small child. Throw in a reflective surface somewhere and they might even be crying!

Close-up views are also a powerful way to make someone feel like they are part of a scene. You can also

“Make someone feel like they are part of a scene”

do the opposite and make someone or something in your drawing look far-away and cut off from the rest of the composition. Get creative with it and you’ll see that it’s actually quite easy for you, as an artist, to make normal, everyday things warm, cold, or even magical.

Don’t just show your subject, show it from an interesting point of view.

3/ Consider croppingcomposition cropped view example for painting

When you are deciding what to draw it’s very easy to fall into the trap of adding too much to your preliminary sketch. That’s only natural, because our eyes don’t just see what’s in front of us but we’ve got some pretty good peripheral vision to boot.

It’s a great survival trait that kept many an ancestor from getting whacked with a weapon or simply eaten but with your canvas, that’s simply not going to work. That’s because your canvas is a flat medium designed for a 2-dimensional rendering, so you need to choose carefully what you depict.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a wide landscape, of course, but it’s going to mean picking and choosing specifically what you are going to capture. It will help you to decide what the focal point of your composition is going to be and make it easier to draw attention to it.

This is a simpler process in something like a still life, where you can just cut out part of the bowl holding the fruit, but you can certainly draw attention to a spot in a landscape. Let’s say there is a pond, for instance, and you want the focus there. A silvery group of little fish catching a little sun as they leap and play might be just the thing.

An easy way to help decide what you will be cropping is to cut out 4 straight strips of carboard that you staple or tape together into a square. Look at your scene through the square and see what sticks out most to you and whammo, you’ve got a great starting point as far as cropping your scene.

4/ Finding your focal point

Just to make sure that we are on the same page I’m going to talk briefly with you about focal points. A focal point is simply a spot in your composition that you are looking to draw your viewer’s attention to. The whole point of composition is that everything in your drawing and later, in your painting, is carefully placed and colored just right so that the viewer’s attention is drawn exactly to where you want it.

That is your focal point and it’s purpose!

5/ Breaking it down into 3 values

Values are shapes and colors that help to draw attention to your focal point. You can certainly have more than 3 but to get started, try just incorporating 3 dominant shapes and 3 dominant colors for drawing attention to your focal point.

This will give you a basic understanding of values that you can build on for more complex compositions.

Now, to turn the concept of ‘values’ into some concrete examples, let’s say that you are painting the inside of a theatre, as viewed from the stage, and you’re trying to communicate something to the viewer like ‘mom and dad didn’t stay for my show’.

Okay.. so how could we do that by adding 3 color values and 3 shapes? This is just an easy example to give you an idea of what values do without getting too complex but here are a few suggestions.

First off, colors… that one is easy, you can have a little more light highlighting the area close to empty seating. The empty seats are a little brighter in the viewer’s eyes while the light next to it is slightly muted to help draw attention. There’s 2 colors. Now, mute the color the most in the corner to show 2 the backs of two people leaving. That covers out last color and one shape. A second shape-trick can be your angle of view, as if on the opposite side of the stage from where the people are leaving. This aligns the seating just-so to further draw the eyes and for a final touch, draw a discarded flyer in one of the empty seats.

3 colors, 3 shapes, all pointing to the same focal point of ‘recently vacated chairs.

It doesn’t have to be that tricksy, of course, you can do all sorts of things with light and dark, vibrant and muted colors, but you get the idea. Throw in some useful values and lead the viewer’s eyes exactly where you want them to go!

6/ Choosing your colors

composition and choosing your colorsChoosing the colors that you want to use ahead of time is a good idea. When you draw up your preliminary sketches, you can make little notes on them to help guide you when you are painting, such as ‘muted yellows here’ and ‘orange here’… make some guidelines.

The reason for this is that if you wait and try to pick your colors ‘on the fly’, you’re going to get some muddy colors that wouldn’t have to be there if you’d simply planned a little.

Also, when you are selecting your color scheme, pay close attention to the ‘temperature’ of your colors. Some colors like yellow or orange are considered warm, while others, like blue and dark green have a colder feel to them. Vibrant colors catch the eye but too many of them can take more than they give to your painting, so you might want muted colors for your scene.

Play a little with the colors, maybe even painting part of a scene different ways to decide what you want in your finished painting, and once you make your choices then stick with them (for now).

This will help you to avoid muddy colors and get a little more experience before you take the dive into more ‘improvisational’ painting.

Right now, you just want to get experienced, not frustrated!

7/ Dividing up your composition further into 9 pieces

Also known as ‘the Rule of Thirds’, take a look at your composition sketch and imaging that you have 3 sections on top, middle, and the bottom part of your sketch. Like a tic-tac-toe board.

The idea behind the ‘Rule of Thirds’ is that your focal point, while not having to be exactly in the middle, is often going to be the most eye-pleasing when it is placed in such a manner that it divides up the entire

“It divides up the entire composition into thirds”

composition into thirds, based on those imaginary ‘tic-tac-toe’ lines.

People are drawn naturally to symmetry and this is just another little trick for adding a little symmetrical order to your scene to help draw the eye to that all-important focal point of your composition.

8/ Make a few sketches, rather than one, and break down shapes

Since you’re going to be looking at your preliminary sketches when you paint your canvas, a great way to really get the most out of it is to have more than one sketch. You can even make painting some complicated things much easier, by including a sketch where the scene, people, and items are broken down into their basic shapes.

By looking at a finished sketch with the right proportions and then glancing at the basic shapes, it’s going to be easier for you to paint what you like while you are still learning. It’s a great little ‘hack’ that I used when I first started learning myself, so I hope that you get as much mileage out of it as I did.

When the shapes start coming to your mind, without the sketches, it’s an amazing feeling!

9/ Don’t be afraid to break out your eraser

People make the assumption all of the time that the ability to draw something means that it’s naturally easy to paint it too.


You and I both know that drawing and painting are actually quite different and the skills required for each vary quite a bit. What looks good in a black and white sketch is going to have a whole world of difference when you translate it into colors and brushstrokes.

So, if you are painting up a scene that you’ve carefully composed and you find that something you originally wanted in the pic isn’t going to work, then I urge you to stop.

Get back to your sketch and give the area that isn’t really fitting in a good, hearty erasing and sketch something that you think will fit better when you translate it into brushstrokes with your mighty acrylic colors.

Not every time, of course… you can learn a lot by ‘sticking to your guns’ and just painting it anyways, but every now and again you’ll simply know that something you drew is not going to look the way you visualized in paints and if that’s the case, it’s perfectly fine to erase and rethink your strategy.

10/ Don’t spend forever on your sketch… dive in and paint what you’ve composed

So, you’ve composed a few sketches and marked a few reminders on your color scheme… what are you waiting for? You can adjust and adjust a scene for days, weeks, or even months, but the best thing is to lay out your plan by sketching your foundations and then jumping right into painting them on that canvas.

So don’t spend too much time in the planning for now. Sketch some preliminaries, lay out your plan for tricks to make your focal point absolutely unavoidable, and get to work! Save those longer composition periods for when you’ve got a little more experience under your belt and you’ll be much happier and much more experience for it.

In conclusion: Building the bones helps you fully flesh out your painting

Today I’ve gone over a few compositional basics that can help you to turn a good sketch into a great painting. The next part is going to be up to you! Take the lessons from today and start whipping up some preliminary sketches of your own.

Once you’ve laid the foundation, get started painting it into its new reality and take a little time to see the results and let it all sink in. I think you’ll agree, composition really makes a whole world of difference!


Sketching and Painting: 10 Steps To Drawing Up & Composing A Framework!

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