Designing Super Basic Compositions.

December 5, 2012 in Beginners, Lvl 0

“I find a single focus in the scene and then play everything off that one thing.” – Kenn Backhaus

What’s Missing?

So you’ve learned the basics of design and you’re drawing fairly decent looking cartoons.

Then you try actually drawing a picture and it looks like something a five year old drew.  You haven’t got the slightest idea why. The answer is very simple.


It’s not enough to design the characters on the page, you also have to design the page. This might seem like a very odd statement but it’s in perfect keeping with what I’ve shared with you so far about design.

This time, I’m going to share with you how to use those design principles and other principles, to compose a picture that looks cool.

This is going to be REALLY basic.  This topic, like color, is HUGE. There’s far too much write about here.  In this post, I’m only going to give you a tiny taste of how you should be thinking about designing composition to get you started.

What is Composition?

The way I see it, composition is all about directing the viewer’s gaze where you want it to go within the picture.  To do this you have to DESIGN the space in such a way, that the viewer’s eyes go where you want it too.  So composition, is in fact, all about design.

And what is the secret to good design?

THE secret to GOOD design is harmonizing contrast and balance <= CLICK TO TWEET

Breaking up Space

Our gaze naturally goes to the center of the page. It is the easier type of compositional placement you can create. But this may cause problems. I will get to that in a bit.

As human beings, when we’re drawing something, our natural tendency is to try to make everything symmetrical. Just like it was with the stick figures in Lesson 3. We want everything to be spaced out evenly and be made to look exactly the same.

This has its place. If you look at icons, symbols and early paintings, they are very symmetrical.  There’s something appealing and beautiful about the balance in symmetry. The apparent “perfection” in symmetry.

There’s nothing really wrong with that. The problem is when symmetry is used when it shouldn’t be.

For example, our natural tendency is to put the center of interest in our drawing or even our photographs, right smack in the middle of the frame. Like this:

When we’re beginning draftsmen, we do this.  We split the page in half and put the center of interest right in the middle.

This is just our natural tendency, but the problem is that, just as a perfectly balanced designs with no contrast tend to be boring, so are most drawings composed this way.

Introducing Contrast

This all gets fixed by introducing a bit of our old friend, contrast.

Let’s take for  example a very basic drawing where you’re going to draw a line for the ground. Where do you usually put it? Right smack in the middle, splitting the drawing in half.


Instead, let’s start by playing  favorites. Lets put the line either above the mid-point:

Or below the mid-point:

Now you have contrast. One side dominates. It’s bigger, while the other side is much smaller. You have now created interest.

Breaking Up the Space with Shapes

So if you don’t put your center of interest (the thing you want people to look at) in the middle, where do you put it?

Well…off center.

Depending on how big or how far off center you move the center of interest though, it can become off balance. If it’s off balance, it will feel strange to the viewer and be dubbed ugly.

So for example, if you put the center of interest on the left, then you have to have something on the right to balance it out. Whatever you use to balance the drawing will often be around the same size and distance away from the main center of interest.

Very much like a scale with the center of the picture acting like a fulcrum:

If the center of interest is going to be larger in the shot or smaller, you’ll probably need to balance that as well. You do this by placing the objects in such a way that, if they were to be put on a scale, they would balance:

The big object above is closer to the fulcrum while the smaller needs to be further away to balance it out.

Here’s the Balancing, in Action

So here’s what it would look like with actual drawings. I took these drawings from a BLACK TERROR KID comic I did for fun a few years ago.

In Figure 1 below, we have a low horizon and the two characters in the shot are both off center but are balanced:

Figure 1

Figure 2 below shows the how the scales balance the picture out:

Figure 2.

Figure 3 below is a much more dynamic angle. One character is closer to the camera making him bigger while the other is further way, making him smaller.

In order to balance out these two contrasting sizes, I had to place the characters in different places on the “scale:

Figure 3.

Figure 4 below shows the example of the scale and how the sizes balance out on them.

Figure 4.

Your Exercise

I’m sure by this point, you’re drawing all kinds of things in margins, and any kind of sheet of paper you can find.

Simply what I want you to do, is when you’re drawing environments or places with ground planes, DON’T split the picture frame in half.

Practice putting the center of interest somewhere other than the center of the frame and find ways to balance it with some other object in the picture.

I’m sure at this point, you’re having all kinds of fun messing around with drawing pictures.


Q: I’m not sure about the whole using a “scale” thing. Does that mean I have to draw a scale every time I draw something?

A: No, the scale was simply an illustration of the thinking involved when you’re attempting to balance a composition.  Most of the time, adjusting the balance of a composition is done intuitively.

Also, the objects that are put in balance do not have to be the same kind of object.  If you draw a character as one object, the balancing object doesn’t have to be another character, it can be a house, a tree, a chair,…whatever. As long as the objects FEEL like they’re balancing each other.

Pro Tip

This is not even the tip of the iceberg on Composition. The subject is too vast. I HAD to pick at least ONE thing to share with you about composition.

Here’s another, very quick tip.  See the header picture up on top of my Kung Fu Character Pen Grier? Notice there’s just a bunch of arrows in the drawing pointing to her face? Even her finger is pointing at her face. That’s another way to think about composition:

Every element in the drawing should point to the center of interest.  Not so obviously as I did in my picture. I drew it that way to make this point (no pun intended).

If you’re subtle about it, you can have everything in a drawing harmoniously point, like a bunch of arrows, to where you want the viewer to look and no one will even notice.

For example, take a close look at this picture. See if you can find all the “arrows” pointing at the character in red:


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning composition questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about composition? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

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