So you say that you’ve been studying art for a while now? Well, I think it’s that time we dive into one area of study that is often ignored.
Somehow this pillar of art is last on many an artist’s list because it doesn’t seem like there is a science to it. And I was one of those artists for a long time.
Anyway, this fundamental of art is called Composition.
It is literally the ART of arranging and presenting your ART. I know that may sound confusing but it means that there is actually a skill to be learned about how to combine several elements in a visual way.
Many artists leave this area of study up to intuition or how they ‘feel’ but that is not a great way to execute consistently.
That’s because, we all instinctively know when something looks appealing.
However if you can learn the secrets of great composition and thus what makes a great piece of art, you can replicate them in your own work.
In this tutorial, I’m going to collate much of the information out there and show you guys the simple and effective ways to make composition work for you.
I’m excited so let’s get going.
What Makes Good Art
I know what I’m about to say is subjective but stick with me.
Most people would admit that it’s somewhat hard to pin down what they like about their favorite artwork. That’s because what makes great art is hidden within a collection of individual elements.
So the big takeaway here is that it is never just one thing.
Asking what’s the biggest difference between an amateurs art and a masters, is a trick question. The difference is, in fact, everything. All of the elements an artist includes in their work end up equaling something greater than the elements themselves.
And good composition has the ability to boost the collective even further.
Here’s an example: Say you are drawing. Imagine that every time you absolutely nail the execution of one of the fundamentals (anatomy, shading, etc) you get to mark a Level Up Tally on ‘a list’. The more Level Up Tallies you get, the more your final result will look more impressive and shine as an outstanding piece of art.
Now, we know that a scorecard list doesn’t exist 1:1 like that but that's the way to think about the elements of art. Good anatomy + good perspective + good values + good line quality etc. = GREAT ART.
With that in mind, let’s explore further.
What Makes A Killer Composition
I’m going to be as plain as I can with this.
A good composition is really just ‘a good mix’. Just like in a cake recipe, there is a list of ingredients that must be included to have a cake be the end result.
Not only that but there is also an ideal ratio of those ingredients that must be followed to produce a great tasting dessert.
So if we apply that to art, it means that we need to pay attention to TWO things for great composition in art.
1. The ingredients themselves
2. How they are distributed on the page
We already know a lot of what ‘ingredients’ make a good piece of art. Just go down the list of tutorials here on HTDC.net and you will quickly get an answer.
For composition, it’s all about #2. I like to break it up into 4 sub categories that all start with ‘F’:
Focus - Where you want the viewer to look.
Fibonacci - Using ratio’s to make creative decisions
Flow - How do the elements piece together on the page.
Feel - The intended emotional reaction
Let’s start with Focus.
Picking a Focus
This part is actually pretty straight forward if you think about the objective of any given piece of art. Here are some of the most common focuses.
The first focal point is a big one for comic books, the Action! With action, it’s all about making the viewer experience it along with the characters.
Next is the most obvious choice, character faces. Since we are hardwired to look at a person’s face for communication through speech and expressions, this is a no-brainer. If the there is a main character in the shot, you better be leading the viewer to look at their face.
The third choice, is featuring a major prop used in the story. Just like with a main character, featuring the main items or grand objects in a story should be an intentional choice.
Last but not least, is the catch-all category: Story Points. The most important part of creating an image is to tell a story about what is happening.
Without this focus, you are just drawing figures and volumes on a piece of paper. Go out of your way to highlight the story point in any given scene and you will be rewarded with an audience that is living the plot along with you.
Directing The Focus
So we want the viewer to look at a certain thing in our picture, right? Let’s dive into ways that we can do that. Keep in mind that illustrations tend to have a few focal points and each one will take more or less priority over the others.
For now, let’s just work on how to get the viewer’s eye to move around the page.
Lines - This I think is the most straight forward method. Simply use objects’ contours to ‘point toward’ where you want the viewer to look. Once you know your focus, like a characters face, you should intentionally use line-work to point back toward the focus whenever possible.
Detail - With comic art a big style choice is adding texture and details with rendering like cross-hatching. The idea here is to add more detail, crisp lines, and attention to the focal point. The more detail you add to a certain area, the more people want look at it.
Value - This is the strongest way to direct the focus of your viewer. Our eyes see light and shadow and when there is a high amount of contrast between the two in a certain area we automatically look at that spot first.
Saturation - This applies only to colored illustrations but giving your focal point a saturation boost will immediately make people want to look at it. It is a great secondary tool if you end up coloring your own work.
Remember when I mentioned the cake recipe and it having a ratio of ingredients? If only we had a ratio for making art appealing, too.
Thankfully the ratio is something people have already discovered and there are many ways it can be applied. This ratio is found in nature and it seems to be replicated in all areas of our environment.
This ratio is commonly called The Golden Ratio. In mathematics, it’s called the Fibonacci Sequence (note the name of the category). For artists, all we really need to know is that if you divide things into thirds, they tend to look more attractive and alive. It’s a brilliant guideline for all artists.
Alright! Let’s keep moving on.
The Rule of Thirds
Rule of Thirds is just another way of saying the golden ratio or the Fibonacci Sequence and it’s a great first step toward making an interesting composition. Like I said before, it applies to how visuals are divided within your picture frame. Check this out:
There are several ways in which you can use this grid, but the important thing is to always keep these divisions in mind.
Here’s how to use the grid: Simply place objects or characters of focus in the areas where the grids intersect. Even placing any old element of your art on these guides will help improve the appeal.
This grid can be placed into any panel size or frame size. It will always work for you if you set this up early in your conceptualization stage of the art making.
There is however another ratio for arranging objects in your art frame and its called the Silver Ratio. It is not as well known but I think it’s worth knowing and probably should be taught more. Here it is:
As you can see the grid lines are divided in half and then in quarters. This layout will give off a ‘forced’ look but that is the whole point. Having backdrops, characters or effects line up with exact halfway and quarter marks on your frame will instantly make your art more appealing.
The difference between the Golden and Silver Ratio’s is the affect on the viewer.
The Golden Ratio is a more hidden, natural effect where the Silver Ratio seems so unnatural, it starts to look interesting. The key here is again, FOCUS.
More Rule of Thirds
At some point in my intermediate art learning I heard something that has since stuck with me and I use it all the time in my work. Here it is:
Just as you use the Golden Ratio to guide you with placement of elements within the picture frame, you can also you use it for a guide in ALL questions of ‘how much?’ And there are a ton of these questions.
How much crosshatching should I use? How much warm or cold colors should I use? How many background characters should I include? How much detail should I include? How much farther should I push this pose? How organic or rigid should this be?
These questions are endless but the Golden Ratio will help you answer them all.
It’s actually very simple: Use The Golden Ratio to make an asymmetrical dynamic relationship. That means one element of FOCUS will get to be more dominant ( 2/3’s worth) while the other element will take the back stage (1/3 worth).
As you can see, composition is all about making intentional choices about where you want the viewer to look and what you want the viewer to feel.
This concept of composition is a combination of having line-work that leads the eye toward what you want and at the same time not including things that interrupt it.
In comics, we have to be concerned with flow in many ways depending on the scope in which you pay attention to it.
At the highest level, artists should be aware of story flow. An easy example of story flow is drawing characters consistently from page to page.
If we break up a story into individual pages, we are then presented with a different challenge: page flow. There are tons of techniques to lead the viewer through the page including word bubble placement.
And finally most applicable to this tutorial is panel flow; one single illustrations flow.
Just like how a character has a line of action, any given shot should have one too. There are a lot of ways to do this but one way is to have characters line-work sync with the background and secondary elements.
A great trick to having good flow is starting out with shapes as the foundation of your art. Diamonds, squares, triangles and circles are all options.
Let’s just say you picked a circle and you want to have a character running toward the action in a dynamic way.
Well, you might tell yourself how do I make my character circular when my character isn’t round? The answer is to only use the shape as a guide for your characters running gesture.
If executed well, there will be an inherent flow to the motion and it will even seem more appealing that just some photo of a person running. That’s because you designed it to look extra interesting.
How do we make the viewer feel a certain way when looking at our art? That is, in fact, one of the big goals you should have when making an illustration. That feeling a viewer has is the emotional connection that will be the difference between them liking your work and loving it.
So let’s dive into the underlying principles of why we feel certain ways about different visuals.
This one is the most basic of principles but it also holds the most true. And it’s all based around gravity. We all have to live with gravity fighting us everyday so we relate on a subconscious level to certain orientations.
Horizontal orientations of shapes will produce a calm and still mood.
Vertical orientations are resisting gravity and will seem to be more energized.
Diagonal orientations are not in a position of stability, but show motion and action.
Try to think of use cases in story form for all of these orientations. Also, remember these orientations when layout a comic page with panels. Each panel can give off a particular feeling just from its shape alone.
Again, this all has to do with our subconscious mind and how we relate to the world. Putting an object in a certain position within a frame will give off a particular vibe that the viewer can’t help but feel.
The ‘Almost Off-Frame’ position is a great way to show that the object is in transit and also not important to the current story point.
Centered positions show that the object is very important.
Bottom Locations will show that the object is grounded and ordinary.
Upper Locations show that the object is extraordinary and powerful.
This is a very understandable breakdown of shape language. We are subconsciously aware of things that can break the skin on our bodies so naturally pointed shapes seem more dangerous than round shapes.
This can be applied to any character, environment or story design. So make those villains pointy!
Size Within the Frame
The relationship between things in your scene and within the picture frame is very important. The larger the object the more important it is to the reader.
That means if you objects are the same size in the shot, they hold the same value to the story. If you pose a character closer to the camera while the other character is more in the distance, the closer / larger character will feel more dominant to the other character.
Shape vs Color
Here I have a few examples but they all break down in to one simple concept.
Humans can differentiate between colors faster that we can differentiate between shapes. That means even if shapes are similar, we will notice that the colors are different first.
Notice how you only have to look at the top right box for an instant to know that there are only two colors while it may take you an extra second to see the the difference in shapes.
Scale and Location
The last principle is about scale. If you have similar shapes that get smaller next to each other we will very quickly associate that with perspective. The same with how objects overlap each other. This instantly tell us one object is closer than the other.
This last example is one about distances. In a situation where a dangerous shape is getting close to a character. We will feel more scared of the distance than the action. That’s because the fear of the unknown is stronger than the fear of anything else.
Use this to your advantage when creating conflict in your stories.
I know that was a lot but you can always refer back here to remind yourself of the principles. Also, if you want a more detailed explanation of all these concepts you should read Picture This by Molly Bang.
Applying the Concepts
Now, it’s time to practice utilizing these concepts to create an interesting composition or comp for short. I think the best way to practice this is to have a clear goal in mind. Take a minute to think up a mini story point to try and illustrate.
Here’s what I came up with:
An adventure hero is in search of a legend that could save his people. He’s made it through a dangerous forest that no one has dared traverse only to find a cliffside dead-end.
Disheartened he looks to the horizon and he’s taken back by the sight of a colossal monolith. It seems the journey has only just begun…
Okay! It’s a little generic but that is all you need to practice putting your intentions into your work.
First, start with a few bullet points of what you are focusing on, and make them in order of priority. Actually write them down, because once you start drawing you may forget your original goals.
1. Protagonist - Courageous
2. Monolith - It’s legendary
3. Journey - There is much more to traverse.
With those written out, all that is left is to list a technique that you can use to make the visuals match the focal points.
1. Put the character in a dangerous spot using pointy shapes around him, and isolate him in frame.
2. Place the monolith in the center, upper quadrant to show its divine nature and importance. Also make its shape bigger than the character in frame.
3. Use overlapping shapes, and value to show the distance of the remaining journey.
Cool! Now we can start drawing.
Do your best to incorporate what we’ve learned about composition to get a nice rough sketch. Keep in mind the Golden Ratio, Rule of Thirds, Focal Points and all the Principles of Feeling.
As you can see I’ve used the Silver Ratio here instead of the Rule of Thirds. It still works because I was able to push the character farther away from the monolith and isolate him on the edge of the pointy cliff.
I also used a circular shape to keep a good flow.
I utilized silhouettes of the environment as well as birds and wind lines to keep the circular shape present. I do feel like the shape is not as strong as it could be so in the next refined drawing I adjust many things to keep the circular flow.
Okay! Now, draw a new layer of line work and adjust your composition to further push your focal points and the feeling you want the viewer to have.
Excellent! You don’t have to be super refined with your execution of lines and anatomy. The key thing in this exercise is re-centering your mind on just the composition.
I am a fan of how the energy flares I’ve incorporated into the shot add to the importance of the monolith and makes the character even smaller.
Also note that I’ve used thicker line weights in the foreground to push the distant environment even farther away from the character.
Moving Forward With Composition
Great Work! Like I said in the beginning, creating a great composition is an art in itself and it will take time and practice to get good at it.
I suggest you go look at all your favorite artworks and breakdown what makes them good compositions. I think you will find that they all share many of the concepts talked about in this tutorial.
With examples that mean something to you, you will have an easier time seeing the circumstances in which each tool of composition can be applied.
Before You Go
I know this was heady and a beast of a tutorial, so you should be proud of your dedication to improving your art. There are tons ways to approach composition and the concepts I have brought up here are not the only ones.
Do your own research and find cool ways to make your art stand out. As comic artists, remember the goal is always to tell a story, so look out for unique ways to show different emotions and plot devices in a visual way.
You’ve got this!
As always, I’m so excited to be writing all these tutorials for HTDC and I encourage you to check out all of the other great, free ones here on the site!
There is a growing community at howtodrawcomics.net and all their social media pages so get in there and ask for feedback on your work.
Feedback is key to learning.
For some of you who are ambitious, I would also recommend checking out the Mentorship program as well for more honed progress with a pro. If you have any questions regarding this lesson, please leave a comment or DM me on Twitter or Instagram @catapanoart.
And, lastly, if you like my work, I have a successfully crowdfunded comic book called STAR CIRCUIT. If you like sci-fi and cyberpunk you can learn more about it at veraviastudios.com.
Thank you for reading.
Tutorial by Joe Catapano