How to Plan and Compose Your Art: A Guide for Beginners

How to Plan and Compose Your Art: A Guide for Beginners 3 example gridded drawings

I’m often asked where I begin and it’s easy to say ‘The eyes’ or ‘a quick outline’ but that’s not the whole truth. As an artist, you have to plan and compose your art before you make a start.

Decide on a niche, source your own reference photos, keep a digital scrapbook, note down good ideas, sketch thumbnails, learn the rule of thirds, learn about lead lines, use focus, crop images, cut and paste image montages.

Of course, there’s far more to it than a brief summary allows. I’ll explain my own planning and composing methods using my drawings as examples, so let’s go into more detail.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

Find Your Art Niche and Target a Subject

The easiest way to stay focused, plan, and compose your art is to specialize, narrow down, and find a niche. It’s so much easier.

When I painted landscapes for a living I was alert to compositions everywhere. I had an inbuilt radar and I couldn’t turn it off.

These days my niche is wildlife art in pencil, and again, as far as art is concerned, I have a one-tracked mind. I target animals.

In truth, it’s not just wildlife, I draw a few domestic animals too, usually because they are so cute I can’t resist it!

A Framed drawing of a Siamese cat by Kevin Hayler. Compose your art example
‘SITTING PRETTY” A drawing by Kevin Hayler

Whatever your passion is, devote your time to the subject. Your aim is to be known for something you do well. Yes, you are pigeon-holing yourself, but believe me, people need to know what you are, what you do, and why you do it. Being a Jack-of-all-trades will get you nowhere.

Plan and Compose Your Art Using Your Own Reference Photos

Where you find your reference photos, is to a large extent, going to be determined by your chosen subject. As mine is animal life I can make it my mission to seek out wildlife in any number of ways.

  • I can go for a stroll in the countryside,
  • A nature reserve,
  • The local park,
  • Visit a zoo,
  • A rescue center,
  • Or a bird table.

Anywhere there is life, there are subjects and compositions. That’s why I don’t confine myself to field trips, I always have a camera with me.

In this day and age, with smartphones being so ubiquitous, I always have something to hand. You never know when something will appear from nowhere.

I remember the day I saw a sparrowhawk take a pigeon right in front of me in the center of town. It refused to let go and stayed there, only a few feet away. I had no camera that day and I was gutted.

I don’t work from life so I need a camera, but if I did, I would still make sure to photograph the subject and catch the light. The brilliance of a landscape can be a fleeting moment and unless you have an extraordinary memory you’ll need to take a photo.

I explore the ins and outs of using your own photos here: Is Drawing From Reference Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?

The same goes for still life and especially flowers. Get the basics drawn but record the color for later.

You don’t need a fancy camera to get started. This Skillshare class shows you how to use your smartphone to take superb shots. Nearly 143,000 happy snappers.

Using Stock Images and Other Sources to Compose Your Art

Many artists choose to do away with seeking their own references altogether and to be honest, I’m perplexed as to know why.

If it’s a commission, or for practice, I can understand but you only have to scroll through Facebook forums and Instagram to realize how many professionals rely on outsourcing their images.

I know that it’s hard to get great images but isn’t that the whole point? It’s hard work and others can’t do it. Taking your own reference photos is half the fun and half the talent.

Don’t ‘borrow’ an image.

Asking permission to paint a photograph you don’t own is essential. Do not think that if you use an image the owner will never find out. I’ve had my art stolen quite a few times and you know what? My fans tipped me off. It could come back to haunt you.

It’s safer to get your permission in writing and make sure you are allowed to reproduce the work. You should make a licensing agreement.

This is essential reading: Can You Copy Art and Sell a Painting of a Painting? I Found Out

There’s one loophole. You can copy and paint anything you like but you can’t reproduce that copy. You can sell it privately but you can’t put it on the web, not without the owner’s permission; that’s a copyright breach.

Photos taken with the Lumix FZ330 camera. More planning and composition ideas using 3 phot references
Take your own photos, they don’t have to be perfect.

The alternative route is to simply buy a stock photo with all the legal stuff done for you. Your choice of subject matter is huge and you can find fantastic images, and so can everyone else.

You can paint the images that other people are painting too. So what’s the point?

There is no satisfaction in making art unless it’s your own work.

Keep a Digital Scrapbook and Save Composition Ideas

After saying all that, I do use other people’s references, and here’s how. I save the images that inspire me as I browse the web, and for a number of different reasons.

I save images that remind me of photos I’ve taken myself. Photos I’ve taken but which lacked something. Sometimes I scroll through Instagram and Eureka! I see the composition my photo could’ve been.

Sometimes I save fantastic compositions I’d never have thought of myself. I want to remember great compositions.

I will also save images for missing details. I might have taken a cracking photo of my own. I have the form, the shadows, and the composition but it’s either out of focus, badly exposed, or missing part of the image altogether. I need references to help me fill in the blanks.

And I’ll use references for scale. For example, if I had my own photo of a songbird on a feeder but I wanted to draw it perching on a twig. I could find a reference photo on the web with that exact information and draw everything to scale.

Lastly, I keep references for authenticity. Inevitably, I’ll end up with plenty of images of captive animals. If I place them in a natural setting, I want them to look real so I use photo references taken in the wild.

Let Yourself Daydream and Compose Your Art

I can’t tell you how important it is to daydream. It’s part of being creative. You’re not wasting time by following a line of thoughts in your head, quite the contrary. Switch off the world around you and let yourself go.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m OK when they see me lost in thought. They don’t realize I’m actually WORKING!

The only way to capture those dreams is to record them before you forget and I keep a notebook handy for that purpose. As soon as a great idea pops into my head, I scribble it down or I make thumbnail sketches. If I don’t the idea will be lost in a puff of smoke the moment I’m distracted.

Notebook with thumbnail sketches
Composition ideas.
Simple thumbnail sketches

Commercial Decisions and Your Choice of Composition

Do you intend to sell your artwork? If so, perhaps it’s wise to take a moment to consider what size works best commercially. Most professional artists will be thinking of making some prints.

It’s easier to sell artwork made to fit standard frame sizes with standard ratios. Forget about artistic integrity for the moment, this is a practical dilemma.

You may know that a panorama will look amazing but when it comes to framing, it’ll cost a fortune. A less fantastic 4 : 3 ratio might be less satisfying but much easier to sell.

You’ll find some very useful standard frame and mat (mount) sizes in this guide: What Size Art Sells Best? Frames and Apertures – FREE Chart

Don’t kid yourself that quality is the only factor worth considering when it comes to buying art. The public is only too aware of the costs and inconvenience of bespoke framing. It’s enough to put many customers off.

You can bypass their inconvenience by making it your own problem and providing the frames yourself. The financial rewards would be higher but the storage/breakages/transport is a nightmare.

Think long and hard before you let your heart overrule your head. It can be costly.

And then there’s that other bugbear, color schemes.

Like it or not, your art is likely to be chosen or rejected solely on the basis of color coordination. Pictures are interior decor and as such, must compliment the color scheme.

Get to grips with color with this practical skillshare class by Brooke Glaser. Lots of students and great reviews.

As most people are conservative in their tastes and their living spaces are meant to give them peace, a violent color palette will restrict your market. You have to think about it.

My work is in graphite. I win in one way because black and white images don’t clash. I lose in another because black and white art has less value. It’s all about compromise.

How to Construct a Strong Composition

You’ve probably read about the rule of thirds. If not, you’ve doubtless seen the grid that appears in the viewfinder of your camera. The idea is to align the focal point or horizon along the grid lines to find a pleasing balance.

lion drawing with a rule of thirds grid. Composition rules
‘LION COUNTRY’ – The rule of thirds works well

There are other ‘rules’ that you might come across, like the ‘golden ratio’ and ‘golden spiral’. Don’t waste your life reading about them. Over-complicated mathematics.

I have a far simpler way. You look for an ‘L’ shape. and place it off-center. Don’t go too close to the edge on any one side. What’s complicated about that?

Don’t be a slave to rules, you’re not bound by them.

When you scroll to the tiger drawing below you will see the rule of thirds working on the horizontal plane but the focal point is slap-bang in the middle. There are endless variations.

Using Lead Lines to Add Depth To Your Composition

Pleasing compositions take your eye into the picture. Think about roads, pathways, and rivers disappearing into the distance.

Composition using lead-lines to draw the eye into the picture. A pencil drawing of a steam train by Kevin Hayler
An old sketch demonstrating lead lines

I’ve created the depth in this drawing in two ways. Strong lead lines draw you in and the tones become progressively lighter as your eye is directed towards the far steam engine.

This post explores depth further: How to Create Depth in Your Drawing: 7 Expert Techniques

Darker at the front and lighter at the back. It’s that easy.

Focus can be used in the same way. It de-clutters an image and allows the focal point to pop out. Sometimes, it’s what you leave out, not what you leave in.

Change the Focus to Add Depth to Your Composition

This is blatant theft, inspired by photography. We can all appreciate how depth of field can transform a simple photo into something special. Artists and illustrators can contrive the same effect.

Take a look at this one.

Pencil drawing of a tiger lying in the grass. Depth-of-field out-of-focus effect.

This is an early piece of artwork, drawn way before I used the internet and before I’d ever seen a wild tiger. I visited the London Zoo and took several photos of this Sumatran tiger.

I didn’t use another reference, I guessed how the grass might look if it was out of focus. The intention was to make the focal point sharp and the rest blurry. It was hit and miss and luckily, it worked.

The same principle could be applied to other compositions. There’s no reason why you couldn’t have a sharp central subject and purposefully apply a receding blur to create a depth of field effect.

Another way of creating a blurred effect on your image is to use the ‘Gaussian Blur’ tool in Photoshop (and most photo editors). Move the slider to the right and your photo will dissolve in front of your eyes. Save the image and copy the bits you need.

Cut and Paste a Montage to Compose Your Art

In this section, I’ll show you how to compose your art by using a pick and mix approach.

I have an array of images. All have elements that I like but nothing works by itself. It makes sense to cherry-pick the good bits and stitch them all together.

Let’s look at the example below.

three pygmy elephants pencil drawing. A compact composition of 3 elephants.
‘Kindred Spirits’ by Kevin Hayler

These are three wild pygmy elephants playing on a riverbank. I took the photos in Borneo but were they really posing like this? No, it’s called artistic license. They all posed like this, but separately. I re-arranged them.

Three pygmy elephants in Borneo.
Reference photos for planning a pencil drawing
These are my original references

All three elephants were really playing together, the light was coming from the same direction, and the scale was not an issue. All I had to do was tweak the contrast and cut and paste the images together. I removed the color to help me with the tones.

I could’ve drawn just two elephants and saved a ton of time but when it comes to visual impact, odd numbers tend to win. This one is immeasurably better as a group of three.

You’ll need a photo editor to make life easy. This is another great class by Cat Coquillette on Skillshare (affiliate) about Photoshop basics.

How to Crop an Image For Better Compositions

There is no reason to use all of an image. Selective cropping can produce remarkable results from an otherwise mediocre image.

I can often recognize that something exists in a photo but I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that’s grabbing my attention. As often as not, the photo needs cropping.

Here’s a good example.

zebra photo composition and the zebra pencil drawing
‘STRIPES’ From a simple cropped photo to a good little drawing.

You can see how my original photo was lackluster, to say the least. But it had ‘something’ waiting to be discovered.

Even the most uninspiring photos can have potential. Just look at the reference photo I used as the basis for one of my most popular drawings.

jaguar drawing in the planning process.
How to plan a drawing

I took the photo in Singapore Zoo at feeding time. I stood at the back, behind the kids, and hoped for the best. And this tiny image was the result. Not a classic but the pose was fantastic.

As you can see I cropped the image tight around the jaguar and enlarged it enough to use as a reference. I darkened the background to emphasize the subject and simulated the rocky foreground.

This is typical of my working method. You do not need award-winning photographs!

If all else fails try an extreme close-up. The prize is often in the eyes.

How to Make a Grid For Easy Copying

I like to save my composition to a file and get a real photograph made. If you are comfortable with photoshop you can also layer a grid over the image. It’s not essential but it is time-saving and accurate.

Read this about scaling your work: How to Scale Up a Drawing in 4 Easy Ways to Save Time

I photocopy my photo and make several enlargements and choose the size I prefer drawing. I always draw on an A3 sheet of paper so I want my drawing to fit within those dimensions.

If you haven’t applied a grid already in Photoshop, grid up your photocopy. It MUST be accurate. This is a tedious task but you must do it properly.

N.B. If you need a free alternative to Photoshop try (affiliate) It’s free to use online (with adverts) or you can upgrade to a paid plan and download the software.

Now measure the borderline and use a set square to draw a perfect rectangle on the paper.

Be equally as accurate in marking out the grid on your drawing paper as you were before. Now very carefully, draw the lightest grid possible. Don’t press hard because you will score the paper and make it impossible to rub the marks away.

You can now draw the outline of your drawing, size for size, and one grid box at a time. Slow but straightforward.

Have ever dreamed of selling your art for a living but don’t know where to start? I can show you how to do it the practical way, Step-by-Step!

Selling art made simple digital guide for starting a small art business

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Check this out!

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Planning and Composing Your Art – Final Thoughts

There’s more to creating art than inspiration alone. It takes planning to turn your ‘light-bulb moment’ into a presentable work of art. It’s both frustrating and elating in equal measure.

It’s tempting to get stuck in while you’re in the mood but it’s a gamble. My best drawings work because they were carefully considered and unfortunately, it takes time.

Take my advice, plan and compose your art in advance.

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How to Plan and Compose Your Art: A Guide for Beginners