The composition sketch

One of the most rewarding things a fine artist could choose to do, in my opinion, is sharing his or her artistic process with others. I’ll never forget what a sense of responsibility came over me when, some years ago, I was asked to teach drawing lessons for the first time.
Before I started teaching, I was never truly aware of what I was doing when I set up a drawing or painting. I just relied on my intuition.
But of course I couldn’t tell my students to do the same… what kind of teacher would say: ‘Just trust your inner artist and you’ll be fine!’ Not one I would want to learn from, that’s for sure!
Preparing for my first art course, I pushed myself to objectively analyse my own artistic process in order to find the underlying structure of all the stages I went through when I would make an artwork. I wanted to translate the complex world of drawing and painting into simple principles that anyone could understand. My feeling was and still is, that the success of my students strongly depends on my ability to communicate a clear vision. 
I doubt that I’ve succeeded in doing so in the beginning of my teaching career, but after gaining a few years of experience, I think I’ve found the right way to explain my idea of the essence of drawing and painting from life.

Unfortunately I don’t know when I’ll be allowed to teach live art classes again and since I miss it so much, I consider teaching online by placing video content. However, recording myself feels very awkward and I prefer to share my knowledge with you through the written word, until I find the courage to talk to the camera.


In today’s blogpost I want to offer you an insight into my first steps of creating an artwork, since I often get questions about it.
Those of you who have been following me for some time, probably know that I always paint alla prima, which means I don’t use an underpainting, but I place my colourful brushstrokes directly on the blank panel, trying to complete the work while it is still wet, in one layer.
Because I don’t have a tonal underpainting to hold on to during the painting process, I need something else to guide me: a composition sketch, which is a small and quick drawing that should capture the essence of the subject. This sketch is meant to serve as a reminder of what my first impression was, in case I should lose it during the more advanced painting stages, when it is easy to get confused by the complex world of detail.
The little drawing, which is never bigger than a postcard, should store important composition choices, such as the shape of the frame, the main distribution of values and the focal point(s). It is a simplified, abstract overview of what the final work should look like.

Recognizing the beauty
The first thing I ask myself and my students to think about when choosing how to portray a certain subject, whether it is a person, a still life, an interior or a landscape, is: ‘What is the beauty of this particular subject?’

And the answer can be anything, really. It can be the way a person tilts his or her head or the way the light falls on someone’s face. It can be a repetition of diagonal lines in a landscape or curving ones in a bush of roses. It can be the solid shape of an apple against the fluffiness of a soft fabric or a bouquet of wild flowers. It doesn’t matter where you think the beauty of a subject lies, as long as you can see it somewhere. When you absolutely hate what you see, or when you’re not completely sure you like your subject from a particular angle, better not waste your time and find something you do like to paint instead.

The next step would be to find a way to portray and emphasize the beauty you saw in your subject and for that you need to know how to create a strong image. Of course, there are a million different views when it comes to the laws of composition and some of them are highly technical and sometimes difficult to understand. I’m sure a lot of us have often been puzzled by the intricate composition lines you see in art books when masterpieces are being analysed. For those who’re having a hard time to get a grip on something as abstract as composition, here’s a comparison which I think is very helpful and easy to grasp.

Fine art and poetry
In order to explain what a good painting or drawing is about, I like to make a comparison with the power of poetry.
In the more traditional poems we recognize a repeating pattern of rhythm or rhyme, which creates a harmony. In the same way, in a more traditional painting, there should be a repeating pattern of certain values, colours, lines and structures in order to create unity and, therefore, harmony.
However, what we also often see in conventional poems is that their structure doesn’t need to be the same from start to finish. For example, the poet could choose to start using a different rhyme halfway a poem or to make the last two lines of the work clash with the rhythmic pattern of all the previous lines.
What happens when we encounter such a change, is that we take a pause to think. We suppose those last lines do not sound like the rest, because they have a special meaning and they must be important to the understanding of the poem. When things differ from the general pattern, they grab our attention!
The same principle applies to the fine arts: you should create a harmony of repetitions and then break it! Somewhere in the visual rhythm of an image there should be something that stands out from the rest, something that differs from all those lines, values, textures and colours without losing its connection with the whole: the focal point.

Creating focus
A focal point is an area of an artwork where the viewer’s eye is drawn to and determining where it should be is one of the most important steps in the composition phase.
Remember I said the first thing I do when I start a painting or drawing is becoming aware of the beauty of my subject? That’s what I want to emphasize, that’s where my focal point is going to be.

Creating a focal point can be done in several ways, but the easiest is through the use of contrast. Because this blogpost is about the composition sketch and I want to keep things simple, I’m going to stick to the hierarchy you can create with limited means. Limited, because you have little time, little space and no colour when making a sketch.

One way of leading the viewer’s eye to a certain area, is by making lines point in that direction as I did in the sketch for the painting ‘Above Nonza’. As you can see, almost all the lines are pointing towards the left part of the composition, where the sunlit water meets the dark rocks. Which brings me directly to  the use of tonal contrast to create a focal point.
As the name suggests, the tonal contrast is created when dark tones or values are put alongside light ones. The greater the difference between the two, the more dramatic the effect.
By placing light shapes near dark ones in one specific area while keeping the values in the rest of the painting more subtle, you’ll have no problem making clear which part of the composition is the most important. In the sketch for ‘Above Nonza’ you can see that the tonal contrast is most powerful in the bottom left corner, even though the effect is not as strong as it could be, because of the diffuse evening light. More straightforward is the sketch for ‘The Pilgrim’, where the sunlit roses really jump off the dark background, forcing the viewer to look at them first, before exploring the rest of the composition.

Sketch for Prickly Pears
Prickly pears, final drawing
Sketch for Above Nonza
Above Nonza, final painting
Sketch for The Pilgrim
The Pilgrim, final painting

Sometimes it isn’t one single area you want the viewer’s eye to rest upon, but an entire movement. In the sketch for ‘A Monti Mannu’ I wanted to emphasize the curve of the water stream and I did so by placing dark and light tones along that curve. That was also my aim in Prickly Pears, where the bending line starts in the bottom left corner and goes upwards to the right.
Another thing you may want to look at during the sketching stage is the effect of different kinds of edges. Sharp contours create a stunning tension around your focal point when used in combination with slightly fuzzier edges in the less important areas of your work. Be careful not to overdo it though, for you do not want most part of your drawing or painting to look blurred, like in a photograph. At least, I wouldn’t! 

As I mentioned earlier, there are tons of ways to create a focal point, but using lines pointing towards it, tonal contrasts and different kinds or edges, are the three most important during the sketching stage. We’ll come to the other ones in another blogpost.

The frame
Knowing where to place your focal point is just as important as being able to create one.
After you’ve decided what your focus is going to be, you might want to think about the kind of frame you want to use. Many people go for the conventional rectangle, without even thinking of doing something else, even when a square or an elongated frame would have suited their goal much better. If you want to emphasize the infinity of a wide landscape, you probably should go for a more panoramic frame instead of a square. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a way to express, let’s say, the coziness of your home’s interior, than a square could very well be the best choice. Each frame has its own character and it would be foolish not to consider an unusual shape, just because it isn’t something you’d normally do.

Sketch for A Monti Mannu
A Monti Mannu, final painting

While looking for the right frame, you should also think about the placement of your focal point inside it. Should it be in the middle, or in the highest corner? By making a lot of little composition sketches, you can try different options and choose the best. Which of course depends completely on the effect you want to achieve or the story you want to tell… but that’s another story, and I’ll write about it in a later blogpost.

Dealing with changing factors
I always start my drawing or painting session by making one or more small composition sketches, whether I’m going to paint a quick portrait indoors or a challenging plein air landscape. Especially when painting outside, where the light is constantly changing, it is extremely helpful to make a five to ten minutes sketch beforehand. Without a clear idea of what my final work should look like, I would be lost and unable to deal with the altering light situation. For example, when I was painting The Pilgrim I had decided to make the roses, whose light contrasted strongly with the background, my focal point. However, because of the turning of the sun, the background would become lighter and lighter as the minutes flew by, softening a contrast that should have been quite sharp! Thanks to the clear goal I set myself before starting to paint, I could deal with the changing situation by quickly capturing the essence of my focal point, like I had done in my sketch.

I often consider the turning of the sun or the sudden appearance of clouds in a blue sky a complete nuisance, but sometimes the change of weather can improve a composition and if I have made an effective sketch that illustrates my goal as it should, I can quickly realize what will and what won’t make the image stronger. While making the sketch for ‘Above Nonza’, there was feeble sunlight shining on the rocks in the right part of my composition, making the contrast between them and the water not so great. However, as I got further in the painting process, the light on the rocks disappeared and they became dark, while the seawater between them became lighter, because of the reflection of the white clouds. A beautiful tonal contrast was created, exactly in my focal point!

When I teach my painting course I sometimes find there’s some resistance from the students when I ask them to make several sketches before starting to paint. I completely understand their urge to grab their oils and watch the beautiful colours flow, but most painting results won’t be good if the composition in not thought through properly. When you’re painting a portrait, for instance, the longer you look at the face of your subject, the more details you will see: a particularly well shaped curl, a pimple, a highlight on the nose, a bulging vein or whatever… 
All those things are begging you to paint them right away, but if you do so without considering the whole, without considering the essential choices you made in your composition, you’ll get a final work that lacks hierarchy and strength.

There is plenty more to be said on the subject, but I’ll save that for another time. I hope you found this blogpost useful reading and if you have any thoughts to share or burning questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to get back to you!

See you next time!

6 thoughts on “The composition sketch”

  1. Sjoerdje Winkelaar

    Hallo Anna Maria, heb je deze blog ook in het Nederlands? Voor mij dan wat gemakkelijker te begrijpen. Wel heel leuk dat je dit doet. Ik denk dat ik er veel van kan leren.
    Hartelijke groet,
    Sjoerdje Winkelaar

    1. Anna Maria Vargiu

      Hallo Sjoerdje, bedankt voor je reactie. Helaas is deze blog niet in het Nederlands, want het zou voor mij te veel werk zijn om alles te moeten vertalen. Ik schrijf in het Engels, zodat ik mensen kan bereiken die door de grote afstand niet mijn ‘live lessen’ kunnen bijwonen. Wanneer ik mijn Nederlandstalige workshops en cursussen in Groningen weer oppak, ben je van harte welkom! Hartelijke groet, Anna Maria

    1. Anna Maria Vargiu

      Hi Carol, I’m glad you liked it and, most importantly, that you found it useful. I’m actually busy writing a new post about my drawing technique right now and hope to launch it at the beginning of next week.

  2. Tip voor Nederlandse lezers. Kopieer de tekst en vertaal hem met Dat kan Anna Maria trouwens ook zelf doen. De eerste alinea (zonder enige handmatige correcties) wordt dan zo:

    In de blogpost van vandaag wil ik jullie een inzicht geven in mijn eerste stappen bij het maken van een kunstwerk, aangezien ik daar vaak vragen over krijg.
    Degenen die mij al een tijdje volgen, weten waarschijnlijk dat ik altijd alla prima schilder, wat betekent dat ik geen onderschildering gebruik, maar mijn kleurrijke penseelstreken direct op het lege paneel zet, waarbij ik probeer het werk te voltooien terwijl het nog nat is, in één laag.
    Omdat ik geen tonale onderschildering heb om me aan vast te houden tijdens het schilderen, heb ik iets anders nodig om me te oriënteren: een compositieschets, dat is een kleine en snelle tekening die de essentie van het onderwerp moet vastleggen. Deze schets is bedoeld als herinnering aan wat mijn eerste indruk was, voor het geval ik die zou verliezen tijdens de meer gevorderde schilderfasen, wanneer het gemakkelijk is om verward te raken door de complexe wereld van details.
    De kleine tekening, die nooit groter is dan een briefkaart, moet belangrijke compositiekeuzes opslaan, zoals de vorm van het kader, de hoofdverdeling van de waarden en het (de) brandpunt(en). Het is een vereenvoudigd, abstract overzicht van hoe het uiteindelijke werk eruit moet zien.

    Heel acceptabel toch? Werkt ook in veel andere talen.

    1. Anna Maria Vargiu

      Dank je wel! Ik dacht altijd dat automatisch gegenereerde vertalingen niets waard waren, maar ik heb inmiddels een vertaalknop geïnstalleerd!

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