How to make a good art composition: start the right way!

Note: even though I refer to “drawing” in today’s post, the tips that I offer can be applied to drawing and painting.

Composition is complicated, and it’s vitally important to a drawing because it helps an artist communicate effectively. 

How can beginning artists achieve get a good composition when they don’t know all of the "rules" of composition? In today’s post, I’ll show you a very simple tip that will help you improve your compositions right away.

The foundation of a good composition

Before making thumbnails, even before making decisions about what  to include in the drawing, the most important thing to do to improve a composition is to ensure that the drawing will be made in the same proportion as the reference or view that’s being drawn.

In other words, if you are using a reference image that’s 6x4, make sure that the drawing size is either 6x4 or a direct proportion of it, such as 3x2, 12x8 or 18x12. If you crop a reference image to an odd size, check that your drawing area is in the same proportion.

illustrates drawing proportion sizes

When sketching from life, it’s also helpful to use the first few minutes to use something that will frame your scene so that the extraneous information is unavailable and you aren’t tempted to add it in to your drawing, such as making your fingers into an "L" and holding them up to frame the view. This will help with seeing the forms that line up at the edges of the drawing.

Having the correct boundary for a drawing, even before you start thinking about tone, color and changes to details, sets it up for success. You’ll have an easier time locating shapes without having to stretch or shrink edges in order to make things “fit” into a drawing area that doesn’t match what you see.

How do you figure out what proportions are right for your composition? By using a viewcatcher!


What's a viewcatcher?

Viewcatchers (also called a viewfinders) are tools used by artists to analyze a scene for a good composition. They are constructed simply, and can be purchased or hand made.

If you do an internet search for viewcatchers, you’ll see there are a variety of different options available. I highly recommend using one that has a sliding window. It provides more options for drawing sizes than a fixed window.

I also recommend that you not start with the traditional "L"- shaped pieces of matte board. This type of viewfinder is helpful for seeing boundaries but it’s also difficult to hold, especially if you're also holding a pencil or sketchbook. And since you can use your fingers in the same way, why bother carrying around extra stuff?

For beginners, a sliding-window viewcatcher is a better choice because the window can be adjusted for various sizes and still be used by one hand. It's also small, so it fits easily into a plein air or urban sketching kit. 

You can purchase one, or you can make your own. I made mine by following the instructions here.

a square cardboard cut into an artist's viewcatcher

The cost of a store-bought viewcatcher can be $10 or more, while the homemade version costs practically nothing. I made mine using the cardboard that came from an empty pad of Bristol paper, Elmer’s glue, a ruler, pencil, and utility knife. A cereal box may be a bit too flimsy, but you can always glue two pieces of cereal box together to get a thicker piece. If making your own, the most important part is measuring and cutting the pieces accurately, but it will save you some money. 

How to use a viewcatcher

Once you have your viewcatcher, you simply hold it up and look through it to find a composition.

If you have a standard drawing size in mind, adjust the slider so that the window is in the correct proportion. Then move your body towards or away from the subject to adjust the amount within the view.

If you are more concerned about what is within the view than the drawing size, use the viewfinder with a full open window, find your subject, adjust your body position to get it sized, and then use the window to crop out parts that aren't needed in the view.

How easy is that?

Believe it or not, I struggled for years with things like perspective and drawing accurate shapes simply because I didn’t realize that my drawing area wasn’t proportional to  my reference view. It’s frustrating to get halfway through a drawing and realize that parts of it don’t fit in correctly. My proportions didn’t seem right, especially in landscapes.

And it was all due to having a paper size that was different from my reference images, or because I was trying to fit too much into the drawing space when working from life.

I hope you try this out and let me know how it works. Does it help you, as well?


I enjoy all kinds of media and love sharing the knowledge I have in regards to techniques and applications. Whether I'm demonstrating a particular skill or showing a painting in progress, my goal is to motivate others to create.

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