13 principles of good graphic composition that you should master

There are 13 principles to consider in order to produce a high-quality graphic composition.

If remembered and practiced, these essential principles, discussed and summarised in the list below, can assure an artist of excellence.

1 Start Small

Starting a drawing on a small scale, such as a thumbnail sketch, enables you to study the overall value and composition easily. A small sketch also takes less time to complete than larger formats and allows you to work out problems that might ruin a large drawing.

1 start small

TIP: Begin with a sheet of paper no larger than an A4 (8 ½ by 11 inches). Complete a single drawing which you can use as a study drawing or can enlarge to any desired size for other purposes.

2 Less is More

Often when too much time is spent on a drawing, it becomes overworked and loses one of the most important principles of graphics: white space. Applying less time may produce a better drawing.

2 Less is More

TIP: Allow yourself a limited time to spend on a drawing, and when the time is up, stop. Remember, you can never do a “perfect” drawing no matter how much time you allow; even the best drawing will have room for improvement.

3 Don’t Touch Edges

Be careful not to let lines touch the edges of the paper, and leave a white border along the edge of a drawing. This helps to assure sufficient white space and to create a good zig-zag composition. The don’t-touch-edges treatment gives the drawing a framed effect, a principle that applies to framing a picture.

3 Don't Touch Edges

TIP: Allow 1cm to 10cm (½ inch to 4inches) inches of white space along the edge of the paper, de pending upon the size of the drawing and the composition.

4 White Space

White space is one of the most important elements in a drawing, because it contributes to zig-zag (5) and mass/void (7). The human eye, upon opening, sees white before black. Therefor e, leaving white space will attract attention to a drawing.

4 White Space

TIP: Place a “W” in areas to be left white or a light value; this serves as a reminder when rendering. Also limit the time spent to avoid overworking. White space does not necessarily have to be pure white; it can also be a light value of any colour.

5 Zig-Zag

In a zig-zag composition the four edges of a drawing do not assume a regular geometrical shape such as a square, triangle, or circle. Establishing a zig-zag creates variety and realism.

5 Zig-zag

TIP: To break the geometrical shape, strategically place details such as furniture, flags, fountains, plants, people, trees, benches, and cars in the drawing to create zig-zag or uneven edges by jutting out or moving in.

6 Dark/light

Dark/Light is used to give the subject of a drawing, such as the corner of a building, a dark value on one side and a light one on the other side. This creates a three-dimensional image.

6 Dark-light

TIP: At the corner of a subject, make one side (the smaller or shady side, away from the drawing’s light source) at least twice as dark as the other side (the larger or lighter side). This must be applied consistently throughout the drawing according to the position and quality of the light source.

7 Mass / Void

We identify objects in the environment by their shapes, and by the different values of one next to the other: for example, dark grass next to a light road, or a dark building against a light sky. Proper use of this principle of mass (dark) to void (light) helps to clarify different materials in the drawing.

7 mass-volume

TIP: When materials change in a drawing, apply a dark value on dark material (mass) and a light value on the light material (void). For example, a dark building (mass) should be placed next to a light sky (void), and dark grass (mass) should be next to a light road (void). This helps to identify the different materials and to create a good zig-zag composition.

8 Value Connect

If the contrast of mass to void is too great, a spotty appearance is created. Value connect corrects this by joining the dark and light values with a medium tone.

8 Value Connect

TIP: Study the arrangement of values assigned to each subject in the drawing to make certain that no very dark and very light values arc next to each other.

9 Shade and Shadow

Shade and shadow provide punch, depth, and realism, and make a drawing more readable.

9 Shade and Shadow

TIP: Shadow only occurs on surfaces that receive a light source, and never on the shade side. The more recessed an object, the greater the shadow received. Double the value from sunny to shade surface, and from shade to shadow surface in order to achieve a three-dimensional appearance of an object.

10 Asymmetrical

An asymmetrical composition creates interest and excitement, establishing a realistic setting and avoiding monotony.

10 asymetrical

TIP: Use different elements such as people, vegetation, cars, or furniture to achieve an asymmetrical balance and create visual harmony and value balance. Avoid symmetrical placement of objects.

11 Eye Line Hidden

Generally speaking one can never see the eye line (horizon line), unless overlooking the ocean or a large lake. Therefore hiding the eye line can make the drawing more realistic and pleasing to the eye.

11 eye line hidden

TIP: Obscure the eye line with entourage such as people, trees, cars, mountains, or buildings.

12 Focal Point

The centre of the drawing is the focal point to which your eyes are usually drawn. This is not necessarily at the physical centre of the page.

12 Focal point

TIP: Provide more detail and darker values to the important part, the focal point, of the drawing, still allowing white space within. This method is used when less time is available to spend on a drawing; in other cases the dark foreground/light background method is used.

13 Dark Foreground / Light Background

In nature, objects appear to be darkest nearest the viewer and lightest farthest away, in the background. There is a gradation of values from foreground to background.

13 Dark Foreground-Light Background

TIP: When rendering, use light colours in the background, gradually darkening them toward the foreground. This method takes time to complete and is best applied to refined drawings.

Credit: Thumb Image // Still Life by Tossynkm // Literature: Mike W. Lin, Drawing and Designing with Confidence: A step-by-step Guide, John Wiley & Sons, 1993