Part 1: Initial Drawings

What you need:

  • Pencils – a range is good. Use a hard pencil for roughing out your drawings, for example an H to 3H, and finish with a soft one, e.g. 4B, not too sharp)
  • Cartridge/sketch pad paper paper
  • A good pen, e.g. medium sharpie (optional)

How to do it:

Step 1: Choose a subject

Produce drawings from life, or from reference. Make these careful line drawings, without excessive detail. Produce a few different drawings of the same subject so that you have plenty of reference to work up compositional ideas from.

The best subjects for this exercise are fruit on a branch and plants/flowers. These subjects naturally incorporate the compositional ideas of transition and unity.

Although I’d recommend working from life if you can, for some subjects you may need to use photos. For this demonstration, I’m using some reference photos I found on Google image search of plums on a branch.

I chose this picture because it already has elements of transition – the curved branch – and unity. Here’s a short explanation of what I mean by the word “unity”:


In this exercise we’ll be using two powerful ways to introduce unity to our compositions: Firstly, by connecting everything to a main axis, and secondly, by repeating the main compositional element.

1. Connection to an Axis

This is a compositional element that links all other elements of the composition. The tree branch here, to which the plums and leaves are attached, is a good example. In this case, all the plums are connected to a single compositional element, the branch. This branch and how it is placed will be an important part of any compositions made from this reference.

The trunk of a tree, or the main stem of a flower are other examples. Linking elements in this way in a composition creates unity.

2. Repetition of Shape

In this way of creating unity, different sized (and shaped) variations of the same element are included, giving the design scheme a cohesiveness – a sense of unity. In this case, the repeated element is the plums. As I work through the demonstration of this exercise, I’ll emphasise the repetition of shape further to create a more harmonious design.

In his book Composition (free PDF download), Dow refers to these ways of introducing unity as subordination – subordination to an axis and subordination by size (one of a repeated series of elements dominating). Although I prefer to use the word unity for these ideas, we’re essentially talking about the same thing.

Step 2: Produce Reference Drawings

For reference material for this exercise, you can use one or more of the following drawings. These drawings were all done specifically to be used in this exercise, so make good reference material:

You can download the following drawings as PDFs, and either print them out or copy them from the screen:

However, I’d strongly suggest you find your own reference material too, and, if possible, draw from life. The experience of taking your own subject from initial visual impression through the composition design process described here will teach you much more.

If you’re creating your own reference material, begin to make drawings, in line only, of the subject.

Make numerous reference drawings to get to know your subject well. The reason for this is that when you come to start changing the compositions of your drawings later in this project, you’ll need some good reference material to draw on as well as a feel for your subject. If you’ve developed some knowledge about the subject, its forms and the way it grows, your compositional variations will work better.

This first study was taken directly from the reference photo above. Note how the subject has been reduced down to lines of roughly equal weight, and the detail has been simplified. This allows you to see the subject more clearly as design.


Here’s another photo which had compositional possibilities, followed by the drawing done from it:


What attracted me to this picture were the rhythms created by the downwards hanging plums, also by the contrasting leaves, and of course the branch from which the plums hang as a unifying compositional element.

I’ll also be able to play with the relative sizes of the plums in order to accentuate the second type of unity – repeated elements – to strengthen the compositions I make from this reference.


Other reference drawings from other photos gave more material to work with. With each drawing, I became more aware of the structure of a plum tree, how it grows and how the plums and leaves sprout from the branches. With enough drawing like this, I’ll soon be able to create convincing drawings from imagination, too.


I also did a few simple outline studies of plum tree leaves:


The value of drawing around a subject in this way can’t be overstated. You may not use all your reference material in your compositions, but your growing familiarity with your subject will help you work up your own original designs.

Flower Subjects

Flowers also make great subjects for this project, at least partly because it’s easier to find subjects to draw from life! With some thought, you can easily incorporate both unity through an axis and repeated elements, and transition into your drawings.

Here’s some examples of flower drawings done with the same approach used with the plums above:


This drawing of a hollyhock above includes repeated elements – the leaves – and a strong axis, which can also be used to create transition in the composition. Structurally, it is already strong so will make a good subject for composition practice.

The drawing of lily buds below includes unity through repeated elements – the lily buds. It also has a strong suggestion of a corner ornament, radiating out from the bottom left. Although it doesn’t include unity through connection to a central axis, the way the lines all seem to sprout from this area create a similar kind of connection and unity.


This drawing of lily buds also has repeat elements. Both the lily buds and the leaves make strong repetitive design statements. There is also a stronger suggestion of an axis here, the main lily stem on the right.


Notice how in both the lily drawings above, all internal detail has been omitted entirely. Where leaves cross, for example, only the outline shapes are drawn. The lines where the leaves cross over each other are omitted.  These are negative space drawings, showing the spaces between the elements. Negative space drawings allow you to see the overall shape of the elements in a drawing more clearly, allowing you to see it more as pure design. Try to make some negative space drawings of your subject. We’ll introduce this in a more focused way further through the exercise.

Reference drawings can be small and simple, and still be good source material for this project. The below drawing of jasmine flowers includes repeat elements and a single axis that will make a strong transitional statement.


Leaf Subjects

Simple drawings of leaves, too, can make good subjects for this project. If the drawing includes an axis and repeated elements (leaves fit this perfectly) you will have a good base to further develop unified and harmonious compositions.


Again, make many drawings from your chosen subject. The more reference you have, the more you have to work with when creating compositions.

Take Your Time

Don’t rush this stage of the project. Take the time to really get to know and fall in love with your subject. Once you’ve done enough reference drawing, you should be able to create reasonable sketches of the subject from your imagination – informed, of course, by your studies.

Once you’re armed with plenty of reference material and have a good feel for your subject, you’re ready to move on to Part 2: Create Compositions by Cropping.