Napkin sketch 2 – More on composition


I was still with my young friend in a cafe who was asking about my drawings and this was a second one I did. Darned if I can remember what it was now, but it looks like a fish coming into to shore. What else could it be?

Here it is rotated 180 degrees:


Either upside or downside, it works compositionally.

Here’s the theory.

It’s what I call a child’s theory of composition.

I derive my personal theories on children’s art principally from Rhoda Kellog’s work Analyzing Children’s Art which I read in the 1960’s. If you are truly interested in composition, this is a wonderful compendium for understanding children’s art.

We, the human race as children, teach ourselves to draw before the age of six.

We do so in a manner that is so consistent world-wide that I infer from it that humans need to draw and that there are inherent patternings in us, congenital, archetypal patterns if you will, that guide that process of self-teaching ourselves to draw. After the age of six, adult interference in the learning/self-teaching process thwarts the natural process and it can no longer be quantified as universal or archetypal. Adult guidance brings adult rationality to the process and child is drawn off the natural path of artistic development.

I’ve tried to think of any other animal that draws as part of its normal activity and cannot identify one. Drawing and image making is one of the key characteristics of humankind that separates it from the remainder of the animal world.

So, back to children’s composition.

At first, children engage in mark making. The first efforts we call scribbling. Soon you will find a young child trying to make circles. They are open ended in the early stages. Then they try quite diligently (picture the tip of the tongue sliding from side to side over the upper lip in concentration) to close the circle up. This is quite an effort for newly developing motor skills!

Next the child becomes fascinated with circles containing radial spokes. Adults impose their rationality upon these and call them suns, but ask the child and they may not think they are anything! Eventually, these radial designs morph into stick people and later again, acquiring basic articles of clothing.

Near the age of five or six, if I remember rightly, children start to tell stories with their drawings, often at the encouragement of their elders. While all of the previous stages are interesting in themselves, especially for those who are interested in abstract art and non-representational image making, I’m going to concentrate on this story telling stage to make a point.


In the progression of the child teaching itself to draw, we may never know when the child begins representing the world of people, animals and objects. Too often, adults superimpose their interpretation on the child.

Is this a drawing of Mummy?”

No, you idiot big person. It’s my sister’s rabbit. But you’re bigger than I am and I depend on you for food and clothing and a warm bed, so I’ll say anything you want. Next time, I’m going to draw Godzilla and if you say it’s Mummy, I will still nod inanely and grin at your ineptitude in seeing what I most clearly am drawing for you!”

I had to say that in preamble to the explaining the fourth illustration which spans the transition from absolutely non representational mark making to representational imagery.

The first box in the green illustration above has an image that is placed seemingly at an arbitrary place on the picture page (or picture plane). The second has two figures. The third has two figures and some story telling elements.

In the first, our eye has no where to go. We are not engaged in the composition for any length of time, and an adult may hand thousands of these creations back to a child with variations of this commentary: “That’s, lovely dear. Is that Mummy?”

In the adult world, there is still place for this kind of composition. It is often used in botanical illustration, for instance, where no anecdotal background is wanted. The figure, the plant specimen, is the only thing we want the viewer to see. The interest in the drawing is maintained by the complication in the details of the specimen used for a model.

Southwest American Indian sand circles and Eastern religions’ mandalas use this type of composition also. While normally the eye does not favour a single focus composition, in these type of works the intricate details are what hold the eye. A more modern reference for this compositional type would be Joseph Stella’s geometric Optical Art works.
In the second stage, the two figures might be many things. It could be adult and child. It could be child and a pet. It could be two people of the same height, one person close at hand and the other far away. There are other no references to ground the observer. The figures float on the picture plane. Maybe, are they astronauts? Only the creator of the drawing can tell you. Many indigenous people’s drawings, aboriginal drawings, are made with this compositional model. There is no need for a page or a picture plane. The drawing could be made in the sand or on a rock. The Lascaux cave drawings are beautiful examples of this type of composition as are the Southwest American Indian sand circles and the Australian aboriginal dream images. Paper in a rectangular format has only become a readily available support for drawings for the masses in the last century.

In the third stage, the child draws things that they know. The top line traversing the picture indicates sky up above. The line traversing at the bottom represents the ground. There is no perspective of the sort that we are taught in schools. The figure’s feet are on the ground. The child knows that feet touch the ground. In his logic, he knows that they don’t go below it, or if they do they are stuck in mud or quicksand and his figure wouldn’t be able to walk. Equally, the figure does not meld with the sky or the weight of it would make it impossible to be active. In his logic, the child cannot touch the sky, so the figure would not touch it either.

The radial figure beside the human figure in this drawing could be any four legged creature. Again there is no perspective. The child has figured out that it has four legs and informs you of that fact by giving each one of them equal importance.

In the third drawing of this series the child includes more information. In a park, there is a pond or swimming pool that has a fence around it. Perspective of the pond is immaterial. It is round and the child tells you so. There is a tree of indiscriminate species. There is the ground and the sky. There are mountains that you can see behind the figure.

What is beginning to happen here is that the child is breaking up the picture plane with various objects that are of importance to him in the story he is telling. I can’t say whether or not the child is consciously starting to be concerned with an imposed compositional pattern. I tend to think not. However, these simplified drawings are good examples of what happens to our eye engagement after we learn to read.

In the European and American continents, the major reading convention is from left to right. We start at the top of the page and read down to the bottom. Chinese and other oriental writing conventions read from right to left and so when you become familiar with their drawing conventions, the compositional structure starts from the right, not from the left. As these two cultures meet and meld in a massive way, as they have in the last fifty years with Globalization, who knows what will come out of it.

This last type of composition is the one most of us are familiar with.

The eye attaches to the first line or object on the right hand side and “reads” across the picture. If there is no object to stop they eye along this line, the eye will go right out of the picture. If the observer is persistent, his eye will return to the left hand side and read the next line of the image. In the childlike drawing given above, that will be the line for the mountain.

Observe how the human figure blocks the path to the right. It forces the eye to look at the vertical imagery and then will find the next available line, or maybe a continuation of the same line, to travel to the right and pick up the next blocking image that invites the observer to come back into the picture. In this image, that will be the tree.

The image has a composition that will entertain the eye to go back and forth over the more important story telling objects in the picture – the human figure, the tree the mountain and the pond. They eye will feel more comfortable in remaining in this picture.

Just a note on the pond: The child does not deal in adult, Renaissance style perspective (the vanishing point type of perspective). The child knows the pond is round and draws it round. The fence goes all around and is flattened around it because the child is responding to what they know rather than what they see. We need to be trained to see in what we call draftsman-like or realistic drawing. Ask any traditionally trained artist about their lessons in Perspective class! You will be met by much groaning and protestation.

Here’s a traditional English-style watercolour that makes use of this third convention for composition:


Note how there are several shapes going horizontally across the picture plane. At each tree trunk, the eye is invited to explore the vertical imagery and to circle back into the picture. The pale green bushes in the distance make one shape going horizontally. So does the blue sky at the top; the pale blue mist below it; the dark green of the foliage; and the lighter green that makes up the foreground. The trees are the obvious vertical eye-stoppers, but the pale yellow sun about three-quarters of the way across makes a focal point that prevents the eye from slipping too easily out the right hand side.

Look at the image for a good thirty seconds and note how easily you can stay in the image. Then cover the left hand side of the image up to and including the sun. Now when you concentrate on the sliver that is left, you will see that your eye can easily slip out the right hand side.

This next is a chalk pastel of a translucent lime green vase. Note how the eye’s first entry line is through the green eucalyptus foliage and that is really the only entry on the left hand side. The white stacked patio chairs are too light to really provide an entry point, or at least, it’s a subtle entry point because the value of the blue and white are so similar.

The red tulips are the predominant force in the picture and they carry the eye to the right. There is a wall panel that gives the eye a vertical force to rest on and move down. The tulip stems in darker green act this way as do the sides of the vase .

The two glass shelves give another horizontal force to complete the journey to the right.


Commercial artists are very familiar with this mode of picture reading and use it shamelessly to focus your attention on the most important thing they want you to see – the object that they want you to desire enough to purchase. Just try flipping through a magazine and look at the pictures that are used for advertising.

Well, that’s enough for today. Just one last word:

I started off with that little sketch that I made on a napkin. Whether it’s upside down or right side up, those simple lines have created an image that is easy to look at and to wonder about. I’ve thrown out the napkin. The paper is too flimsy and fragile. But you never know. I’ve got the reference in photo and I may enjoy doing some abstract piece from it!

I invite you to look at your own images and see if this mode of composition applies to your drawings. Does your eye stay interested in the image? Have you got vertical and horizontal forces to keep you there.

And a caution: It’s only one mode of image making. Those childlike drawings that we make and chuck out when we are young; and struggle so hard to overcome? Those drawings are delightful. If you ever achieve that seemingly pinnacle goal of drawing realistically, it is so very hard to return to the childlike, imaginative and delightfully illogical children’s drawings. So this is not gospel. It’s just one way. It behooves us to learn many ways and then choose for ourselves the modes of drawing that best communicate our visual imagery.

Go forth and make drawings (or photos, or paintings, or images)!


6 Responses to “Napkin sketch 2 – More on composition”

  1. forestrat Says:

    Thanks for sharing this and the previous post.

    My formal education is in chemistry and I program computers for a living so I have learned to be very structured and detail oriented in my approach to tasks (I tend to read manuals for things). In spite of that or maybe because of that, when it comes to things I do for enjoyment like playing games or taking photographs, I prefer to fly by the seat of my pants. Sometimes this approach works and sometimes not.

    I’ll have to get out some of my pics and analyze them to see if they follow this pattern.


  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    MDW Forest Rat,
    You have an innate sense of composition. Your work is really very beautiful. You may find that you are naturally choosing some of these ways of composing or framing your images.
    Thanks for your comment – My nephew worked in computer programming and he tends to be frustrated by some of my flutterby organization and methods of reasoning.
    Do you draw on napkins and paper tablecloths?

  3. forestrat Says:

    Well, I might sketch out diagrams of things on napkins, but I wouldn’t call it drawing. I’d love to be able to actually draw decently.


  4. lookingforbeauty Says:

    For me it was a learned process. I had determination and desire to draw. Lots of other people around me in my classes – both when I was going to school and when I was teaching – could draw better than I could.
    I’m disappointed when people dismiss their ability to learn to draw by saying “Yeah, but you are talented,” dismissing all the years of work I put into learning to draw.
    I had lots of classes, I hate to say how many it took to get through this thick skull, but it was when I started to isolate each of the visual components of a picture and work on that one abstract idea (i.e. the shape, texture, tone, etc) that I began to work out all that I had been taught and that helped me break through into a zone where I felt comfortable with my drawing.
    I think that’s what made me a successful teacher of art – I had analyzed the concepts deeply and come to terms with them. I could break them down into manageable parts.
    I bet you’ve got some very good beginnings in drawing – your photographs are great and that shows you have some solid understanding already.
    Thanks for commenting.
    I started this blog hoping to get some discussion going, and I am enjoying this discussion with you.

  5. cheekychen Says:

    this is fascinating.. I only read about a third of this post as I’m at work, but I’ll be back to soak up the rest.. I too am intrigued by childrens’ drawings, as well as ‘outsider artists’. I saw an exhibition whilst in Antwerp where there was the work of a lady who was deaf and dumb, and unable to communicate with others. She made these epic yarn spinnings like multi coloured cacoons with various objects pertruding from within them. The interesting thing for me was that she spent days making this ‘art’, yet it was questionable as to whether she was aware of the concept of art or simply did it through her desire to create.

    I wish I could remember her name.

    Great writing.


  6. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks Paul,
    When you remember her name, please let me know.
    People have an innate ability to create which is crushed early in development by people who have equally have had their talent repressed before them. In the past (and even now with amateur teachers of art) we present rules of operation in the teaching of art that are too limiting.
    When I taught, I liked to tell about all of the rules that I knew about and then let the students determine which ones they thought suited them best – and then encouraged them to create their own rules of engagement.
    All the artists that we honor today are ones that created their own rules and stepped away from the stultifying, stuffy confines of their era. Examples? Courbet, the realist (after everyone else was doing Greek mythology paintings; The Impressionists; Gaugin and the Post Impressionist Fauve movement; Braque and Picasso with their Cubism movement. Piet Mondrian (can’t remember what his modernist movement became known as).
    It takes a long time for the population to catch up with the vision of free thinking artist.
    Do you know the work of Christo, the artist who wraps whole buildings? he who made art with the landscape as his “canvas”? We had a hard time accepting his vision, and now we still giggle about it as if it were absurdly crazy. It maybe is, but it has been validated and accepted to the point that a major city will allow him to have the Reichstadt covered in cloth and wrapped with ropes. He’s goofy but famous and his preparatory drawings are work mega bucks. So it’s worth thinking outside of the norms.

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