Things you always wanted to know about composition, but were too afraid to ask!

Tutorial / 19 October 2020

In the interest of helping out anyone who might be new to art or struggling, I thought I'd throw together some examples of the challenges that my own students face online and in-class. If you're not even sure what composition is, this little lesson could make a world of difference in the quality of your art.

I've provided some of my own art samples below with explanations that can help you better visualize your art for any purpose.

1: The "regular" look:


In the days (or perspective) of the "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way", this would have been considered a "regular comics" composition or as Stan Lee would have said at the time, "how the OTHER guys do it.”.

Now there isn't necessarily anything that is glaringly wrong. We get both figures (Marvel's The Puma and Werewolf by Night) in full body. Each one is equally respected with page space and representation. Puma's wardrobe contrasts well against the background. 

Werewolf however is struggling to be seen and fighting with too many similar blues and dark colors from the plants in the background. The posing, though interesting and somewhat dynamic, loses some punch and goes a little flat because of the camera position, giving the image too much of a standard profile look and not fully pulling off the illusion of three dimensions at some points. 

Though there is technically nothing "wrong" with the image it could just be more visually appealing and dynamic. This is what was described as the type of art that would be totally passable for the average comic or magazine. 

2: Visual balance/discomfort


In the second version the entire palette has a purple tint instead of the previous blue tint. Posing has been changed to give a better view of the front of the characters, with Puma getting just a little more prominent real estate. Shifting the trees in the background gives a better feel for the environment and lends more to the feel of a man-made tree line as opposed to a dense jungle. The shift in positioning also allows the dark colored character, werewolf, to stand out and contrast against the lighter background while Puma’s red and white colors contrast nicely with darker outcropping in the background.

Sounds good right?

What doesn’t work: though the angle of the shot is more interesting and complex overall, but the character shift doesn’t work. Both characters are too close to the center and each other, all those key details are jammed into the center of the frame with lots of open unused space on the sides. The forced perspective is slightly confusing. How far away is the werewolf? How far is he jumping? He also seems  a little too low in the frame. Aside from that, Puma can be seen with a blur effect attempting to mimic photographic visuals. This can be a very useful and powerful trick in the artist’s tool box, but in  this case, I think we are on the wrong track and it leaves me wishing for sharper visual detail on Puma. That coupled with the awkward shadow under the werewolf and the overlapping palm trees on the right, it’s distracting enough that I consider it a miss, but also a step in the right direction.

3. Dynamic action and posing


They say “third time’s the charm”.

In this version I feel I’ve merged the best parts of the first and second image while leaving the weaknesses behind.

The characters are given roughly the same amount of space on the page, but on opposite sides of the page, similar to the first version. Now we have the focal length to understand the danger AND the distance. 

Werewolf is now high up on the page, with stark contrast against the lighter background and a nice 3/4 angle that isn’t too much profile or too much head on. The 3/4 at the angle is very important to preserve the perspective of the piece.

Puma is a little more in-focus than in the second example and his wardrobe contrasts well against the foliage in the background. The tribal necklace is given more attention too, lending to the native/Spanish history of the character.

The posing is expressive and dynamic, so the figures emote and the viewer understands how each character feels.

For a little extra dynamic pop, I also tilted the camera, just to give that slightly uncomfortable “off-kilter” feeling.

I like to think that Stan would have thought of it as “The Marvel Way"

Composition is all about placement of characters, backgrounds and any other elements in the most visually appealing way. Don't be afraid to try different camera angles, character poses or background placements. Should your character be in the shadowy corners of the room or backlit by the light of the full moon coming in through the window? Try both and see for yourself. 

The important thing to remember about composition is that it is okay to try several variations to see what looks best. Make sure your perspective makes sense. Create visual balance with character placement and remember to focus on action and suspense. Now, by no means do I mean to hold up my art as a perfect example, trust me, I can pick any of my pieces apart, but if you keep a few of these pointers in mind and practice by focusing on experimenting and generating new art, I believe that you will be happy with the results. 

Thanks for reading,

Mike