Drawing to Understand Composition

“Drawing is a way to see.”  Since the early 1800’s art educators have put forth the idea that drawing is just one more way to understand a topic, whether it is a diagram to show a process, a map to give us a sense of location, or a sketch that records how something looks.

Screenshot 2015-09-20 11.12.48Mrs. Elam uses drawing all the time to help teach her students abstract concepts.

So for this assignment, we are going to use drawing as a way to understand composition.

I know, I know.  I said “no drawing or art-making in this class.”  I’m tricky like that.

The Assignment

Below is a picture The Swing, by Fragonard.

Fragonard, The Swing

Your job is to sketch the important compositional elements and key figures of the artwork.

Now the key word here is SKETCH.  This is not to be a perfect copy, nor it is not to be a perfect forgery that captures every nuance; it is to be a quick little drawing.

Really, don’t spend more than five minutes on this assignment.  I am talking to you, “AP-Studio-Art-Student-and-Obsessive-Compulsive-Drawer.”  Seriously, don’t go crazy with this.

What I Am Looking For

I am not looking for realism, proportion, anatomy, shading, or any of those things.  I only want to see the important elements and where they reside in the picture.  Decide what is important in the picture and then show me that.

What I want to see is stick figures and sausage people lined up in relatively the right place on the page.  I want to know where the light is coming from.  I want to know where the implied lines are leading my eye.  I want to know where the horizon line might be.

I will be grading this not on artistic skill nor aesthetics.  I will be grading on how well it replicates the important elements of the work.


Below is my own example of a quick sketch of The Palette of Narmer.

In a few places I made notes that helped to highlight something I was not sure the drawing showed, but that I noticed, like how everyone looks at Narmer.

I also noticed for the first time that the “marks” at the top center are in fact two chairs and a cup.  A reference to the seat of the Pharoah?  The unification of the two Egypts?  Is he just really into interior design?

I also included a sketch by Mrs. Elam.  You can see where she made different choices, in in some places caught details I did not.  This is all about noticing what is important.

I want you to note that in both drawings there are certainly errors in placement, some things are too big, the guys are cut off on the bottom… and that is all o.k.

Materials List

  • The sketch can be done on notebook paper or any other similar material
  • A normal #2 pencil will do the job just fine
  • Whatever you draw… take a picture of it and send me that picture

What I Hope This Accomplishes For You

This exercise is like a tableaux vivant:  it is designed to help you pay attention to what is important in a work of art.  By taking the time to quickly sketch out a complex work, we can break it down and see all of its components.

It is also my hope that this will become a tool for you to use on tests, when taking notes, or anytime you are wanting to investigate a work of art.  Taking five minutes to quickly sketch your first impressions can do a lot to inform you about the work.

How You are Turning In Your Work

As you know, I don’t want posters, glitter, and feathers.  For this assignment, once you have completed your sketch, photograph it and send me that photo.  You may email the photo, email me a link to the photo, or bring it in on a portable drive.  If you absolutely must, I will take a physical drawing.

I will not grade an image on a phone.

Please note that if you are bringing in your photo on a portable drive, it is due in class on Monday, not by the time given below.

Turning in Work Electronically

You are most likely giving me some sort of file.  To make things easier, and to ensure that you receive credit for your work, be sure to include your name in the file name, like this:

Names in File Names Example

Your photo of your sketch is due Monday, 10/2,  by 11 p.m. This is a formative grade.

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