Monday, October 3, 2016

Mark G. Mitchell's Composed Composition -- and a Prize!

I signed up for Mark G. Mitchell's email list over three years ago. I'm selective with the email lists I join. Unfortunately I can't remember what it was that prompted me to join Mark's list. What I can tell you is I've gotten invaluable information from his emails. The guest Mark gets for his blog and interviews are fantastic! I have learned so much over the years from Mark. I hope you will check out his website and sign up for his emails so you can learn from him as well!

Look for a Prize after this post!

Composition. Ugh. The roadblock for so many artists, so many illustrators and others who aspire to create pleasing pictures.

Have you ever been there? You draw a picture element, rather expertly, as your first step in a scene. You draw another element. And another, and suddenly, you worry that you have no idea where you’re going.

You see it’s not hanging together and you feel in your heart that your next mark, whatever you do (or wherever you do it) will not be safe. It won’t help, will move nothing forward, design-wise. It will only add to the chaos (or the tedium) on your page.

Which begs the question for a story illustrator: What’s the worth of a subject beautifully drawn if it doesn’t fit snugly into a meaningful , larger whole?

That must be the job of composition. So we’re stuck (if you've ever run into this roadblock.)

Happily, there’s a way around. It came from Kimon Nicolaides, an American artist and teacher from the early 20th century.

He talked a lot about the power of gesture drawing in his classic book, The Natural Way to Draw.

Let’s apply his ideas to a storyboard thumbnail.

Say I want to thumbnail a two-page spread for a Peruvian folktale, Moon Rope. I want to illustrate the story differently from Lois Ehlert’s brilliant 1992 version of it for Harcourt Brace & Company.
I’ll start with a small rectangle first. (You can get a sense of the scale of it in the image below.)

I want to do the scene where the fox and the mole have persuaded a flock of birds to carry a rope that they’ve constructed from grasses and reeds to the moon.

I imagine a wide shot, a night scene with lots going on in it: The Peruvian landscape (in silhouette perhaps?) the fox and mole and their handmade rope coiled before them on the ground. The birds lift one end of the rope into the air. The moon floats above everyone (239,000 miles away) in the sky.

I'll set the timer on my i-Phone for 30 seconds.

Scribble in some make believe text lines on one of the 'pages' in my thumbnail spread, because a text block is a design element.

I think in bits and pieces about the scene I want to do.

Glimmers and vague notions only. Nothing complete, or HD. I don't have anything like a photographic memory.

Still I try to see what’s 'there,' in my mind’s eye. I’m scanning. Not for details, but only for the gestures, which evoke the scene's important actions. Deeper still, the impulses behind the movements. Nicolaides would have us try to experience these in our own bodies before we draw.

The rope being carried off the ground by the birds expresses gesture. It’s moving, like the birds. The fox and the mole are reacting. Many things in the picture are moving or are poised, about to move (even the moon in its glowing stillness.)

I want to feel each impulse, in my own muscles, one character or picture element at a time.

And I want to scribble it all down before my phone timer goes off. Catch all this movement and coiled energy in one pencil line, moving left to right without lifting the pencil off the page.

30 seconds and stop. Here’s what I didn’t do.

Didn’t look for any visual references before I drew. This isn’t the time. I drew from the inside, from my imagination and a lifetime of my own kinesthetic experiences.

2.) Didn’t worry about the composition, or what things in my scribble looked like, or how accurately the creatures and setting were depicted.

I have no idea how to draw a mole without references. But that’s not the point of the gesture thumbnail. There will be plenty of time to hunt for and incorporate wonderful mole picture reference in my final drawing.

3.) Didn’t try to go back and re-think anything. Just went left to right inside the little rectangle in a kind of spontaneous explosion of movement – like gesture itself, by Nicolaide’s definition.

So here it is. In 30 seconds, I created the composition for my two page spread, the flow of energy – trapped or released – across the page from left to right.

So here it is. I won’t show you the final. I haven’t done it yet. And that misses the point -- to show you. Because that puts the emphasis on the wrong part – the culmination of the sequence. You can’t worry at this stage about the final result or what the illustration should look like, at its best. Not only is it not important now. It wrecks the entire process.

Once you have your gesture scribble down (in 30 seconds or less), you can begin your research, your scavenger hunt for visual references to help you work out the drawing.

You’ll have a much better idea of what to look for then. The specifics of reference as it applies to your organically created layout.

You’re going to recreate it, in much the same way, only larger, for your final drawing.

You’ll use gesture again, in combination with the slower, more controlled contour drawing (as described in The Natural Way to Draw and books by Betty Edwards like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) to help you finish your illustration outline.

The gesture sketch is your ticket to good composition in sketches and paintings.

There’s a delicious feeling of safety and cunning authority working this way that will surprise you. Try it and see for yourself.

As you gather your references around you, you can start to examine your scribble to see how it’s working for you in terms of the basic design principles like dominance (unity), conflict (contrast), gradation, alternation, repetition with variation (rhythm), harmony…

You’ll find most of the principles already staring back at you from your scribble. Because you’ve already sown the seeds of your composition in your 30 second scribble. But you can always make tweaks and adjustments, as needed to your larger final drawing.

Just as I gesture in the the thumbnail to compose the scene, I’ll gesture-draw when trying to render something I don’t know very well. It’s a great way to figure out the meaning of your subject (aesthetically-speaking) and launch your drawing.

In my gesture scribble of this morning’s coffee cup, you can see my effort
to respond to how the cup bows out at its belly, much like the handle.

The original preliminary gesture scribble I did for this assignment for Appleseeds magazine disappeared long ago.

But I can recreate what I did. The connected pencil scribbles, came from dozens of assembled reference images that I gestured on the fly, with the timer set, moving my pencil from left to right.

As I worked swiftly, the rhythms in the placement of the figures in the scene suggested themselves.

With the gestures down, I could go back and delineate forms according to their contours, relying on one part reference to one part imagination.


Follow Mark:









1. In order to win this prize you Must comment on this post!
2. Please share this post and tell Mark what you liked about his post
3 You must win Smart Dummies to get this prize.

An online course on children's book illustration with Mark: "Make Your Marks & Splashes!"

Mark has one other prize: A one-year subscription to Guest Group Critiques. Look for how you can win this later this month!


  1. Mark's initial line work is rapidly done and the finished product looks professional. It's a great idea to set the timer for 30 seconds for gestural sketching to avoid getting hung-up on detail.

  2. When I was a kid, my sister teased me about having "hairy drawings" because of all the lines I made sketching while searching for the picture to emerge. LOL. Now I see I was instinctively doing gesture drawing! Great to have "permission" for hairy drawings.

  3. Please don't put me in the draw for the prize - I'd prefer to give this opportunity to someone who hasn't done the course - but wanted to say this was a great piece of advice that has made a ton of difference to my work. Mark is a great teacher with an excellent course! Highly recommended.

  4. I loved the 30 seconds tip to make the layout gross look. I have been spending too much time on the details of each bread before even starting... Thank you !

  5. I really loved this article. Thank you Mark for the advise. I sort of do this, just not with a time limit or as flowing. I"ll adjust my technique and see where that takes me.

  6. Thanks Mark for giving us a good starting point. FYI I've already taken Mark's course that he is generously awarding as a prize and it was very helpful. Also I can highly recommend his monthly Guest Critique Group.

  7. I love how clearly you described the process! Thanks, Mark!

  8. What a wealth of info! I'll have to re-read this a few times to ingest it all. I have the Nicolaide's book but hadn't know how to really work with it, so Mark's instructions are much appreciated. :)

  9. Thank you Mark, for the very inspiring post. I loved that you gave so many references to go to. I was impressed by your suggestion to use your intuition. We already know somewhere inside us how the movement of the composition is going to look like; we just have to trust ourselves. That's what happens when we write too. The first strike is what our gut tells us. And then, after the initial emotion, you suggest to look a little deeper, "examine your scribble to see how it’s working for you in terms of the basic design principles like dominance (unity), conflict (contrast), gradation, alternation, repetition with variation (rhythm), harmony…" This, I must never forget. This article is the kind I will go back to many times. And of course, I already shared it on multiple platforms.

  10. I recently finished the Make your Marks and Splashes course (and so please don't include me in the prize drawing). I just wanted to say that it's a wonderful course and that this is a freeing way to work--takes the pressure off and I can just flow and see what happens. Thanks, Mark!

  11. This is a great post/reminder about making gesture drawings before going to detail. I had forgotten how important this is and will now practice. Thank you Mark!

  12. This is such a great description of how to approach gesture drawing in thumbnails. And oddly enough I have never thought of composition having anything to do with gestures. Too often I find myself trying to draw the details of the scene in small scale so I can't wait to give this timer method a shot for my book dummy.

  13. Thank you Mark for the information and thank you Dani for putting it together. I love gestural drawing! Mark did an excellent job explaining the benefits of using gesture when building composition. Great advice!

  14. Simular Ah-ha moments here: guesture sketches + timer = composition ease = this has something very specific to offer my dummy process, not just excersizes in Nicolades' book? No way. Yes way! Thank you!!

  15. I also have been a student of Marks course and highly recommended it. Needed this reminder to limit myself and not to over think in the beginning! Thanks Mark!!!

  16. Thank you Mark for sending me the link to this program and introducing me to Danis Smart Dummies! I am so excited although just beginning today!

  17. This is great advice, especially for someone who doesn't trust herself and tends to get so bogged down in details and getting them all "right" that she gives the Perfectionist-Monster a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet! I really appreciate all you do, Mark, and I love the reminder (and very specific instructions to guide us toward it) that art is largely about letting go and trusting that mysterious source that is expressing itself through us . . . and about having fun! I really hope I get to take your class and learn even more from your insight and wisdom!

  18. I love your idea to set a timer when gesture drawing. It will help me to stay focused on the scene and movement instead of allowing myself to be distracted by details. I also loved your phrase "impulses behind the movement" to consider when scribbling the scene. Thank you.

  19. What fantastic suggestions - thank you for showing us a bit of your process!
    I have a tendency to try and get too detailed too soon and composition definitely suffers in that case. The timer idea is brilliant - thank you!!!
    Your course sounds amazing - if I should win it that would be a dream! If not - I will start saving my pennies! ;o)

  20. Mark, love the 30 second tip. I always feel my unconscious mind is way more creative. Can't let that left brain take control too soon in the process. Great advice. Thanks for all you do do help illustrators. I would love to win your course.

  21. Mark offers insightful information. Thanks

  22. Thank you Mark, I have been working and following along with you for a while. I have gained alot of insight and had to swallow a lot of pride. but I can see now that the suggestions from the webinars and friends in the critique group have been very helpful. This post is great. Once I started the free flow scribble for my really rough dummy it helped put the story in a clearer prospective. My re-write for the story is simpler and direct and the illustrations just popped in my head and moved forward so quickly. Thank you!!!!! thank you!!!!!

  23. Thank you Mark for such a great tip to start a dummy and a great opportunity to win your class!

  24. Wow. I really need to take less time on my thumbnails. Thanks so much for putting up your sketches. I am really trying to make things too "nice" in the first pass, which is taking up too much time. I am figuring out that my first draft drawing is like first draft writing: get out that wild stuff! Fast, loose, and sometimes terrible.

  25. Dear Mark, After reading your blog I realized how overthinking became part of my poor time-management. I've tried the 30 second rule that you suggested and with amazing relief saw a drawing that I liked. This means the key to future success is winning the "Make your Marks and Splashes." Fingers crossed.

  26. Thank you for this post, Mark. I love the emphasis on gestures and working quickly without overthinking. The hunt for reference photos can be exhausting. This makes the whole process a lot more fun!

  27. Thank you Mark for the info here and also for sending me the email to introduce me to this month with Dani!
    I would LOVE to win your course,I can only imagone how awesome and helpful it would be!

  28. Thank you Mark. I appreciated your thoughts on the "gesture" of the page. How the image must flow from left to right as the reader follows along. I"t it what I focused on in my dummy compositions. It helped.

  29. What I love about this post, is the idea that things don't have to be perfect the first time around. As a new and uncertain artist, this comforts me. I will be sharing this on my google + Page for the competition

  30. Thank you for this post, Mark. I love the emphasis on gesture and flow and energy. I never thought about those things being linked to composition in the way you're describing. Can't wait to try it out! (I tried posting here once before and I don't think it worked. Forgive me if this is a duplicate post.)

  31. Thank you SO MUCH for this post! Very, very helpful to see your process. Good tips!