Solving a composition problem to rescue a drawing

I just finished “What Is It?” with Faber-Castell Polychromos and Prismacolors on Canson Mi Tientes colored paper, 12″ x 24″.


“What Is It?”, 12″x24″, colored pencil on Canson Mi Tientes colored paper.

I’m so glad to finally be done with this one, as it’s been on my drawing table for two months. I originally planned to not include any background at all so I could work larger and finish quickly; the tinted paper would provide the appropriate base color.  But as soon as the hens were done I realized that was a compositional mistake because the big gaping area between the left hen and the others was distracting attention away from the focus point of the “V” and they seemed to be floating in space on little skateboards.


Hens finished, their shadows almost finished.

I pondered what to do about it. Something was needed to break up the space, while keeping the focus at the base of the “V”.  Another hen?  No, that would break down the “V” composition.  A lot of grass?  No, that wouldn’t solve anything, it would just be all green instead of all tan.  A feed trough?  No, that would detract from the focus on the hens.

After pondering for about a week, I looked at my reference photo with fresh eyes and realized the large dark shadow behind the hens gave visual punch to the light on their feathers and also broke up that big gap without drawing attention to itself.


Reference photo for “What Is It?”

I decided a “spotlight” effect was what they needed–curving the dark area around the sides a bit would do a better job of suggesting the focus was in the middle, than a dark line across the back.

Decision made, I still had to execute the background.  Mi Tientes paper is rather toothy even on the “smooth” side, so I had to work slowly with a sharp point to achieve a relatively smooth look without blotches.  A layer of caput mortuum and then burnt umber looked okay but the overall effect was rather monochromatic.


Burnt umber layer nearly complete over caput mortuum layer.

Since the hens’ feathers were reds and oranges, I chose indigo blue as the third layer and got just the effect I was looking for.  A little “glow” of brown ochre near the base of the curve helped unify the foreground and background.  The background took more than twice as long as the hens themselves!  I wouldn’t have chosen to work this size (12″x24″) if I’d known I was going to spend so many hours just on the silly background.  A “busy” background would’ve been much easier than a smooth gradient!


“What Is It?” 12″x24″, colored pencil on Canson Mi Tientes colored paper.

I think I saved it!  Problem solved!  Lesson learned: in the future I’ll pay closer attention to the composition of my subject(s) when I “lift” them from a reference photo, before I start working on the drawing.