Seeing the Masses

Imagine yourself walking down a forested path, coming around a corner and thinking, “What a nice view, I’d love to draw it.”   So you sit down with paper and pen – because of course your sketchbook and folding chair are handy – and you begin to draw.  Looking closely you realize there are literally millions of things in this scene – leaves, grasses, branches and tree trunks.   How can you possibly get it all in?


It might be tempting to begin by drawing lines for the trees and branches, small shapes for the leaves and grasses, marks and dots to represent the path covered with bark. . . pretty soon you have a piece of paper covered with small lines.  With values undefined, your picture is as ambiguous as a bowl of cornflakes.


“Cornflakes” is the term one of my college professors used to describe a picture with lots of little pieces and no design.  Your eye doesn’t know where to go because nothing is strong enough to lead it around the picture (think SOUL).   There is, quite simply, no composition.

To compose such a scene as this, start by identifying the large shapes – masses they’re often called.  In this scene, the foreground trees have a shape, as do the middleground trees at the bend in the path, the bush on the left side of the page, the grasses below it,  the foliage behind it and the path itself.  The first step is a simple line drawing to locate these large shapes on the page.  Large is the operative word.  Whether the subject is a forest or an urban street scene, it’s the large shapes that make up the building blocks of the drawing.


Then create a value drawing using those large shapes.  The best way to do that is to squint.  Remember that by squinting, details become obscured and it’s easier to see the values.  Yes, you’ll have to be selective.  You simply can’t put in every dark and light that you see.  By looking closely at your subject you will begin to see patterns and learn to use those to further design and define your subject.


Using these steps to compose my drawing,  I drew the path through the alder trees.


You may not have a forest in front of you, maybe it’s an alley in the city or a busy scene in a restaurant. Whatever the subject, the principles are the same.   By arranging your value masses your eye will move through and around the picture plane.  What letter of S-O-U-L do you think this one is?


  1. Just have to say this is really well written, well explained and the step by step visuals really illustrated what you were talking about. Thank you!

  2. Your advice to get rid of the cornflakes last Saturday helped my painting improve quite a bit last Saturday! I had a great time painting with you.

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