Beginning with one simple line.

(Number ten in a series of ideas I have about sketching.)

17 June, 2019.

I think a lot about how to compose an image. Image composition can be especially challenging when drawing in situ – where do you start? What do you leave in? What do you crop out? It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by all of the stuff in front of you, and easier still to get hung up on proportionality and perspective.

I’ve learned to improve my chances of generating a holistic design by starting with one single, simple line.

The tactic is deceptively simple, and with practice is almost like blind contour drawing. First off, it’s important to realize that every scene has one or more “lines” that connect one side with the other. This is abundantly true in outdoor scenes where it’s easy to see the boundary between the sky and everything else, but if you study a scene carefully, you’ll generally find an important line that tends to separate the positive from the negative shapes.

Once I’ve studied a scene and have identified my border line, I always begin on the left side of the sheet. I draw slowly, making note of angles and little details, and especially comparing the lengths of each line segment. I don’t get hung up on hyper-accuracy; I’m more concerned with believability than I am with photographic precision. The magenta line (above) indicates the first line I drew in this demonstration sketch.

Several positives emerge from that simple line. One positive is that it’s a starting point for every other line. I’ll continue an angle, for instance, and that becomes one edge of a roof, which in turn becomes a vertical that extends down the page. I’ll return to the original line and extend other marks up or down the page. The point is that this approach creates a unified composition because every mark has that one main line as a common denominator.

Many sketchers are challenged by perspective. Either they don’t understand the science behind the concept and wind up with wonky lines going in very unexpected directions, or they understand it too well and have every angle going precisely to a vanishing point. While that might be accurate, it’s also a recipe for stiff and stale drawings. I’ve been using my “border line” strategy for a long time now to keep things a little fresher. Ironically, I’m always a little surprised by how believable the perspective winds up being. Instead of looking at and drawing houses or buildings, this strategy forces the sketcher to visually dissect a scene into line segments. By observing the angles and relative lengths of each line segment, the sketcher winds up with a close approximation of the scene perspective. I promise you, it’s startling how well it works! One added benefit is that your proportions also tend to improve.

This is not a “be all, end all” approach to drawing. Rather, it’s one idea that might help to bring a more unified look to a sketch. I like how it helps me to begin a drawing of a scene – often, the aspect of a place that made me want to draw it in the first place turns out not to be the most visually interesting thing. This strategy frequently helps me to logically build a drawing and ultimately discover things about a scene I hadn’t originally considered, and to deliver fresher ways to share a visual story.

Watercolor and Uni-Ball Vision pen in a Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.



  1. Michael Scandling · June 17

    Thank you very much. As a photographer, I find this just as instructive as it would be were I a sketcher.

  2. miatagrrl · June 18

    Hmmm…intriguing! Maybe you could teach this next year at the symposium! I think the best workshops (when the are only 3 hrs long) focus on one single concept like this.

    – Tina

    • azorch · June 18

      That’s definitely worth considering. Thanks for the suggestion!

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