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Lesson 1: Exploring Composition


Students will learn about different composition strategies and how to use them to plan a still-life drawing.

Grade Level




Essential Question

How can artists use composition to plan their artwork?

  • Unit & Lessons
  • Slide Deck
  • Teaching Guide
  • Teaching Tools

Materials and Tools

  • Pencil
  • Paper
  • Eraser (kneaded & vinyl or gum)
  • 3 different objects, ideally of different sizes and forms


Students will understand that:

  • Artists can adjust the way they arrange objects in a still life to create different compositions.
  • Artists often plan their compositions using thumbnail sketches.

Students will be able to:

  • Create a series of thumbnail sketches of different still life compositions to select from for a final drawing.


A still life is an artwork depicting an arrangement of objects. Object selection in a still life is important as it can tell the viewer about who the artist is, or about their interests.

When we choose objects for a still life, we can select objects with personal value, as well as for a variety of different sizes, shapes and textures.

Compositional Strategies

Composition is the way a picture is organized. There are different compositional strategies that artists can use to make their still artworks more interesting. These strategies create dynamic, interesting compositions that draw the viewer’s eye across the page. Here are examples different compositional strategies:

Rule of Thirds: Dividing the page into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, and placing the focal areas at the meeting points

Triangular Composition: Arranging objects to create a triangular shape.

Diagonal Composition: Arranging objects with a strong diagonal direction.

Central Composition: Arranging objects in the center of the page.

Measuring Objects

Proportion is the relative size relationship between different parts of a whole. Demonstrate how to use one object as a measurement tool to develop correct proportions throughout the rest of the still life.

Using the apple as the unit of measurement, we can see that the height of the apple is about the size of the width of the cup.

Thumbnail Sketches

A thumbnail sketch is a small, simplified drawing made quickly without corrections. Artists often use thumbnail sketches to plan the composition of larger drawings.

Make a rectangular template for each student to trace to keep their thumbnail sketches consistent. The ratio of the thumbnail template should be consistent with the ratio of the paper size you plan to use for the final drawing. For example, if the final drawing will be 12 x 9”, make 4 x 3” templates. If the final drawing will be 18 x 12”, make 3 x 2” templates.

Use a template to draw thumbnail rectangles, then demonstrate making sketches of two different compositions, one horizontal and one vertical. Demonstrate using the pencil as a measuring tool for relative proportions. Explain that thumbnail sketches are meant to be small, simplified versions of their final drawing.

Wayne Thiebaud, Candy Apples, 1961

Work Time

Make four thumbnail sketches on a piece of paper.

Have students use templates to draw the experiments with different arrangements and compositional strategies of their objects. Encourage them to experiment with both vertical and horizontal arrangements before settling on one that works best with the composition.

Remind students that thumbnail sketches are meant to be small, simplified versions of their final drawing.

Reflection Questions for Discussion

  • What is one compositional strategy that you explored today?
  • How did this strategy create an interesting composition?
  • How did you choose your still life objects?


Still Life: an artwork depicting an arrangement of objects

Composition: the way a picture is organized

Thumbnail Sketch: a small, simplified drawing made quickly without corrections.

Proportion: relative size relationship between different parts


Wayne Theibaud, Candy Apples, 1961

Ginny Casey