Beyond Drawing Basics: Mise en Page

by Bob Bahr

Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing to the Right by Leonardo da Vinci, drawing Self-portrait With Arm Twisted Above Head by Egon Schiele, drawing
Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing to the Right
by Leonardo da Vinci, 1508–1512, black and red chalk on paper, 8 x 6?. Collection The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Leonardo filled the sheet with the subject’s head, which creates a very intimate feel for this drawing, regardless of how physically close the viewer may be from it. The tight cropping also shifts the emphasis from the shape of her head to her gesture and her gaze—provoking an emotional reaction to her humanity.

Self-portrait With Arm Twisted Above Head
by Egon Schiele, 1910, charcoal and watercolor, 17¾ x 12½. Private collection.

Schiele’s figure is turning his back to most of the paper and, because of the way this drawing is composed, he seems to be exiting, stage right, recoiling from the viewer. Because the left hand is cropped out of the composition, its gesture is lost. The viewer is asked to focus on the dramatic arm wrapped around the figure’s head, and the intense, guarded stare of the eyes.

You can always place the subject of your line drawing or contour drawing smack dab in the middle of the page. It makes a strong statement and, in some cases, most clearly expresses how you want the viewer to experience the piece. But placing the subject matter elsewhere in the composition can make the background work for you and create intriguing tensions, suggest narrative, and guide the eye to the focal point in a more subtle way.

The French term mise en page (literally translated, “placement on page”) is sometimes used in reference to this concept, but the idea has its roots in much earlier history—artists’ consideration of this aspect of composition is generally thought to have originated in the Renaissance. By the age of Watteau, its significance in an artist’s approach was firmly established, and today it’s nearly inconceivable that a working artist would neglect its careful handling.

Our natural tendency may be to place the subject matter in the center of the composition, giving it the attention it deserves in the middle of our “stage,” but this does not accurately reflect how we usually view the world. Unless we are extremely close to our subject, there is a great deal of information reaching us in our peripheral vision. We experience everything in context, and this context impacts how we interpret the focal point. As drawers we must fight what feels automatic and truly observe the entire scene to accurately describe the tableaux.

Periklis Pagratis, the chairman of foundation studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design, tells his students drawing basics and beyond, including the idea that when designing a composition, they should think of the subject as Medusa’s head—don’t look at it directly or you will turn to stone (or your drawing will, at least). The negative space around the subject should play an essential role in your composition. There will be plenty of time to closely pore over the subject itself when the time comes for rendering it.

Flip through any art book and you are sure to see wonderful examples of compelling mise en page. Examine any painting or drawing in which the focal point is pointedly placed away from the center of the composition, then imagine how differently the piece would work if the subject matter were dead center on the page. You will readily see how the best artists make mise en page work effectively for them. 

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Drawing Basics: Mise en Page

  1. my name is Tayo Adewuyi from Nigeria, I am interested in commenting.
    Please what plans do you have for Africans in participating in your compititions and achieveing their aims in art?