Foundations Friday 9: Composing the View

May 6, 2016 | 9 Comments

Sometimes when you go out sketching on location you make one or two decisions at the start which seriously affect your work and the chances of it ‘being successful’. However I firmly believe that a successful on-location sketch is one that you learn from – every sketch will not be a masterpiece but each one is an important part of a journey. There are many factors that play a part in ‘nailing it’ when urban sketching – a lot of the times these are out of your control, but sometimes you just attempt to do the wrong thing!

So with that big opening disclaimer I will now explain the crazy thing I did this week as part of my Foundations Friday series. We are up to Lesson 9: Composing the view where we look at using a viewer finder to help with composing and setting out the view. This particular lesson was hard for a lot of people because viewfinders are hard and tedious to use. But every now and then it is a good exercise for anyone to do.

Many viewfinders are small credit card size frames and often only dividing down the middle each way (if divided up at all). I like having a grid of thirds on mine and much bigger as I find that when urban sketching I am often closer to my subject matter. I couldn’t find my rectangular view finder so had to take out my square one (ah! I was starting out on a different foot with a format that I rarely use).

Anyway, if you are wondering what was the wrong decision I made was … it was in fact two silly ones:

  1. Trying to do a ‘quick’ sketch with a viewfinder as I was rushing to my car after an appointment. Viewfinders require a certain degree of calmness and coordination.
  2. Choosing a busy narrow intersection (narrow streets and footpaths) and attempting to do this sketch standing up.

I do not recommend you try either of these – particularly the second one as it is hard enough to hold the view finder in place when you are sitting! Here is a photo of the demonstration I did in the Foundations Lesson.

So try to picture what I was doing this week: holding my pen and my sketchbook in my left hand while I hold up the viewfinder in my right hand, and then lowering the viewfinder and transferring my sketchbook  to my right hand while I was sketching with my pen in my left hand. It was this constant swapping between left and right hand holding the sketchbook that made the whole thing very hard.

What happened was that I really needed to focus on sketching from memory as there was no quick way of just re-checking the position of an edge against the grid. And as a result I made a lot of mistakes. The busyness of the intersection and my limited time frame didn’t help much either.

This is a photo of my messy setup lines, done in a thick blue pencil so I could share my mistakes with you. The big struggle was locating the vertical edges of the tower and coming to terms with how narrow the foreshortened side of the building was.

One more thing that is hard with a viewfinder (oh! this blog post is tragic today isn’t it?) is taking a photo through it that is the same as what you were drawing. The whole side of the building did in fact fit within the middle grid.

Ah ha! this is one of the reasons why using a view finder with a grid is so incredibly helpful – it makes you appreciate afresh how narrow foreshortened shapes are. I also made the classic mistake of drawing the ground line too steep, but once I put away the viewfinder and started drawing with ink, that was corrected straight away.

The end result is a sketch with fairly accurate lines, but I would like to have composed it differently – horizontal would have been better. Because I was rushing I just started straight away and didn’t do the composing step – instead I was completely focusing on how to navigate the viewfinder. I know that if I had just started sketching in my usual style, the sketch would have been more convincing.

You can see that I struggle at times with the assignments I set. They are normally designed to help you see better and highlight ways that you can improve this so are often not a natural way to draw. Ah, but I love stretching myself – always learn something and live to fight another day. At least next week I will be able to do some composing in a way that feels much more natural for me, and then the week after will be totally in my element.

I guess you all know this, but if for some reason you are new to my blog today, my SketchingNow Foundations (and Edges too) online course is available as a self directed course. Click here for more details.

So do you use a viewfinder at times – and do you find it hard? or do you have a secret trick?

Two brilliant ideas from my Foundations class have been :
1. to use a fork to hold it up and prevent the sore arms.
2. a recent blog comment was to draw the grid on the car windscreen! Ha! love that!


  • Linda Daily says:

    I enjoyed this post. I have used view finders in the past for more ‘serious’ studies and find them very helpful. However, for quick sketches it is too time consuming. You inspire me to dig mine out and try again. I think they really help when choosing a composition. I like your square one, could you please share the size? It seems a good solution to the square journals most of us have succumbed to!

    • Liz Steel says:

      HI Linda – it is about the size of an A5 (shorter dimension) …not nearby at the moment so cant tell you the cm, nothing ‘magic’ in my size. (I do share my exact template in the Foundations course)

  • Joan T says:

    It always makes me smile when I see you sitting on the ground sketching. I am not quite so agile so getting up off the ground would be a problem. I like my trusty stool. I’ve never used a view finder, but I do see how it might help compose the view. I like how you have it divided in thirds. Did you make that or did you buy it made that way?

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Joan… well strangely my lower back prefers the ground to a stool! I made my view finder… if you google it you will find some great instructional videos on the subject

  • Tina Koyama says:

    Liz, one of the things I love best about you is that you show your mistakes and “tragedies” along with the successes! And your ever-valuable corrections drawn right on top! So, so helpful. As for the viewfinder — yes, I’ve used one a few times, but it actually confused me more than helped me. I prefer the “measure visually as well as possible, then wing it” method. 😉

    – Tina

    • Liz Steel says:

      Ha my tragedies… I am a bit of a drama queen. So many people think that the experienced artists don’t make mistakes… if that is the case then chance are they are not pushing themselves enough (too comfortable). Life would be dull if I didn’t make a few wrong decisions when I am sketching and learn from it… and I completely agree with the “measure visually as well as possible, then wing it” method…BUT there is always the question of exploring ways of improving the “measure visually as well as possible” stage.

  • Carole Jurack says:

    Excellent postings. So good to know you are “human” and that all your work is not perfect! Not that I would expect it to be. I have not used a viewfinder and am too new to say whether it would be useful one way or another for sketching but I’m sure it would be. Try an empty slide holder. It is tiny, and easy to maneuver and you can tuck it in your pocket. I have used it while looking at possible photographic topics and it has worked beautifully. I can zoom in on my focus now without it. Perhaps that skill will transfer to focusing on working out-of-doors! We shall see. Meantime since the weather here has not been conducive to working outside I have taken photos along with doing a thumbnail outside which helps. Also, as someone else mentioned, sitting on the ground would be a real problem, not the sitting but the getting back up part! A stool, rock, rock wall or anything I can lean against helps.

  • Corinne McNamara says:

    I use a grid sometimes. I have a commercial one, plastic with 1/3 grid lines. I found a flexible arm with clamps at each end that allows me to attach one end to something firm (my bag or a board) while positioning the grid so that I can see my view. I used it a lot at first, but now only when I’m looking at really complex, confusing views (urban, hilly areas with roads and buildings) or in a class with a still life.

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