Monday, January 21, 2008

Composition and Design - A Digest #1

Last week I recommended Greg Albert's "The Simple Secret to Better Painting" as a book which I recommend to people needing help with or wanting to find out more about composition. Today, I'm listing and providing a synopsis of other books about composition or books which have helpful sections about composition.

This first 'digest' of book reviews focuses on those books which relate composition to art history or were written over a hundred years ago.

A series of exercises for the use of students and teachers
by Arthur Wesley Dow (Author), Joseph Masheck (Author).
Publisher: University of California Press; original publication 1899; current edition (February 1998). ISBN-10: 0520207491;ISBN-13: 978-0520207493

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922) was a painter, printmaker and a writer. He chaired the Department of Fine Arts at Teachers College of Columbia University, New York from 1904 until his death.

Dow is perhaps best known as a mentor to Georgia O'Keeffe and the man who literally "wrote the book" on composition. First published in 1899, this manual influenced generations of teachers and students.

The book arose out of Dow's studies of the approach to making art in different cultures and therein lies some of the real power of the book for me - particularly now in an age of instant global communication.

Relevant to all of the visual arts, it employs a workbook format and sets of exercise to work through principles regarding harmonic relations between lines, color, and dark and light patterns. It also includes an extended discussion of Notan which in turn is based on Dow's studies of wood block printing in Japan.
In Composition Dow develops a system for teaching students to create freely constructed images on the basis of harmonic relations between lines, colors, and dark and light patterns. Greatly influenced by Japanese art, he expounds a theory of "flat" formal equilibrium as an essential component of telling pictorial creation. Generations of teachers and their public school pupils learned from Dow's orientalism and adopted basic postimpressionist principles without even knowing the term.
University of California Press - introduction to the book
Dow saw composition and design as a preparation for drawing rather than drawing as a preparation for design.
Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. I hold that art should be approached through composition rather than through imitative drawing..........Study of composition of Line, Mass and Color leads to appreciation of all forms of art and of the beauty of nature.
Arthr Wesley Dow
The book is lavishly illustrated although it tends to keep to the original black and white illustrations. My copy was purchased at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and I've been dipping in and out of it ever since - especially last summer during my Georgia O'Keeffe project.

The copy which I've linked to is the copy I've got which reproduces Dow's revised version published in 1912 - but with an introduction by Joseph Masheck. It's not an easy book to absorb in one reading but does repay further study. Personally I thought that the 60 page introduction by Joseph Masheck is a discussion of the historical context of the book's publication and its ramifications in terms of impact. It's rather long but presumably necessary as a preface for a book which would otherwise be out of copyright by now. A pdf copy (note the size!) of the 1913 version can be seen on the Canadian Libraries Internet Archive website here.

Pictorial Composition
Henry Rankin Poore.
Dover Publications (original 1903; this edition June 1, 1976); paperback: 104 pages; ISBN-10: 0486233588; ISBN-13: 978-0486233581

Henry Rankin Poore

I've not got nor read this book but it ranks top of the Amazon lists when you do a search on 'art+composition' and its Amazon listing contains a number of useful reviews which are worth reading. Bear in mind that it's very clear that a number of the reviewers obviously don't appreciate that this book was originally published in 1903. It may now come across as formulaic and written in an old fasioned way to some while others find it succinet and absolute gold mine - a number suggest that it covers a lot of detail not generally covered by most art books or tutors.
Every item of a picture has a degree of pulling power, as though each object was a magnet of some potency or strength. Each has attraction for the eye. While each draws attention to itself, it detracts from every other part proportionately. On the Principle of the Steelyard, the farther from the middle and more isolated and more isolated an object the greater its weight or attraction.
Henry Rankin Poore
You can also find a limited preview of this book on Google Books here - which includes the Table of Contents and the Index it looks interesting to me. This also lists how you can buy it (bottom of the right hand pane).

You can find out a little bit more about Henry Rankin Poore on this page of a website which focuses on the Lyme Art Colony in Connecticut at the turn of the 20th century.

The Elements of Drawing
John Ruskin
Publisher: Dover Publications; original edition 1857; Rev Ed edition (June 1, 1971); paperback - 228 pages; ISBN-10: 0486227308; ISBN-13: 978-0486227306

This is a timeless classic by John Ruskin, a renowned art critic and tutor who championed honest, naturally observed art - and the work of JMW Turner.

The book has never been out of print since it was first published in the mid-nineteenth century. It contains a treatise on the laws of colour and composition. The book is mostly about drawing but does touche on composition. He discusses the laws of principality (dominance); repetition (including symmetry); continuity; curvature; radiation; contrast, interchange, consistency and harmony. You can read more about Ruskin's beliefs which informed this book in the wikipedia entry for Ruskin.

I've got two copies - this one which is the small paperback version - slim and easy to carry round - and another one which has been edited and annotated by Bernard Dunstan which I find more accessible - but less accommodating for tube reading. I have to confess although some parts are tremedously clear I'm also find it slow going in other parts (he tends to digress or get caught up with an idea) however his perspective on art and the process of making it is invaluable.

How to Read Paintings
by Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen.
Publisher: Chambers (June 21, 2004); Paperback: 272 pages; ISBN-10: 0550101225; ISBN-13: 978-0550101228

How to Read Paintings aims to help its readers understand the creative process better and to appreciate paintings more by identifying and then interpreting those elements that make a painting memorable. It has a section on composition. It's my current bed-time reading so I'm not going to comment on its value - but it certainly covers a number of topics in relation to composition which I haven't seen very much of elsewhere.
"The term 'composition' refers to the various means, graphic rather than chromatic, used by painters to organise or order their work.
How to Read Paintings - introduction to Composition
I'm going to list below what it considers as overall it covers topics not often seen in books more usually consulted in relation to composition. It considers:
  • context - the setting or shape of the space to be painted. It includes an analysis of the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
  • choice for format: the prestigious golden section
  • the interior of the painting: organisation of the plane - with commentary on
    • how people read paintings
    • the construction and meaning of religious art in relation to the centre and sides - left and right, high and low;
    • symmetry and asymmetry;
    • pyramid and frieze formats;
    • horizontals, verticals and diagonals
    • empty and full composition
    • open and closed composition
    • the size of figures relative to the size of the painting
  • the illusion of depth: cheating perspective
    • procedures for creating perspective
    • the different perspectives on perspective in the Middle Ages and the 14th century
    • centralised linear perspective from the 15th century
    • anamorphic images - involving the distortion of real images
    • how perspective is used as a symbol - and to play spatial games
    • foreground and the construction of depth
    • painting the viewer's space (using Las Meninas as an example)
    • experiments with composition eg by Van Gogh
Finally here are links to Google Book lists arising from subject:"Composition (Art)". These include, for example, Wassily Kandinsky's "Point and Line to Plane"

The conclusion I'm reaching very early in this project is that there are any number of ways at looking at how composition is best approached. Simply because something was written about 100 years ago doesn't make it out of date. Simply because something was identified a long time ago and recorded does not make make modern art tutors the best people to impart that bit of knowledge. Going back to the original texts is something that can be a very worthwhile exercise. For me, composition seems very much like a topic that can reward repeated study with periodic 'aha' moments as something falls into place - even something which you thought you'd heard about/read about/'done and got the T shirt' before! Studying composition as a subject in its own right is also making looking at both paintings by other artists and the natural world much more rewarding for me.

I'll be doing more digests of more contemporary books about composition during course of this project.



  1. Katherine,

    I don't think I've commented yet on your project posts (life is happening, but I have enjoyed them.) You are packing in alot of information. This study in composition is very rewarding - it does effect how you view paintings. Paintings I've passed by before I now find myself staring at, tracing our compositional principles applied and ignored.

    I'm nearly done with the Poore book. I agree that there is valuable information in the book. I also agree that it takes work for the modern reader to understand it - work I think is worth doing. I plan to read it again, because much of it did go over my head - or I didn't take time with it.

    Once Poore is done, I'll begin the Albert and Dow books. This week I'm posting about another book that has some discussion on applying compositional ideas to paintings.

    And I agree, composition is not something one ever truly masters, only continues enjoying learning about!

  2. Good stuff. Thanks for these formal references, and please keep 'em up.

  3. You got me very interested in Dow's book and I went looking for it on I came across another Dow book titled "Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color. According to a review it has the same content without the long winded intro by Masheck. It's available new from one of amazon's resellers for $7.68 plus $3.99 shipping (in the US).

  4. You got me very interested in Dow's book. I went looking for it on and came across another Dow book titled "Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color". According to a review it is the same content without the long winded intro by Masheck. One of Amazon's resellers has it New for $7.68 plus $3.99 shipping (in the US, that is).


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