Monday, January 14, 2008

Composition and Design - An Introduction

Singing the Blues
10" x 8", coloured pencil on Arches HP
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

In the next two months or so, I'm going to be investigating composition and design for artists and producing an overview of what I find out. Which is not to say that this could ever be a topic which can be adequately covered in such a short time! It is of course a lifelong area of interest for an awful lot of practising artists.
Design and Composition - I'm revisiting this topic to try and understand more about what different people have had to say about composition, what are the 'rules' and why breaking the rules also works. I intend to relate design and composition to specific subject matter (eg landscapes and flowers) and artists that I like and/or will feature this year - such as Degas. I'm starting the year with this topic as it underpins so much of what comes next. It will continue to run as theme throughout the year and I'll be referencing it in other areas of work during the rest of the year.
Katherine Tyrrell - "Making A Mark in 2008 - the Plan"
Composition and design - why?

Why study composition and design? Well, although I studied art to advanced level at school, my studies seemed to neglect exploring this important topic area in depth. Similarly, I've tended to find that it's common for many painting workshops and courses to err much more towards teaching techniques relating to particular media and to touch upon composition and design only in passing. When was the last time you saw a workshop which was focused wholly on designing your artwork? Have you noticed how all the books on the art shelves in the bookshops are mostly about painting in a particular medium?

How to tackle this? Well, in the past, my own particular approach has been to develop my own 'book of notes on art'. This has been culled from instruction provided by my favourite authors and workshop tutors.

What I noticed as I started to develop the book was that there is very little that is new - most were saying the same things - only in different ways. The only thing that seemed to vary was the level of attention that different sources paid to different topics. Occasionally somebody had a new take on a topic which was particularly illuminating and helpful.

My book provides me with my 'take' on core subjects and doesn't include anything at all about media. I have pages and pages of notes about various topics - but an awful lot of it is about design and composition. You can see my 'table of contents' list on the right.

This softback book goes with me on my travels and provides me with both stimulation to get my head in the right place and help when I get stuck trying to develop a particular work.

Although it's very helpful, the 'structure nut' in me wanted to try and develop a more coherent overview of various topics and that's what I intend to do this year. I'm therefore starting with the topic which, for me, provides the baseline and infrastructure for all other areas of artistic development - composition and design.

Composition and Design - How?

Inevitably, doing a project as part of a blog means focusing on published material and whatever resources are available on the Internet.

When I started to prepare for this project I was struck by how few books there were - compared to other topics and media related topics - and how few references to composition and design on the Internet. So I'm hoping that this project will also be interactive and will, with your help, also make some progress in identifying good books and good websites. I've found some and you will know of others!

All of the hyperlinks I identify will be added into my new Squidoo lens Composition and Design - Resources for Artists. This already includes some of the links and books which I expect to be referencing in my planned posts.

Composition and Design - what?

I reserve the right to change my mind about what the project will cover and in what order as this is, after all, a process of distilling and sorting!

The emphasis will be on providing an overview of a topic, the identification of aids and checklists and the provision of book references and hyperlinks to useful websites.

I'm also going to make it a rule that all debates, by way of comments, about different approaches to composition will be very civilised. I've seen how this topic can generate very strong views on Internet forums in the past!

This is what I've currently got jotted down as a framework for posts. At the end I'll organise whatever I've done as posts and create a summary which links back to each post.
  • What is composition and design? An introduction to:
    • the elements of design - value, line, colour, space, marks and texture (the list varies depending on who you read)
    • the principles of design - balance, unity, contrast, direction, emphasis, economy, rhythm, proportion (ditto)
    • plus some quotes and hyperlinks
  • A Composition Digest - some books about composition
    • introduction - and interactive element for people to suggest books
    • book reviews
  • Creating a focus / centre of interest
    • the golden section / rule of thirds / sweetspots
    • aids for composition - the viewfinder
    • a checklist of how to create a focal point
  • The importance of tone: values and contrast
    • aids for composition - working in greyscale
    • aids for composition - the value finder
    • aids for composition - the thumbnail
    • Notan - a review
    • a checklist for working with value and contrast
  • The importance of line, mark-making and direction
  • Composition and the Still Life
  • Composition and the Landscape
  • Composition and the Portrait
  • Composition and Floral/Botanical Art
  • Composition and Artists
    • Edgar Degas
  • Composition and the History of Art
    • historical and modern approaches
    • cultural differences
    • Japanese design and composition
If you want to make sure you follow this project as it unfolds can I suggest you subscribe to my blog which will save you having to check back to see what's been posted. You can subscribe via e-mail or in a feed reader - see the links near to the top of the right hand column.

The next post in the project will introduce the elements and principles of design.



  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I am looking forward to visiting your blog again and again. I so agree with you about revisiting the elements and principles throughout our lives. As one educated in interior design (turned artist), I have found so many creative types do not revisit these baiscs often enough. Thank you for keeping them in front of us.

  2. This is going to be a wonderful review and refresher for me. Are you going to be looking at perspective as part of composition during this project?

  3. Kim - I don't think you can look at the basics too much. I sometimes think I need giant post-it notes stuck in front of my eyes!

    Miki - probably not in any detail as it's something that needs explaining in some detail to do properly - although I can probably find a link or two which does

  4. Singing the Blues is such a beautiful drawing, Katherine. Apart from the soft natural freshness of the petals, I love the pattern of foliage.

    I too am very much looking forward to your study of composition and design. Thank you!

  5. Wow this is great Katherine, you are always such an inspiration. i will be watching and reading with interest. Coming from a design background i probably approach things from a different angle it will be interesting to read :)

  6. I agree; composition is #1 with me! Unfortunately I feel like I'm slacking in that part as of late. Looking forward to this series! Thank you Katherine for all you do!

  7. Singing the Blues is a nice use of complements. Love your lost edges, too.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking.


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