Thursday, January 17, 2008

Greg Albert - The Simple Secret to Better Painting

The book I always recommend to people who want to learn more about composition and design is Greg Albert's "The simple secret to better painting", first published by North Light Books in 2003.

This is a very accessible book. It makes complex topics very simple and provides one simple idea to keep at the front of your brain when working on a composition. I think it's more likely than any other book I've come across to both get the basics across and enable people to develop a grasp of quite sophisticated concepts - such as dynamic balance.

'The Simple Secret to Better Painting'
Greg Albert, North Light Books (2003)

So what does he cover and what is the simple secret? As it's already explained on Amazon and various art forums I think I'm safe in revealing that............
The one rule is 'Never make any two intervals the same'
Greg Albert
His book shows how that one simple rule can then be applied in various contexts when thinking about the design and composition of a painting. You may think you don't need the book now you've got the secret - but the value of the book is in the way he demonstrates in simple and effective ways how that rules can be applied. I know I've sat and chanted his idea to myself when stuck with a composition - and it works!

The book starts with a section on design dynamics. He provides a number of simple images and game-like tests that enable people to get their head around the idea that the type and nature of a mark can represent different things. He uses these to explain visual concepts - visual tension, visual energy and visual weight. He shows, using simple illustrations of different arrangements of mono marks, what's boring, what is chaotic and what is pleasing - and how his one rule applies

The next section is on making things interesting which looks at how to deal with dividing up your painting into different zones and how to divide up the space between objects and add more variety - by making no two intervals the same. He also demonstrates how to make lines of division more interesting. This was a tip I was given years ago - but this book made it make sense!

This section also focuses on shapes used in the painting and how to make these more interesting, the importance of odd numbers and how to create interesting groups of different shapes.
Any division of space is an opportunity to add interest
Greg Albert - Making things interesting
Achieving a dynamic balance follows up on the concepts introduced at the beginning and deals with balance as a principle of design with lots of illustrations of how balance can become unbalanced or static as well as how to achieve a dynamic balance using the different elements of design eg through balancing different sized shapes and colours and the nature of the mark made.
We need to find the right balance between boring order and distressing disorder. Too much variation causes a painting to lose unity. Not enough variation causes a painting to lose interest
Greg Albert - introduction to achieving a dynamic balance
Pleasing the eye deals with how the viewer's eye scans a picture, why a painting needs a dominant centre of interest, which subjects tend to attract the mind, how to draw the eye and create a focal point - in a number of different ways (possibly one of the most effective pages in the book) and then how to place it.
The center of interest is a magnet for the mind.........The overall effectiveness of a painting's design will be a function of the location of its focal point and center of interest.
Greg Albert - Pleasing the eye
He also deals with how to lead the eye into and around a painting with very simple and effective explanations of the 'rule of thirds', sweetspots, leads, pointers, blocks and exits. You can see one of the key pages on Amazon here. The important thing is he doesn't just tell you he also makes sure he shows you all the important notions which need to become part of an artist's vocabulary when talking about a composition. This is a book which has succinct text and lots of images which speak volumes.

The next chapter concentreates in the importance of tonal value and value contrast.
Tonal values are critical. The lights and darks contribute more the success of a pitning's composition than any other factor, including color
Greg Albery - introduction to tonal value and contrast
He demonstrates why tonal vaue is so important, how value intervals can be varied, how to see your subject as a pattern of 3 or 5 values (something which is propounded but not always well explained elsewhere) and how to lead the viewer's eye using the value pattern.

He has a whole chapter devoted to colour. He considers how to create dominance using colour, colour temperature, colour intensity, colour values and colour contrast. He also explains what an accent colour is and how to use and place it in a composition to highlight the focal point.

The book also contains sections specifically devoted to still lifes, landscapes and portraits. In each of these he covers the basics which help to make a successful composition. He addresses issues such as:
  • selecting still life objects
  • arranging a still life
  • making use of photographs (for landscapes)
  • basic value patterns for landscapes
  • cropping the figure and cropping the portrait
  • dealing with multiple figures
Using the 'Big Drawing Book Review' rating model, I'd award this book five pencils. This is a book which you can come back to again and again. It's a 'basics' book for those wanting to learn more about composition and design and it can also act as a 'pick you up' for more advanced artists who feel they're getting stale and need a visual boost. This book makes composition as a topic both accessible and understandable to art students and would-be artists who've been ducking out of improving their knowledge of composition. For those who tend to neglect the importance of composition because it's 'too difficult' or there are 'too many rules' or there is 'too much to think about' there is now no excuse!

Finally, one of the added bonuses of this book for budding authors is that it in effect provides a model 'how to' of how to write and lay out a 'how to' fine art book! I guess that's one of the benefits of it having been written by somebody who used to be the Editorial Director at North Light Art Instruction Books!
Composition is one of the most important elements to any painting, but it can also be one of the most intimidating. The long list of rules for designing and structuring a work is complicated, hard to remember and downright mystifying. In this simple resource, Greg Albert boils it all down to one golden rule: Never make any two intervals the same. He demonstrates this fool-proof technique with clear, concise diagrams, before-and-after student paintings and samples from today’s top painters. Readers will get to learn from the work of Frank Webb, Tony Couch, Zoltan Szabo, Tony Van Hasselt, Tom Lynch and many more! Artists of all levels with find this secret to great composition easy to remember and even easier to use.
Amazon book description
Note: Greg Allbert graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinatti, Ohio and he has taught drawing and painting as part of its community education programme for many years. He also has advanced degrees in painting and art history and has worked as the Editorial Director of North Light Art Instruction Books. His other books are Basic Drawing Techniques (paperback ISBN: 0-89134-388-1) and Basic Figure Drawing Techniques. (paperback ISBN: 0-89134-551-5). According to the Art Academy, he's currently working on a book about figure drawing and anatomy.



  1. Thank you soo much. I'm sold...I bought it.

  2. This is a great book, pretty much of a sleeper in the realm of art books but it has all you need to make art.

  3. It's a great book. I have it and have read it many times.

  4. Love this post. I'm going to buy it.Thanks.

  5. Excellent review, Katherine. I've pressed the buy button too. Now I have that horrible wait (anything up to two months of more) for my treasure to arrive in the mail!

    Amazon really should elect you to their board!

  6. Well I'm very pleased to see it being also endorsed by others who have bought it - which has always been my experience and one of the reasons why I always recommend it.

    Robyn - You know I always go totally over the top for books I really like. I do wonder at times whether I'll ever be able to find a nice way of saying your book falls a long way short for the ones that are the reverse of the ones I rave about!

  7. Thanks very much for this review - I've been wary about buying any book about composition... but this helps immensely and I am sold :)

  8. Sigh - I've just been in seventh heaven because my copy of 'The watercolours of John Singer Sargent' finally arrived from Amazon, now here's another one I simply have to have... at least I know it will be really worthwhile, unlike a few lemons I've ordered before - so thank you!

  9. What a great way to use the Barnes & Noble gift card I got for the holidays! I'll go and check it out today!

  10. I'm glad you reviewed this book here. I've had it since it was published and it's been a great help to me. Albert's "simple secret" has been my mantra ever since - I'm not always successful in applying it but it's always there, at the back of my mind or at the front, whenever I work on a new piece.

    You got me to pull it off the shelf and read much of it again. Thanks.

  11. Thank again for all the comments.

    Again, can I reiterate that it's the favourable comments by all those who've bought this book which make this a "recommended buy" by more than just me.

    Every time I've ever written about this book, people who've purchased it come forward and always comment on how helpful they've found it.

  12. Can I remind people wanting to leave comments about the contents of my comments policy - which explains very clearly why comments are rejected.

  13. Thanks so much, Katherine Tyrrell. This book is excellent. The best on composition I ever read. Now I see paintings with an analytical eye…I am looking for a book on composition for sculptors, I suppose there are similarities with 2D composition, but also big differences…I would like to find out, I´m a sculptor.


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