Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mastering Composition - a recommended read

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting is an excellent book by Ian Roberts for all those who want to learn more about helpful principles and techniques for composition and design. It's all about understanding the structure and dynamics of the picture plane and planning your artwork. In my opinion it has something useful to say to both experienced painters and those starting out - and I've already got it tagged as one of those books I won't be lending out! I highly recommend this book to all those seeking to improve their skills in design and composition.

He "got me from the off" as it were.

 His introduction talks about how when he was young, he'd go painting with his artist Dad and his artist friends and how his most vivid memory was of the end of day critique - which always focused on the structure and design of the painting and never on the subject matter. This struck a chord - so I read on. By the bottom of the first column of the first page when he talked about the way workshop students tend to behave on plein air trips and how he addresses this behaviour he'd very much earned his credentials with me. So - having mentally given him a big tick in the margin I continued to read. He did not disappoint.
Don't waste your time adding details to a composition whose major masses don't interest or engage you
Ian Roberts - How to use this book
I've included some quotes from the book to give you a sense of what he has to say and how he says it. In my view, this book is chock full of words of wisdom which you want to write down and carry round with you. It also includes some very good quotations from various master painters.

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What does the book cover?

You can take a look inside the book here - and it shows you the Contents page. Essentially he
  • identifies steps on the path to mastery of composition, 
  • explains key concepts and 
  • provides practical exercises so that you can employ them. 
He likens it to driving a car. At the beginning, you don't know how you'll ever remember everything. However once you can 'drive' you don't even think about what you're doing.

Key concepts covered include:
  • Armatures - he covers compositional basics. Much of this is about the tried and trusted and handed down. As one would expect, there's not much new apart from the communication and presentation.
    • He uses 'Armatures' to describe the way in shapes are designed and constructed to create a coherent flow and movement through a painting. He demonstrates through unpicking the structures which underpin some great paintings.
    • He identifies and discusses eight common armatures (L shape, S shape, triangle etc.). I've seen these discussed elsewhere but I think the graphics and text in this version make it very accessible.
    • He then identifies and describes 12 composition basics. These are not defined in terms of 'elements' and 'principles' of composition but are, in effect, examples of or combinations of these. The grey-scale thumbnails he employs to help explain are terrific! thing is for certain: strong engaging composition does not appear miraculously at the end, when you are putting the finishing touches on a painting. Strong compositions are built in considered steps right from the beginning. "Well begun is half done" really applies here.
Ian Roberts - What is Composition?
  • Abstract masses: cropping and framing - This chapter will be an enormous help to those who struggle with design and values and in particular will make all those who tend to paint subjects rather than value shapes reconsider their approach. He demonstrates designing with three values and the 'three grey marker' exercise to very good effect. He also deals with viewfinders, photographic references, viewpoints, the value of studying the old masters and thumbnails. Part-way through reading this chapter I started to think this book should be on the recommended reading list of every art tutor who runs workshops!
Of course every representational painting has a subject, but if you let the subject matter rather than the large value masses carry the painting, you'll lack drama and probably get buried in the details
Ian Roberts - Think in Value Masses not Subjects
  • Color Shapes - He then goes on to explain colour and colour shapes. He's working in oils to discuss colour and there is more to interest oil painters in this chapter than any other. However, a lot of of what gets discussed is relevant to all media which mix hues to create colour values.
  • Guiding the Eye through the Picture Plane - this chapter (and the DVD) address the issue of visual dynamics and how to keep the eye moving through the picture and how to avoid creating parts to a picture which drive the eye right out of it. I think most people will find the DVD (see below) to be very helpful to understanding why pictures don't work. Using a number of different examples and the use of digital annotations and variations, he demonstrates the impact of different levels of colour intensity and contrast relative to the focal point.
  • Gallery of Greats - the notion here is that you can learn much from studying great painters - which as you'll be aware is a notion I'm very keen on! This section focuses on and discusses individual paintings by modern painters - John F Carlson; Gustav Klimt; Konstantin Korovin, Isaak Levitan, John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Andrew Wyeth and Anders Leonard Zorn.
  • Expressing your Artistic Voice - I especially liked this final section and his emphasis on the best ways to express yourself.
As we change, our voice changes. We leave behind the known and tested to move into uncharted territory. All artists wrestle with this one
Ian Roberts - Expressing your artistic voice


Apart from that stunning chapter on abstract masses (and lots of other content) what I particularly like about this book is that Ian Roberts is an excellent communicator who engages with sound principles. I don't think this book will appeal to those wanting a 'quick fix'. He's very mindful about highlighting about how we move through stages of competence on the way to mastery. At the same time, those who study his very clear explanations of the key principles behind strong composition and then practice them are likely to become much more effective at creating designs which have impact - whether they are serious students of art or established artists!
You'd never question the need of a musician, regardless of talent, to spend at least an hour or two practising daily. Somehow there's this idea that painters don't need to practice. Painters are born with talent, and you've either got it or you don't. It's not true. To get better at painting your must practice
Ian Roberts - How to use this book
I really liked his recommendation to be disciplined about 'a composition a day' which resonated very strongly with me. It's something I've spoken about at length with fellow artists in the past. Regular practice, persistence and just 'turning up every day' are just so helpful to achieving your aims - period (see my 'stickability' post). One of the reasons I'm such a strong advocate of sketching is because it enables me to practice composition and design and test the extent to which sound principles are now ingrained habits in reality. After all, why just draw a single object when you could be designing a picture? In effect, this is where all those who started doing daily paintings got the biggest pay-off of all. Sitting down on a regular basis meant producing a composition a day which in turn really helped people to try and understand more about design and composition and them employ what they'd learned in their paintings. Many noticed that their paintings improved as a result - and are keen to learn more and improve further.

I also applaud his recommendations for a period of self-study without feeling pressured to make great art and to slow down and plan. They're both principles I've been trying to employ for the last two years - with varying degrees of success! ;)

I'm a bit less enamoured with some of his step by step demonstrations - although I suspect the value of these will be more apparent when they are employed by readers of the book.

There was just one rather odd thing which I encountered while drafting this post. The book is very well designed and uses both colour and white space very thoughtfully in contrast to his website which I'm afraid I found a bit too "technicolor" for my liking. Similarly I prefer his plein air work to the studio paintings.

The instructional DVD

Mastering Composition is the first book I've bought which also comes with an instructional DVD. The DVD was a little fiddly to set up up on my computer and I'll probably try it out again in my proper DVD player. Windows Media Player didn't like it but clicking on the file from the folder produced software which played the video - at a smaller size than I'm used to viewing. I agree with one of the people who have commented on his voice being rather too quiet as he explains the impact of colour intensity in different pictures.

Art instruction - the workshops and videos

Judging by this book, I'd say he's probably a very good teacher. The comments on his website from students certainly suggest this. (Have any of my readers done one of his workshops - what did you think?)

His website provides details about workshops including a home workshop program. and a Mastering Composition Workshop in April 2009. The Plein Air Painting in Provence looks very tempting!

He also has a couple of videos - and Kevin MacPherson is a fan of the composition one!


About the author (from his website)
Ian Roberts has been painting for over 40 years. He attended the New School of Art and the Ontario College of Art in Toronto and studied figure painting in Florence, Italy. He teaches and is an author. He's taught plein air painting in Provence, France and Tuscany, Italy, as well as in the U.S. Ian lives in Canada, shows in the U.S. and Canada, is an artist member of the California Art Club and a signature member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association.

The unsolicited comments from readers about his other book Creative Authenticity are impressive.