Saturday, December 18, 2010

Composition - Books

I'm starting to work on a mini-video on Composition. For the video, I've pulled out some of my favorite books that deal with composition. These are:
  • Edgar Payne - Composition of Outdoor Painting
  • Arthur Wesley Dow - Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color
  • Andrew Loomis - Creative Illustration
Below are the covers plus a page from each. (I don't have a copy of Dow's book with me, so his page is from another but similar text on composition he wrote.)

Payne is pretty much a traditionalist, going with the old ideas of "templates" for designing your field compositions. "Templates" is my word for it, for lack of a better. You've probably heard of the "balance beam" design, or of designs based on letters of the alphabet such as S or U.

Dow, although he died in 1922, a good 25 years before Payne, was a true modern. He looked at Japanese design influences and latched upon the idea of notan, or a play of light and dark shapes. He stated that composition can't be taught; it must be learned by looking at good paintings. (It's hard for this painting instructor to tell that to his students!)

Loomis is a different cat altogether. A master illustrator, he used some of the ideas Payne wrote about, but he also dove deep into what he called "informal subdivision," in which he concocted a system for dividing a plane into a framework upon which design elements might be hung. He probably comes closest to using the Golden Mean than any of these. (By the way, you can get the Loomis book as a free download here.)

When you're out in the field, it's good to think a bit about design. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to capture the magic that we forget about something so fundamental.


Catherine M said...

I teach Illustration to college and continuing ed students, and the Loomis book looked really appealing! I checked on Amazon, and their prices range from $150 to $577! No iPad or Kindle version yet. Guess I'll have to pass this one up!

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Actually, Catherine, you can download the book for free. I'll put the link in the blog post for you.

Catherine M said...

Holy Cow! What a treat! Many thanks!

Helen Opie said...

While it may not be possible to teach composition beyond "templates", I do believe that one can teach and awareness of composition, so that the student becomes aware of composition and of looking at in in other's paintings, thus eventually learning to make interesting compositions themselves without templates.

I found I learnt a lot from Skip Lawrence's technique of getting his students to describe each painting's composition as he showed our previous day's work in his "magic mat" & frame. Doing this every morning, with a wide variety of paintings/compositions helped make all of us conscious of the many varieties (templates?) of composition, and this in turn gave us a planning-vocabulary when setting up our own compositions. He'd ask, "What sort of a composition is this?" And we were to reply with whatever we thought it was - mostly he used Edgar Whitney's varieties of composition, yet there was always room for dissenters or for suggesting other descriptions - we weren't learning templates, we were learning principles of composition, to give us something to think about when doing our own composing - OR when we found ourselves in trouble over an unsuccessful painting and could look into our (mental or noted) "dictionary of possibilities" to see where the trouble might lie.

daniela.. said...

Notan and composition: we didn't do this in art college, I have a rusty (but worthy) old Walter Foster book number 114 called Compose Pictures which uses this exact same principle and an encyclopedic book on Eastern art that stresses the importance of the 'empty' space outside of the subject, and now, I will try to download this Andrew Loomis book. The things of interest I find on your website!

daniela.. said...

Notan/composition pattern: I have stumbled across this useful technique: a sheet of mid tone transparent red plastic such as plastic paper files are made of, when held up to a composition in color, will reduce it to black, grey and white.

daniela.. said...

Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts & Crafts: When I went into Amazon books, I found that you can scroll down in this WOW/beautiful color plate filled book. A real treat.

Kimmy Ely said...

You're right about Edgar Payne. He wants his books to have a touch of tradition, with a classic setting. Well, his painting tells it all, from the murals to his own compositions. All those paintings needs are a good story and a short composition along with it. Mmm.. That's a good idea, isn't it?