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Old 05-08-2003, 11:09 AM
BevL BevL is offline
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Thanks so much Bill for such a thought provoking response.

I think a lot of my own confusion comes not from so many 'rules', but from so many opinions. Not necessarily for my own work, but I read the comments on other work all through this site, and quite often notice mention of wrongs in composition. For instance, some might look at Paul Browns' painting and say things such as 'the stalks on the center onion lead my eye out", or , 'the stalks cut the painting in half', or 'there should be more room at the top, shorten those green stalks' etc etc. So for those of us who are just starting out, it becomes terribly confusing. Before this thread, I had never heard of a straight line composition in anything I've read. But when posting my other painting of a still life with this type of compostion, that was what was zeroed in on as a fault for the most part.. the items in a straight line. Paul Browns' example shows it can indeed be a most pleasing composition, and we can see through Jackies explanation, why it works so well.

On another note.. about artists actually using lines and placing subjects, etc, here's an interesting link on Vermeers'"Woman Holding a Balance'. Make sure to follow the red arrows under the photo.

http://www.nga.gov/feature/vermeer/composition1.html

Bev

Last edited by BevL : 05-08-2003 at 11:13 AM.
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Old 05-08-2003, 11:31 AM
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Quote:
[
I am often amused when I see articles in which some composition enthusiast has drawn lines, circles, diagonals, X's, showing how the eye "moves" around the painting, and then marvels at the artist's genius at having been so clever as to have arranged the painting thusly. Well, I believe in some of that explanation, but not all of it. Does a viewer of such a painting actually believe that the master artist who produced such a work of art sat down and drew all these lines, circles, curves, diagonals, X's etc. and then commenced placing his subject within all these geometric limitations? I say baloney! Except for adhering to a few "rules", such as selecting and placing a center of interest with the proper attention being paid to perspective, I'd be willing to bet they just sat down and painted things where they felt they ought to be. If some of the old masters could speak to us right now, they'd probably be laughing their heads off at the geometric dissecting, post mortems, and interpreting to which we subject their paintings. I'll bet most of them would simply say, "Heck, I was just trying to make a pleasing picture." But, I am also aware that some present day artists feel that the old masters did exactly that!
[/b]

Bill - I have written several books on pastel painting, and before tackling the chapters on composition, I reckoned I ought to do my background research - so I did. And to my amazement, I found that there is NO QUESTION in my mind, now, having seen and read a great deal on the subject, that many an old master most certainly DID understand composition "rules", and worked with them to achieve an underlying strength to their work which clould not, in my opinion have been achieved in any other way. I remember one image, a Turner painting, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how he had orchestrated his scene to conform to many of the golden rules..........and boy, did it work. It was not at all apparent at first glance, but I saw, through the eyes of the extremely intelligent author, a Royal Academician, how Turner managed to direct the viewers eye EXACTLY where he wanted it to go; how curving forms drew our eye from spot to spot in the picture, and how the important elements were pefectly placed. I think you completely underestimate the capabilities of the great masters, I think your "baloney"comment is an insult to their intelligence and could not disagree with you more (which is my perogative.) I do not think they decided upon a composition by placing lines and dashes down first, and then basing their compositon around those lines and dashes, as you suggest - they were much more structured than that. They would have prepared sketches in advance of doing a painting, and would have decided upon the best form of composition by adjusting their sketches with composition in mind. They were thorough, and careful, well-educated and immensely talented. There is no question in my mind that Degas was absolutely aware of the strength of underlying geometry in his ballet pictures, for instance - those marvellous angled arms, which echo the angles of the skirts, are no accident. They are, quite simply GOOD DESIGN.

There is too much "oh just paint what you like" around today and not enough respect for the amazing abilities and knowledge of the painters of the past, who, far from being amused by our attempts to analyse, would probably be horrified by our lack of education, and lack-lustre compositions.

My reading has been extensive. I believe that some authors over-analyse, but there are many who do not, and who are capable of extracting the main elements of composition and simplifying them and explaining them well.

Incidentally, I do not know where you do your research and get your information, but I have not once, in all my reading, ever read that one should make all four corners of the picture slightly darker than the rest, and having looked this afternoon through many of my books,and examined many a master painting, including those of Sergent, Cezanne, Degas, Monet and others, I can safely say that this comment is completely inaccurate, and making your corners darker is NOT one of the main rules of composition. THAT is baloney.

And your comment..."things running on a diagonal are generally considered "good". ???????????? What is that all about? I don't believe that is a helpful, or accurate comment at all.

I really believe that if an artist is to rise above the mundane in his or her work, he needs to add to his or her education and experience as much as possible. Settling for quick fixes and over-simplified "rules" without doing some in-depth research at some point, will leave that artist producing paintings which suffer from lack of substance and depth. After more than 20 years of painting, I am still learning, and will continue to do so, and will not settle for less.

(Oh boy, have I probably opened a can of worms, folks! I must be crazy. Never mind - I'm off to run my exhibition next week, so you can blast away back at me without fear of response!!)

Jackie
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Old 05-08-2003, 11:39 AM
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Bev - we cross-posted so I didn't see your last post while I was writing my somehwat vitriolic response above!

Regarding what you see in these posts.........well, you must take into account that what you are seeing is a lot of people's UNINFORMED PERSONAL OPINIONS. Or, in some instances, but not many INFORMED personal opinions.

At the end of the day, you have to decide where you stand. There will always be someone out there who will tell you that you did this or that wrong. Listen, and then analyse your feelings. Do you believe they might be right? If so, they possibly are. Do you feel, on the other hand, that no, you do NOT agree after all? That's OK too - they may well be wrong.

Yes, there are certain things you can learn, which will help you to improve your compositions. Just keep on listening, and learning, but never forget to also trust your instincts too. Gradually, you will pick up things which matter, things which make sense, and things which help you to feel more confident about your instincts.

Learning is wonderful. Keep on learning, keep on analysing, keep on listening.........but try to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to reading other people's "opinions".

Jackie
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Old 05-08-2003, 12:33 PM
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Jackie,

Actually, I would really appreciate being proven wrong. But, as yet, nobody has explained just how a critic is able to have climbed into the mind of an old master, and discovered just how his thinking evolved, and whether or not that old master went through all the geometrical gyrations in the planning of a painting as is usually touted by those who believe it.

I certainly did not want to give the impression that their techniques involved no planning or consideration of composition. I surely do believe they did lots of sketching and planning, and for the reason of establishing a good composition. I simply believe that most of the composition enthusiasts "read" too much into how these paintings were created. I'm afraid that I'VE opened the can of worrms, as I know it's not popular to scoff at all the devotees and line-drawers and disectors of intricate composition. My entire point was to bring to Bev the realization that there are only a scant few "rules" of composition which should be observed, and from there on a great deal is strictly OPINION!

I'd warrant a guess that if you gave the same great, but intricate, painting to 5 different composition experts, and asked them to draw on an overlay the marks representing the main strengths of the painting, compositionally, that you'd get 5 different drawings. That does not make for good understanding regarding the rules of composition. Again, that represents opinions, not rules. And, therefore, I'd have to say that one ciritic's opinions may not be any more or less credible than any other critic's opinion.

You may not agree with some of the suggestion which I have offered, but then I respectfully ask you to come up with some which ARE correct. That's really all Bev was asking for. Shoot me down. I really don't mind. I would be happy to learn from you (and I hope I do), but offer something which Bev and I can learn from. For example, if that Turner piece does what you have suggested, it must be worthy of being used as a prime example of some "rule" that is understandable, learnable, and teachable. Please teach us all just what that rule is.

I sort of expected to get many artists' dander up on this one, but it's how I feel, and the only thing that many of us are asking is to please let us know a few "rules" which we can use on, let's say, 90% of our paintings to make our compositions more pleasing. I, for one, would really welcome the information, and will be quite willing to change my mind, should I come across some really positive information to the contrary.

Jackie, you are OK, in my book! Teach me, I ask of you.

Bev, you have posted a really super link regarding Vermeer!

Bill
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Old 05-08-2003, 12:58 PM
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Well, Bill, you are a brick to take my post so well, I didn't expect y0u would and I think it is great that you did.

In fact, I tried, in my previous post explaining some of the points about the onions composition, to put forward a few of the main elements of composition, as I saw them in terms of that composition ...........Echoing shapes, Unity, and Variety with Unity. I believe these to be important, useful elements to learn about, and I hope my explanations are fairly clear there.

To be perfectly honest, it would take ages to go into a whole dissertation about composition, there is too much to it. I did, in my book Pastels Workshop,(available from me if you wish!!!) go into composition in some depth, there is a whole chapter devoted to it, and is the best I can do, frankly.

Otherwise, I would direct you to a couple of good books, if they are still in print. One is a paperback called COMPOSITION IN PAINTING AND DRAWING by Jose M. Parramon. It is a smallish paperback, but has some sound information in it.

I also learned a great deal from DESIGN BASICS by David A Lauer.. The chapters in his books cover these main elements, in a very understandable form:
1. UNITY
2. FOCAL POINT
3. BALANCE
4 SCALE/PROPORTION
5. ILLUSION OF SPACE
6. ILLUSION OF MOTION
7. RHYTHM
8. LINE
9. SHAPE/FORM
10. TEXTURE
11. COLOUR.

The chapter on Unity covers also Unity with Variety, and was the most helpful chapter I have read anywhere.

If you could find an old copy of this book, I highly recommend it.

I also recommend Angela Gair's book COLOUR LIGHT AND FORM, which has several chapters on Designing the Picture, which are clear and concise.

I am a bit short of time today but when I have a moment, I may photocopy the drawings of the Turner, which are based on Ruskin's analysis of the Turner pic, in Bernard Dunstan's excellent book COMPOSING YOUR PAINTINGS, probably long out of print.
I could scan the images now, but you realy need the text to go with it.

This comment of Dunstan's, after his analysis of the Turner, may interest you, however:

"These then are some of the formal devices that the painter may use in the design of a picture. I must stress again that there's bound to be a certain artificiality about any attempt to analyze in this way. On the whole, a painter does not necesarily consciously decide, before he begins, to do this and that; decisions are more likely to come out of the subject, his responses to it, and the way that other things are happening on his canvas. I am sure that pictures design themselves far more than we think; composition happens all around us, AND WHERE A KNOWLEDGE OF THESE ASPECTS OF DESIGN CAN HELP IS THAT IT ENABLES US TO SEE AND CATCH HOLD OF POSSIBILITIES THAT WE MIGHT OTHERWISE HAVE BEEN BLIND TO".

So, in effect, Dunstan is agreeing with you, but modifying that agreement with that last sentence, which agrees with me about needing the "knowledge".

I am glad we all agree.

Jackie
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Old 05-08-2003, 01:18 PM
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By the way, everyone.....This quote is off our own forum by Johannes Vloothuis regarding diagonals, for what it's worth.

11. If possible include a vertical, horizontal and diagonal movement in your painting. Only one should be predominant in length though. Diagonals are the most preferable because they never run parallel to the frame. These contour lines should not be straight rather just give the sense of direction.

I rest my case, at least on THIS item.

Bill
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Old 05-08-2003, 01:37 PM
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Jackie,

We really did cross-post on this. I was not trying to be a wise-guy on this last post of mine regarding diagonals, but as it is, it rather proves that I am not a complete dunce. LOL

Hey, I really want to thank you for those references and ESPECIALLY the comment at the bottom by the Turner critic. As you seem to agree, it rather suggests that, as I mentioned, much of the work by these artists simply represents their attempt at producing a well-composed painting, as opposed to some intricate, convoluted delving into the geometric hocus pocus of desired viewer eye movement.

I certainly would like to learn more about composition, and most heartily welcome your input. I will seek out some of those references to which you alluded. Thank you very much.

Do you actually believe that Turner had these many things running through his mind as he painted this? Just curious. Realize, I have not seen this painting to which you refer.

Anyway, thank you, once more.

Bill
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Old 05-08-2003, 02:54 PM
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Bill, regarding your opinions regarding the classics and the old masters....

Quote:
The usage of proportions and "formulas" in composition has been well documented for centuries. "Polykleitos worked according to a canon of proportions in which he formulated the principles that give rise to unity. Although Polykleitos' own treatise enunciating his canon is lost, Galen, the second century A.D. physician, interprets is as follows in his Placits Hippocratis et Platonis:
"...[beatuy consists] in the proportions, not of the elements, but of the parts, that is to say, of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of these to the forearm...and of all the other parts to each other, as they are set forth in the Canon of Polycleitos."

Gardner's Art Through the Ages, seventh edition.

Such formulas for composition regarding planes, positioning, and perspective have been extensively documented and published. Michaelangelo's man within the proportionate circle is a classic example. Where do you think the concept of the "golden mean" arose? From a bunch of art-dissecting enthusiasts? Me thinks not. Many of the old Masters studied for years as apprentices to learn the "rules" of art, and only after mastering those, were many of them able to then break the rules, so to speak and create their own distinctive works. Please note the key word "YEARS." You can't sum up composition in a few basic rules to live by. To be truly good at it, even with an exceptional amount of innate talent, literally takes years. Years of practice, years of study, years of experience. It's never too late to start, and you never stop learning, but to presume that it's all "baloney," and that the great Masters would laugh at the dissection and contemplation of created works is quite far from the truth, as many of them spent years doing just that, and it was documented as to who their teachers were, how long they apprenticed, etc.

The "paint it if it feels good" mentality works to some extent, but the vast majority of truly good works still tend to follow long and widely accepted tenets of composition, that were, and still are being taught today.
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Old 05-08-2003, 03:08 PM
BevL BevL is offline
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Following this with great interest. I do believe the masters did use precise, painstaking methods for composition and design, the Vermeer link being one example. I can't claim credit for that link, btw. It was one that was shared with me by a friend who was giving me some pointers and I found this, and some of the other links, fascinating.

To realize that it takes years to really understand great composition is a little daunting. No, its a lot daunting. Gosh, I hope I dont have to face the next 10 years producing compositional duds before it starts to click in. lol

Bev
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Old 05-08-2003, 08:46 PM
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Madster,

The problem that I see with "studying and practicing" composition is very similar to the problems that arise with "studying and practicing" proper oil paint application. If you read a book (as I once did) by an alla prima artist and follow it up with a book (as I then did) by an artist who favors the layered approach, you'd think you were talking about two different kinds of art. Where one tells you NEVER to do something, the other tells you to ALWAYS do the same thing. The former will tell you to lay a stroke of paint down as if it were going to be your last opportunity, whereas the latter will tell you to gradually build up the paint with application upon application, until the final image gradually appears. That's an example of where "studying" falls short.

Practice is a good thing, also,but only if one begins by practicing the correct things and in the correct way. Taking a hundred stabs at futile attempts of composition is not practice, its random firing at a moving target.

I guess I'll still contend that there are as many ways to plan a composition as there are artists describing how to plan it. In my opinion, the only ones which ring true, so to speak, are the ones which involve those rules which are understandable, and can be taught, and probably those that we hear about the most often, such as where to place the horizon. What's difficult about describing that rule? Nothing.

There must be some fairly solid rules covering techniques of composition that most artists are capable of understanding.

Whoa.....I didn't mean to rant, here, but this composition hocus-pocus is one of my pet peeves in art. As an ex-teacher of color, I have a difficult time understanding just why a concept such as composition can't be boiled down to some simple basics (and not a jillion, either) that can be taught to most of those capable of reading a newspaper. Color theory certainly can.

Sorry for the rant. Madster, your points about the old masters is well taken. I agree with you. They did work their butts off. But, assuming that many artists now know just what they did, I have a tough time understanding just why it can't be easily and effectively TAUGHT, just as the facts of sound, scientific, color theory can be taught, and as a result, understood by the student. And, I might add--with very few opinions included.

Please bear with me on this. I'd really like to become better at compositiion, as it is one of my weaker suits. Perhaps, if I grab one of the books that Jackie has recommended, my quest for compositiion knowledge might just be answered, huh?

Bill
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Old 05-09-2003, 02:51 AM
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Madster - I am with you all the way.

Bill - yes, do grab one of those books, and have a good read. You will be surprised by what you find if you do. Good design/composition CAN be boiled down to simple basics.....without wanting to sound like I am blowing my own trumpet, the fact is ...I had to do so.

I boiled down the main elements of composition as follows, and I explained them simply and in a totally understandable way in the book, with diagrams, and paintings which explain the main concepts.

1. I talk about DIRECTIONS AND MOVEMENTS, and the underlying geometry of the picture. I show, with a diagram, how horizontal and vertical lines and shapes echo the sides of the rectangle and suggest an atmosphere of stability,calmness and strength.

The next diagram shows how diagonal lines and shapes suggest activity. They create a feeling of dynamic tension within an image.

The next diagram shows how curving lines and shapes can create movement and energy, or can be quietly passive, depending on the activity of the line.

2. I go on to discuss UNITY, VARIETY AND CONTRAST, using simple diagrams and paintings to explain. Why not go to the library and find the book and have a look. I write as follows: "I suggest you consider a scrapbook page. Each item on the page is meant to be studied and appreciated separately. The items may have a common theme, but unity of theme will not guarantee a harmonious pattern - there may be no visual unity. Unity in painting is often created by repetition. Colour is the simplest, most obvious element to repeat, but shapes, textures, directions and angles may also be repeated. However we need to recognise that too unified a pattern can be monotonous, and so, to prevent visual boredom, we combine unity with variety, and contrast. then our paintings will have an underlying compositonal strength and rhythm. " I explain this with three simple diagrams.

3. I talk about SHAPES, and how we need to look beyond the obvious "things" in the picture and to recognise the interlocking arrangement of flat shapes on the two-dimensional surface. I suggest ways to "see" shapes, both negative, and positive shapes, and how to create BALANCE within the image, by considering the placement of these shapes carefully - again, more little explanatory diagrams.

4. I show where to position the FOCAL POINT in a picture, and I explain why those points work.

5. I discuss COUNTERCHANGE, and how useful it can be.

6. I talk about how to use a VIEWFINDER effectively, to explore possible compositions.....

Finally, I offer a simple project with a few self-assessment questions.

I say ".....it is my belief that it is impossible to paint a good picture without taking composition into account. This building-up of the underlying structure of a painting is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp, but it will pay enormous dividends if you can manage to do so. Trying to analyse another artist's work in order to make your own discoveries about the picture-making process will develop your ability to see and sense pictorial composition".

Bev - it takes a bit of determination, but not necessarily a lot of time, to grasp the ESSENTIALS, and armed with those, you will feel so much more confident, I promise you.

Bill - this composition "hocus-pocus" that you despise so much and have a little "rant" about, CAN be simplified, and it is up to you to do it. It requires some time spent on reading and research. Yes, you may well read different things in different places, but gradually, as you read, you WILL find basic concepts coming through, and a general concensus of agreement amongst authors. I am at pains to point out in my book, a bit of basic understanding of the main, and simple, ideas I put out, will prove exceptionally helpful. You sound like an intelligent man.....well, if I can do it, and I am not a genius....then you can do it too. Go for it, mate.

Jackie
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Old 05-09-2003, 03:52 AM
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Okay, you wanted to know more about the Turner I mentioned.

I will try to précis what is in the book, but this might be a bit long. Beware! Basically, this is about how Turner used the element of REPETITION in his picture (I call this “echoes”). There are no pictures with loads of complex lines, crosses and dots, Bill!!! Just a couple of simple things to study.

I quote:
“………the reptition of an element in a picture can help to give a quality of UNITY, which enables the whole of a complex design to “hang together”. Repitition is not the same as repetitiveness, and so the echoing of one shape by another, or one rhythmic movement by another, need not produce any sense of monotony….our eyes are always pleased by a repeated form or group of forms which is a bit different each time, such as the irregular arches in an old bridge.

Shapes, or groups of shapes (like those onions, Bev!) may be echoed or rhymed in different parts of the picture in so subtle a fashion that at first, one can be unaware of any connection. Ruskin comments that this type of repetition gives a sense of calmness and repose, and he makes a masterly analysis of a painting by Turner in which he finds a surprising number of links, or echoes of this kind. Turner was very fond of this device of “rhyming” and used it with the greatest virtuosity and expressiveness.


The tower on one side of the bridge is the leading feature, or focus, of the design. It is repeated by a smaller, lower tower on th left, thus making a pair. This pair is then repeated all over the picture; the spires of the town on the right are all arranged in couples, the large boat has its partner behind it; and that one in its turn is divided into two. Each of these two smaller boats has two figures in it, and so on. Even the great mass of the cliff with the castle on it has almost its facsimile in the bank on which the girl is sitting.

There are some other points about this picture :


The left-hand side of th4e design, when enlarged, shows even more clearly that a subtle system of related and rhyming curves operates throughout the picture. The bridge itself makes a long, slight curve, which is echoed in reverse by the similar shapes of the boats. From the old rudder and the two pieces of timber in the left foreground, two long curving “directions” are initiated, which both reach, eventually, the focus point of the top of the tower, and the other boats to the right also point towards it, as can be seen from the dotted lines.

Finally, a good example of the use of a repeating series of almost similar shapes (those onions again) can be found in the arches of the bridge. There is no monotony about this long line of arches because of the slight, but important, variations in size and form that can be seen.”

I hope you found this as enlightening as I did. Turner probably used what was there, in the scene……….but he somehow made “more” of what was there, by using his knowledge and understanding of the elements of good design. If he worked on the spot, he probably gradually became aware, as he worked, of these repeating elements, and used them to great effect. If he worked from memory, as he often did, then I have no doubt he manipulated the positions of the boats, and the numbers of people within them.

I would like to finish with the following:

"It is essential to be aware of principles, and to know something of the possibilities, in order to sharpen our perceptions. This, really, is what matters. Composition is all around us. What we need to do is learn to look, with an open mind, and SOME UNDERSTANDING OF THE POSSIBILITIES. There is then no need to get too involved with rules and formulae.

However, it is only on a basis of knowledge that we can become free to compose naturally. The person who has never seriously looked at composition and paintings, will inevitably be very limited in the way he composes how own painting. "A little knowledge" means that we will often imitate other artists' way of composing, but there is no harm in this - imitation is an essential part of th learning process."

Phew! If you got thro this lot, you deserve a medal. I must go and get dressed now!!!!

Jackie
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Old 05-09-2003, 11:34 AM
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Jackie,

You have truly gone out of your way to help me in understanding this "composition thing" better. I certainly do appreciate your efforts, here, and it really has not fallen on deaf ears. I am fascinated by that Turner diagram you included. Actually, I believe I've seen a repro of that painting somewhere. I find it extremely interesting.

So, if I were in the market for purchasing a really good book on composition, whose would you deem the best? Yours, of course. LOL But, you seem to be an honest person, and perhaps you'd actually want to recommend something else as a "first book" for me. I have dozens of how-to art books, but none of them are really concentrated on composition, except for some of this diagrammatic, geometric approach that I have found so annoying. The only reason I find this approach annoying, is that I really feel that this approach is so subjective. Perhaps a really good book of composition rules will iron that all out for me.

Thank you, once again for such diligence in sticking with me on this. You must have a "teacher instinct", too. Your effort on this has been enormous! To me, that means you really believe in what you're saying, and, as a result, I'd like to be brought around to believing it, too.

Bill
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Old 05-09-2003, 12:55 PM
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jackiesimmonds jackiesimmonds is offline
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thanks for those nice comments.

No, I would not recommend my book unless you were a pastellist wanting info about working with pastels. My chapter is interesting and certainly boils things down dramatically...but it is only a chapter.

Any of the books I mentioned before would be good, if you can find them. Try a search on Google, even if they are out of print, you may be able to track one down somewhere. There are good bits in all of the ones I mentioned. The Angela Gair one is not specifically about composition tho, so perhaps ignore that one - or see if you can find it in a library, she is a brilliant author and also manages to simplify things in such a clear way.

Good luck
Jackie
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Old 05-09-2003, 01:39 PM
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arlene arlene is offline
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Quote:
There is too much "oh just paint what you like" around today and not enough respect for the amazing abilities and knowledge of the painters of the past, who, far from being amused by our attempts to analyse, would probably be horrified by our lack of education, and lack-lustre compositions.


here here!!! I couldn't agree with you more.

And unfortunately the schools here don't necessarily teach it.

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