Meditations on Line: Dow Composition Practice, Chapter Two
"If the result has but a slight degree of line beauty it can be considered a first step in Art." Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition.
Teaching yourself is very much like setting out on a journey with no idea of the final destination.
It can be an unsettling way to travel, but it has its advantages. For one, it leaves you open to the unexpected.
I'm currently working through the exercises in the book Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow, I have been for the last six months or so. These exercises have had an unexpected and quite profound effect on my thinking about why I make art and how I approach my daily practice. I want to try and share some of that with you in this post.
This is a very practical little book and it's all about the exercises. I practice with it every day for an hour or so, sometimes extending the exercises and coming up with my own variants.
In this post I'm going to cover the first practical chapter, chapter 2: Line Practice. This chapter is an easy intro to the exercises, based around copying some designs in order to get a good feel for line before starting on composition through the division of space. I've extended the exercises and built them into my regular practice sessions. I'll describe how.
Meditations on Line
Line is really at the root of everything we do, and is capable of the most beautiful expression and complexity. When I began this practice, my line was wavering, sketchy and weak. With time, it's becoming stronger and more confident. I think it's also becoming more expressive. Here's a couple of examples that I think will illustrate the change:
These drawings of a little creamware jug represent three points along a development which included many drawings, some traced repeatedly. The two drawings on the first sheet, as well as being just plain badly drawn, are suffering from shaky and very clumsy handling of the lines. There's no grace to the curves.
In the drawing on the second sheet, the lines are starting to have some aesthetic value of their own I think, particularly around the bulges of the body of the jug. Even divorced from the object they describe, standing on their own, there would be something aesthetically pleasing about them just as design.
I think the third drawing has a nice balance of form and - dare I say it - line beauty. The lines are certainly an improvement over the first two drawings.
I can already draw much more accurately than this with pencil or charcoal. But that's a different kind of drawing, built up slowly with measuring. In those drawings, I haven't been concerned with the quality of the line, only with its accuracy.
These drawings are done with brush and ink, and from a very different perspective.
Here's another example of the change:
As I did more and more drawings like this, the realisation slowly grew on me that line, particularly line that is drawn in one flowing movement, can have expressive qualities that I'd never really given enough consideration to before. It wasn't until my composition practice encouraged me to let go of visual accuracy and to make design my primary concern that I began to feel the quality of the lines I made more deeply.
The quality of a line is at least partly defined by the method of its creation.
On the recommendation of the Dow book, I'm using simple and traditional materials for my composition practice: a Chinese brush and ink. The ink is ground fresh for each practice session. I see this as an integral part of the practice now. I use the time it takes to grind up the ink to think about what I'm going to draw. It puts me more fully in the moment and helps to mentally prepare me for the day's session.
Dow has this to say about these materials:
"Tools perfected by ages of practice in line drawing and brush work, afford the best training for hand and eye."
Here's a short video of me grinding up ink before a session, recorded earlier in the summer. Pretty much every day starts like this now. Well, after a ride round the local park, a hot shower and a strong coffee.
For paper, I'm mostly using newsprint. It's very cheap, which allows me to experiment without worrying about wasting materials. I use tissue paper for tracing, which is also very cheap.
I'm lucky being so near London. I can go into Chinatown in the heart of Soho and get my materials there at a fraction of the price you'll pay on some websites. The shop I go to is this one, Guanghwa:
If you can't travel to London, you can always try the Guanghwa website. They have Chinese mixed hair brushes, ink sticks, although they don't have the one I'm using, "Yellow Mountain", on the site, and ink stones. That's basically all you need. There's no need to go investing in expensive materials.
Why Chinese Brushes and Ink?
You could use any implement that makes a mark of course. A pencil or charcoal, or a graphics pen would all be fine, I'm sure. But there are a few characteristics of this traditional brush that I think make it particularly well-suited to expressive line practice.
- It's incredibly sensitive. Every nuance, every tiny variation in movement of hand or arm is translated directly into the line. This can be quite a challenge to control at first, but this sensitivity is at the root of its expressive potential.
- Because of this sensitivity, it's very human. The lines wobble. They're never perfect. I like that. Why? Because it is evidence of the involvement of my body. It shows that these lines are mine, and mine only. No two will ever be the same, but they will all characteristically belong to me. Somehow, that reflects perfectly the exploration and development of personal creativity that this practice represents.
- It forces you to commit. There's no erasing an ink line. But instead of making me tighten up, I find this frees me. I can let go, safe in the knowledge that none of the lines I make will be perfect. Many of them will be ugly, some of them will go in directions I don't want them to go in. So I'll try again. Slowly, over many repeated sessions, they improve.
When I sit down to practice, I always start now with what I think of as practising scales.
It's much like the way a musician practises scales at the beginning of a session. It's part practice, part physical warm-up, part meditation.
Here's a few examples:
Here's a video of one of my early practice sessions, a simple exercise involving the joining of two dots. This must be the slowest, most boring video ever put on youTube. There isn't even any background music. Don't say I didn't warn you.
This exercise grew from a comment left on this post on effective practice by JeromeinFrance. Although we do it slightly differently, it's a great warm-up.
Much of the time, I'm just limbering up and have no particular goal in mind with these exercises. I'm thinking about loosening my wrist and drawing from my shoulder. I'm trying to relax into the practice session, to further prepare myself.
This part of the practice is in itself quite meditative. In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards recommends starting with a warm-up exercise designed to shift into right-brain mode. Her exercise involves tracing the creases on the palm of your hand with a pencil.
It's a pointless exercise, and deliberately so. Left brain can't see why it should waste its time with such unproductive frivolity, and goes to sleep. Right brain takes over. My warm up method seems to have a similar effect. By the time I've done ten to fifteen minutes of this, I'm feeling calm and relaxed and my attention is becoming absorbed by the line. Speech (a left-brain activity) becomes more difficult, requiring conscious effort - as anyone who's watched one of my videos in which I try to describe what I'm doing whilst drawing will have noticed!
Over time, I've evolved a more meditative approach to my line practice warm up. I call this exercise 'breathing line' and it involves slowly drawing down- and up-strokes across the paper with brush and ink, breathing in and out with each stroke. It's very relaxing, and very focussing at the same time.
Like the Betty Edwards exercise, it's entirely pointless. And that's the point.
This video is very slightly less boring than the one above, it's got music in it and I figured out how to add frames of text in the middle of it. And it's shorter.
Accuracy and Feeling
As I continue to work through the Dow book, I find myself continually returning to basic line practice. I started this post by talking about the unexpected. Certainly, the Dow book has surprised me:
- I've been surprised by how much depth this little book has
- I've been surprised at how far these deceptively simple exercises can be extended.
- I've been surprised at how effective the exercises are, in deepening an appreciation of design in a natural and almost effortless way.
But most of all I've surprised myself. Over the last few months, my whole approach to teaching myself has changed. My goals have changed, and with them the direction in which I'm heading.
For the last six years, I've concentrated almost exclusively on capturing as complete and convincing a representation of the visual impression as I can.
I haven't forgotten the visual impression now, nor do I think that the effort of the last six years has been wasted, not at all. But perhaps it has been a little unbalanced - like a bad composition. I've been placing too much emphasis on one aspect of making art to the detriment of other considerations, indeed to the detriment of the work itself. Increasingly now I'm seeing the visual impression as raw material from which an expressive piece of work can be constructed.
I imagine there's some people out there reading this and thinking to themselves "Paul! You numbskull! You've only just realised this after six years?"
Well, yes, in a way. But I think there's a difference between understanding something intellectually and deep understanding gained through experience, knowledge which is a part of you.
That deeper understanding can only come, I believe, from repeated practice over a period of time. It has to be earned. Previously, if you'd said to me that design is important and that line can have expressive qualities of its own, I would have agreed with you. Of course, it's a no-brainer, right? But now I feel that much more deeply. When I draw, I try to feel it in every mark I make. With the help of the Dow book, I'm deliberately developing practice routines designed to help me reach a level of unconscious competence with line.
This does mean that I'm retracing my steps in order to pick up a path I'd missed earlier, but I've done that before. Sometimes we have to go backwards to be able to move forwards again. I don't think we should be afraid of stepping back, admitting our shortcomings and trying to do something about them. Even that means going right back to something as basic as the quality of line.
Wrapping Up Chapter Two
So the Dow book on composition starts here, with line practice. Dow himself thinks you shouldn't spend too long on this chapter:
"The aim of such practice is to put the hand under the control of the will, but too much time should not be given to this practice, apart from design."
I take it from this that Dow would rather have us dive straight into design and composition as soon as we're reasonably comfortable with the materials.
I think there's a lot of sense in that, and it's pretty much what I did. But I've also come to enjoy line making for it's own sake. And it is, after all, an important part of design. I've copied many old master drawings before in my quest to learn, but I've never really looked at them purely from a point of view of line quality.
It's something I'd like to find more time for now.
Although I'm further through the book now, I still come back to a little line practice in every session. I do that because I know that I can take my line much further than I have so far, and the only way I know to achieve that is through a lot of deliberate practice.
Next: Chapter Three
The next post in this series will cover Dow's basic elements of composition, and how I built a regular practice routine around them that lasted me some weeks before I moved on to the next stage. Hopefully it will come a little quicker than this post did!