Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ~ Aristotle.
This post is the third in a series on the book Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow, which I’m using for my regular composition practice. Previously, I’ve posted a general overview of the book and an in depth look at chapter two.
In this chapter Dow introduces his principles of composition. ‘Elements of design’ might be another way of putting it. Dow posits five primary principles of composition:
Of these, I’m covering just opposition and transition in this post. They form a complimentary pair, and a post covering the whole chapter would be too long to read I think!
Now that I’m into describing the actual exercises in some detail for you, I think it’s worth spending a little time reviewing Dow’s approach. I’ll include a few excerpts from the text in chapter three to better illustrate his philosophy of learning.
So begins the chapter, and it couldn’t be clearer: For Dow, visual art and its study is purely about creating harmony and beauty through design.
In these post-post-modern times, I’m sure most people would have a somewhat broader view of art and its study. Not so for Dow.
But then, he’s writing in 1912, before objets trouvé were a glimmer of an idea in Marcel Duchamp’s brain. Suffragettes were rampaging in London’s West End and Captain Oats had just said he may be some time and popped out of Scott’s tent at the South Pole. Europe was gearing up for the First World War and Edward John Smith, the captain of the Titanic, had gone down with his ship.
Looking back over the last 100 years to Dow’s book, it’s easy to see his ideas on art as quaint, irrelevant. Perhaps Dow has gone proudly down with the good ship Aesthetic Beauty and his ideas are now no more than a historical footnote to the story of the progress of art.
Then again, perhaps not. If we allow our contemporary cynicism to drop for a second, and see this book for what it is, I think we can find ourselves in the midst of a rich storehouse of ideas that can help us to create more beautiful pictures, perhaps even rejuvenate our entire approach to picture making.
At least, that’s been my experience of this little book.
There’s no requirement to accept the book’s entire ethos in order to get the benefit of what I think is a very effective approach to composition practice.
And besides, the cool cynicism that seems to be the hallmark of art in our time is starting to look rather shop worn if you ask me. Faced with failing economies and just as publicly failing art, isn’t it high time we looked inside ourselves to see what makes us human, what really matters? To see what meaning is left to us when the superficiality of consumer culture is stripped away? And isn’t the creation of harmony and beauty a significant part of what’s left?
I think so. If Dow’s ideas on art are quaint and outdated, I feel the need of a bit more quaint and outdated in my life. But there’s more: I believe this book is relevant to us now because of its approach to practice.
And that couldn’t be more up to date. In the last 20 years, neuroscience has entirely changed the way we understand the brain and how it learns new skills. Trust me, you’ll be hearing a lot more about this if you haven’t already.
Dow’s approach to composition practice is entirely in keeping with the central finding of recent neuroscience: Plasticity. Aristotle had it right, we are what we repeatedly do. Our experiences and thoughts physically shape our brains, and the more we repeat these experiences and thoughts, the more they become ingrained.
Our skills are embedded in neural maps in our brains, collections of neurons connected together. If you want a brain with an optimal structure for good design, you need to build the brain maps for it, one connection at a time. That takes practice and repetition.
Forget The ‘Rules’
For Dow, skill with composition can’t be imparted as knowledge, a set of compositional rules which can be learned (I’ve always found the idea that there are a set of compositional ‘rules’ to learn somewhat ridiculous too, despite the popularity of this view)
Here’s what Dow has to say about it:
There is only one way to develop a skill, and that is through deliberate practice:
Dow is a hundred years ahead of his time here. I’m already a convert to this way of thinking. A little while ago I wrote a post on how to practise effectively, which is a much longer and less erudite version of what Dow says here.
There has been increasing research into what makes the difference between expert level skills and just so-so. A significant body of evidence is coming down heavily on the side of deliberate practice. For a detailed discussion of what this is, I’d recommend anything by Anders Ericsson, in particular The Road To Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games.
Malcolm Gladwell drew extensively on this book for ‘Outliers’ and his idea of the 10,000 hour rule comes directly from it. There’s also a free and very interesting PDF article by Ericsson on The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.
Deliberate practice is an excellent way to describe Dow’s approach to improving our pictorial design skills. By repeatedly and progressively stretching our ability to arrange and compose we will improve. Just like lifting weights makes you stronger.
Let’s get to the exercises.
Two Principles of Composition: Opposition and Transition
Dow’s five principles are essentially ways of dividing space. These principles are all dependent on the overriding principle of proportion, which Dow calls “Good Spacing”.
For the rest of this post, I’ll show Dow’s examples for these first two principles, his suggested exercises, and what I’ve done with them. By the time I get to the end, I’ll have effectively reviewed my progress with this chapter.
If you’re still with me, hopefully you’ll have picked up some ideas that you can roll into your own practice. I hope I’ll have also given you some insight into how Dow approaches learning composition.
“Opposition” basically means dividing space with straight lines. It’s a simple place to start, with the intention that the reader can begin to get a feeling for ‘fine relations’ – harmony and beauty – without distractions.
Here’s a few of Dow’s examples of opposition from the book:
Dow recommends beginning by copying these examples, which I dutifully did.
What if I’m wasting my time?
I have to say I found this very unfamiliar initially. Being used to trying to think about finished paintings, Dow’s initial exercises felt almost child-like, embarrassing.
Using the Chinese brush and ink was awkward at first too. When you’ve achieved a reasonable level of skill at something, which I thought I had with drawing, it’s not pleasant to take on an aspect of it you haven’t practised and find yourself humbled by your lack of skill.
Many questions came to mind as I began to practice. What was I doing this for? How is this going to make my work any better, and how long will it take before I see results? How will I know if I’m really getting better? What if I’m wasting my time?
I’ll attempt to answer some of these questions at the end of this post. But at this stage, there was nothing for it but to give it a go. Without trying, and without keeping it up for some time, I’d never know.
So I pressed on. I drew a few child-like boats.
I felt stupid.
I drew some rectangles and squares and divided them at random with straight lines. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing.
I messed about with designs for plaids.
Following Dow’s examples from the book, I used some of the subdivided rectangle drawings as the basis for simple imaginary landscape sketches.
Ah. I started to enjoy myself. I started to get an inkling of where this might be going.
The landscape version of this drawing also includes elements of transition, the next of Dow’s five main elements. Since I’d started to get some idea of how to approach these exercises at this point, I moved on to transition next.
Dow describes transition as “the softening of opposition with curves”. The idea seems simple enough.
I started as basic as I could, adding curves to various right angles with brush and ink.
Again the questions started.
What am I meant to be learning here? I still can’t pretend to really understand even now why this is such a basic element of composition for Dow. Perhaps time and more practice with composition will enlighten me.
Next, again following Dow’s advice, I tried some more elaborate ways of softening the opposition of the two lines:
Then I tried introducing some natural objects in an attempt to relate the practice back to more familiar ground:
Looking back now at the practice pieces I did then, I can see that I wasn’t really sure where I was going with them. I couldn’t see how designing corner ornaments would help me if I had a landscape drawing or a still life to work on.
Perhaps if I’d had Dow sitting beside me advising and explaining I would have had an easier time of it.
I think I see now though, and the fact that I do indicates a change in the way I think about practice and art in general.
I’ll try to explain.
Learning how to learn – again
At the moment my composition practice consists largely of calligraphy, even further removed from my more usual easel painting than the composition exercises I’m describing here. How can practising calligraphy teach me to compose better paintings?
Any design practice helps develop a more general sense of design because the core skills required are the same. I might spend an hour repeatedly drawing the letter ‘A’ from a calligraphy hand I’m practising. It’s about stretching and developing metaphorical muscles.
A tennis pro practises their serve over and over again so that they can trust their enhanced skill to provide them with a good serve even in the heat of a match.
In the same way, an enhanced sense and feel for design will make itself felt naturally and without conscious effort in the course of the creation of a drawing or a painting. This is why repetitive practice is so effective.
When I look back at these pieces now, I see that I need to revisit them. I need to do my best to produce the most beautiful version I can of each design idea, because that will be the most effective way to develop my design sense.
I need to retrace my steps. I’ve just realised that as I’ve been writing this in fact. Instead of learning composition, I’ve been learning how to learn composition.
Opposition and Transition Combined
At this point in my practice I attempted to use the two principles I’d been practising so far in a simple landscape drawing. Here’s Dow’s example from the book:
Using opposition and transition together, compositions can start to be constructed which go beyond the basic schemas I started with.
This has probably been the best practice I’ve done with the book since it follows the method of repetition towards increased refinement.
In a wider sense, it entailed taking nature as a starting point and then using a basic motif to construct a design. This was a new experience for me, and it made it very obvious to me how literal I usually am in my still life work. I would spend forever trying to get a perfect composition in the subject set-up and then copy that, instead of taking the subject as a starting point from which to design a picture.
This approach was very different.
Repetition towards Refinement
I started with a quick sketch I did in our local woodland park. This is my favourite stopping place for when I’m out on a bike ride. I took the sketch and traced it with brush and ink:
In this drawing I really only have three elements to play with: The tree, the fence and the horizon line. But those three elements can be combined in innumerable ways, as I quickly found when I was back home at my composition practice.
The first thing I did was to place a bounding box around the image. Immediately things change, since now every line relates to the format of the frame. Enclosed spaces are created which weren’t there before.
For balance, I tried moving the fence post over to the right of the picture…
…but didn’t like it. It seems more static an arrangement somehow, perhaps too balanced and without interest.
I moved it back and tried a taller, thinner format:
Then I remembered Dow’s example and reworked it in reverse: By creating a straight line version of the composition and attempting to balance that. From the straight line schematic, I recreated the original drawing.
I think at this point I really began to see how Dow’s principles and approach to practice could improve my compositions.
But still, i didn’t take it far enough. I should have worked on multiple versions of the straight line sketch, striving always to create a more balanced arrangement in the abstract.
That would have been much more in keeping with the spirit of Dow’s approach in two ways:
- Repeating and refining the straight line design should have left me with a better result at the end from which to construct my drawing.
- I would be repeating the exercise in order to further develop my appreciation of harmony. Just like working any muscle, by progressively stretching my feeling for spacing and balance, I would be developing my skill with it.
For me, these two factors are at the heart of Dow’s book. They tick all the boxes for deliberate practice, too.
Overall I did about 50 -60 sheets of drawings in opposition and transition, and intend to go back to this section now I have a clearer idea the best way to approach the exercises. I plan to add one or two exercises of my own too, which I’ll describe in a later post.
Opposition and transition – some real world examples
For now I want to leave you with a few of what I think are excellent examples of transition and opposition, and the two working together. Please add any more you can think of in the comments, and I’ll add those too.
As well as the obvious opposition, there is some nice transition in the tree to the left and the curves formed by the river. I find that subtle windmill at the top left interesting. I wonder if he thought the composition a little unbalanced and added it to even things out?
I think the strong verticals and horizontals add a static feeling, but they’re relieved by the transition of the cloth, figure and shadow formed by the light from the window.
Golden age illustrators are a particularly rich source of beautiful compositions. Here’s a few from Charles Robinson, who I came across only recently in a post on Charles Robinson on the Lines and Colours blog
Opposition formed by the ground and broom is transitioned between by the skirt. In fact this whole composition could be seen as a corner ornament.
I think this is a great example of what Dow would call “Good Spacing”. I could look at this all day.
I like the way the tree softens the opposition of the edges of the picture, and the rocks and gathered folds of the cloth transition between the near verticals of the figure and the edge of the lake.
Please add any more examples of opposition and transition you might think of in the comments. Just copy and paste the url and I’ll add the images to the bottom of the post here.
I’d also be really interested to hear what you think about opposition and transition, of the importance Dow puts on them, and whether you think they’re central principles of composition or not.
The next post on subordination, repetition and symmetry will be coming soon.
This piece above was contributed by Chris. Thanks Chris. It’s a perfect example of what Dow means by opposition and transition in a composition I think, as well as being a beautiful picture from just about any perspective.
Also notable is the perfect repetition of the angle of the girl’s leg by the log at the bottom left of the picture. The shape of her foot is perfectly mirrored by the branch off the same log too. Veronese used to do that a lot.
Above are a couple of really nice examples of transition in paintings by Anders Zorn, suggested by Maggie in the comments below. The second one shows very clear repetition of the diagonal, very similar to the Jones painting above.
Repetition is another of Dow’s main principles of composition. I’ll be covering some exercises I did with it in the next post on this subject, but already I’m starting to see more clearly how it can be applied in real world paintings. I learn so much from people’s comments here! Thanks Maggie.
This example above is from Edgar Whitney, mentioned in Nick’s comment below. I think this is really beautiful use ofopposition and transition, and a really nicely balanced picture too.
Another lovely example of transition contributed by David.
You really opened my eyes to the Pre-Raphaellites when we went round the Aesthetic Movement exhibition at the V&A last year, David. Burne-Jones is especially strong on composition I think, I think perhaps the stylisation of his drawing helps to bring the design more to the fore as a central aspect of his work.
I went off looking for some more examples of opposition and transition in his work, and was not disappointed. Here’s a few more below. As always, thanks for your inputDavid. Much appreciated.
Beautiful rhythm of diagonals against the strong verticals I think.
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