An Effective Practice Exercise to Develop Your Composition Skills
According to Carol Dweck (who's book Mindset I heartily recommend), there are two basic mind sets with which people approach their lives: The fixed mind set and the growth mind set.
People with the fixed mind set think that you have a natural set of abilities that you start with, and you can't do much about them either way.
People with the growth mind set believe that you can improve through applied effort. You can develop your skills in just about any area of life through practice.
When it comes to the visual arts, most people believe in the fixed mind set. You have to be born with talent.
Even people within the visual arts who believe you can build some skills with practice (drawing accuracy for example) believe that some areas require natural ability and can't be learned.
Composition, for example.
I beg to differ. And I intend to prove it, over time, here on this site.
It's going to take a little while of course. This post should go some way towards me beginning to make my case.
Pattern in composition
At the end of that post, I offered a simple exercise, to be done over the course of two weeks, to work with this principle and build skill with it. I also committed to doing this exercise myself, and to post the results when I was done.
So here I am.
Very briefly, subordination as Dow describes it is the relating of all the elements of a design to a unifying theme, idea or design element. A series of similar shapes with one dominating, for example. A melodic theme in a musical composition, or a central idea in a poem.
Through the demonstration of this exercise, I hope to show you not just that but something more too: an effective approach to practice.
Let's get straight to the point.
Here's the design I started with (a small oil sketch reduced down to it's main lines)
And here's what I finished with:
During the course of the two weeks, I missed four days so did ten days overall. Below is a breakdown of the drawings for each day.
Much of the development of the designs I came up with in this exercise was done through repeatedly tracing over my won drawings in brush and ink on tissue paper.
With each tracing, some small element is changed, or the shape of the border is changed, or perhaps just the quality of the line improves. It's this repetition and variation which stretches composition muscles and leaves our design sense stronger for the next round.
The point of this exercise is not the final design, it's the practice involved in getting there. As I work with pattern in my designs, I develop patterns in my brain, connections between neurons forming mental maps representing deepening skill with design and composition.
So the next time I come to a composition, I will have a more developed sense of balance in design that will naturally feed into it. The real benefit of this exercise, and all practice exercises, comes when they are done regularly.
It should be pretty obvious that I subscribe, by and large, to the growth mind set.
Here are the drawings.
First, the original oil sketch:
Traced and transposed to a line drawing:
The line drawing itself is traced again with brush and ink, simplified further.
Then a third tracing removes everything but the main subject:
For the last drawing of day one, I tried the same subject with a slightly different layout.
This is done by placing a sheet of tissue paper over the previous drawing, and drawing a new border, cropping the subject in a different way. It's a highly effective way to try out arrangements of the same subject in different borders, with different crops. Once a layout has been settled on, the amount of the original drawing still within the border gets traced onto the same sheet, making a new drawing.
Here's a video of this process in action:
And another, changing the shape of a previous composition study:
Having decided I didn't have enough raw material to work with, I got hold of some more freesias, drew those, and re-drew the little Japanese bottle.
Multiple tracings helped to refine the drawings and improve their line quality.
The new studies are introduced, traced into new drawings:
More pencil roughs to try and get a better balance:
Having settled on a design, I try to improve it by repeating it with small variations:
Things started to get interesting about this point.
I decided I didn't like the cropped bottle, so made a new design:
But it struck me that no single element was dominating any more. This wasn't really subordination, unless you count the fact that all the flower stems join together in the unifying element of the bottle.
So I got some more freesias, and drew a new study, intended to be the dominant element in the composition:
It gets integrated into the design:
Then refined again. My two weeks are up (with four days missed) and my exercise is complete.
I'm happy that I've made a much better design than the one I started with. But I'm much more happy about the fact that I'm better at designing balanced line drawings than I was two weeks ago.
Not significantly better perhaps, but enough to notice the difference. And after I've done this exercise and others like it multiple times, I will be significantly better.
That's the beauty of effective practice. You might not be particulalry good at design and composition. I'm not. But I don't have to accept that state of affairs and neither do you. With enough practice, you can build your skill in any area you choose. You just need to take responsibility for your own skill level, and take charge of your own learning.
So what makes this an effective exercise?
Like all effective exercises, it's tailored around a few main features:
It's enjoyable. The more we enjoy something the faster we learn. The enjoyable part of this practice for me is trying out lots of variations on a theme. I also find the process of working with brush and ink quite meditative.
It's regular. This is really key. I set aside some time every day for my composition practice. I do miss the odd day at times as I did with this exercise. I don't worry about that too much though. Usually a session is about an hour although it varies and often overshoots when I'm enjoying myself.
It's focused. If I can, I make sure I have no other distractions. No TV (actually we don't have one, you should try it) and preferably no-one around to interrupt me. This is practice time, and it is sacred. I try to do it at quieter times of the day, very early in the morning or in the evening before bed. Focus is a skill in itself that takes time to develop.
It's deliberate and specific. I have a specific goal in mind - producing the best version I can of a pure line design of my theme - and any extraneous considerations are put aside. I'm not thinking about value. I'm not thinking about colour. All my concentration is bent on improving the design.
Posted: April 30th 2012