It’s 5:45 AM.
I’m sitting cross legged on a cushion on the floor.
Most of the world around me is still in bed; there are no cars on the street outside, no noise from the neighbours. Michelle is still asleep.
In front of me on the floor is my little table easel with a pot of water, an ink-stone, an ink-stick and a Chinese brush. I have a few sheets of newsprint and tracing paper beside me ready to go.
The sound of wood pigeons cooing softly in the trees outside my window is drifting into the room, interspersed with the rasping cackling of a magpie and the lilting sing-song of a blackbird. There’s a dull, distant roar from a plane on it’s way to or from Heathrow airport, and every so often the metallic clack and screech of a train passing by the foot of the garden. Sassy, one of our cats, is sitting on my pile of drawings from yesterday morning, gazing up at me and trying to get my attention. She wants a pat.
I’m getting ready to do my daily composition practice.
My hand is slowly circling the ink stick in a little puddle of water on the ink stone. I’m feeling increasingly calm. I’m starting to think about the exercise I’m going to do today. I’m not putting any pressure on the ink stick, but in about ten to fifteen minutes, I’ll have a little pool of thick, gloopy black ink to start drawing with.
I’m not putting any pressure on myself either. I’ve shown up, sat down and started, and that’s enough. I’ve kept my early morning appointment with myself and that’s all I have to do.
As I start to draw with the brush, my attention gradually focuses in on the line it leaves as it travels slowly across the sheet of newsprint. The sounds of the birds and other minor distractions melt out of consciousness as I add more lines to the design and the relationships between them develop and change. Attention becomes complete. The chatter in my brain has stilled.
I’m completely in the moment.
My Composition Workstation
This is the set up for my composition practise with the Chinese brush and ink. The first thing I see every morning after making coffee.
For just over three weeks now, this has been how I start every day. If I start early enough, I can comfortably draw for an hour or so before I have to start thinking about getting ready for work. When I first started this practice I didn’t place any demands on the amount of time I would practice for. In the beginning, it would sometimes be only ten minutes or so.
The interesting thing is that it’s only taken two or three weeks for this practice session to become ingrained as a habit.
I don’t have to think about it now, don’t have to make myself do it. It’s become routine. Before I know it, I’m sitting down and mixing up the ink. It’s become effortless.
A Road Map for Composition Practice
Regular readers will know by now that I’m primarily practising composition at the moment. I’ve decided that for all my practice over the last few years I’ve neglected composition and design – picture making, if you like – so I’m devoting some time every day to deliberate, focused practice.
In order to practise effectively, I think it’s very helpful to have a road map, a direction. If your road is ready mapped out before you, you don’t have to waste time sitting around wondering what you’re going to do. It’s that much easier to get started.
The road map I’m using for my composition practice is a book, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the use of Teachers and Students by Arthur Wesley Dow.
Apart from being an utterly fantastic book it’s also out of copyright and you can download it for free here. If you’d rather have a hard copy, you can purchase it from Amazon in various editions and reprints.
The Philosophy: Excerpts From the Introduction
I’ve chosen this book because it’s a very practical approach to developing compositional skill that starts simply and grows in complexity. It is a series of practical exercises for the student to follow.
For Dow, the author, this book is about much more than just composition practice. The book starts with this intriguing opening:
In writing this book my main purpose is to set forth a way of thinking about art.”
Serious stuff. But if my experience so far of the exercises is anything to go by, that’s not hyperbole.
Dow defines composition and design as:
…the putting together of lines, masses and colours in order to make harmony.
What I particularly like about this book is that although it was written at the start of the last century, it is underpinned by an approach which is being vindicated by recent findings in neuroscience, specifically most of thought is unconscious, and that repeating specific actions builds neural networks in the brain that become an integral part of unconscious thought.
This is how skill develops. Dow intuited this in his own day without the benefit of the insights of the brain scientists, and describes the process of learning to paint and draw very succinctly as follows:
The many different acts and processes combined in a work of art may be attacked and mastered one by one, and thereby a power gained to handle them unconsciously when they must be used together. If a few elements can be united harmoniously, a step has been taken towards further creation.
The emphasis is mine. Dow has already got me in on his side by this point. But he has one more foundational and very interesting view: that drawing should be approached from a point of view of design first, imitation second. This is in stark contrast to the prevailing view in the representational revival schools, the ateliers and academies of the present, which approach art from the imitative point of view first – in fact, from what I can see, almost exclusively.
It’s also in stark contrast to the way I’ve been training myself for the past five years.
Which approach is right? Imitative or creative? Neither or both perhaps. It seems to me that these things must be tested extensively under the pencil, charcoal stick and brush before any really useful conclusions can be drawn. Almost all my practice to date has been from the imitative point of view. I’ve learned a lot, but found myself still frustrated when I come to make pictures.
Now I’m approaching things from the design point of view. And my brain is changing.
The exercises in Dow’s book are broadly broken down into three main sections:
Half the book is devoted to composition with line. In this section, Dow recommends practising with a Japanese brush and ink.
At the time of writing, the west had much more contact with Japan than China.
Times change. My brush is Chinese.
Dow breaks down a few elements of composition and then gives a series of exercises to work through, specifically designed to practice these elements:
- Opposition: a right angle being the most obvious example
- Transition: the softening of opposition
- Subordination: the repeating of elements thematically related to a single, dominating one. A collection of trees, say, with one being the main focus
Dow calls this ‘notan,’ perhaps to more clearly differentiate it from the study of value for modelling. Notan is the interplay of light and dark in design. Think of the Yin Yang symbol. That’s notan.
Starting with a series of exercises in two values (which may be two shades of grey or black and white) the book then moves on to more exercises with three values and then straight to ‘more than three’ values.
But by far the majority of this section is devoted to design exercises in two values only.
This is the final section, and builds on the two previous ones. I think it will be illustrative here to quote the first sentence of Dow’s section on colour:
Colour, with it’s infinity of relations, is baffling; its finer harmonies, like those of music, can be grasped by the appreciations only, not by reasoning or analysis.
Interestingly, Dow uses Munsell as the basis for his approach to practising colour design. Munsell breaks colour into three constituent parts, each independent of the other: value (degree of darkness or light), chroma (best thought of as brightness, or intensity, with grey at one end of the scale and very bright yellows and oranges at the other) and hue (red, blue, yellow etc.)
I’ve practised much with Munsell, but only from a point of view of value modelling and learning how local colour changes across a form as it turns from light to shadow. Whilst the colour section is the shortest portion of the book, Dow does give plenty of exercises designed to develop appreciation of colour harmony in design.
Whilst I admit I’m absolutely itching to get to this part of the book, I’m trying to keep a hold of my enthusiasm and am working through it in sequence. I’m still on the initial exercises in line and that’s quite enough to be going on with for now.
Equipment and Approach: Chinese Brush and Ink
Time for some pictures.
First, here’s a quick video of one of my practice sessions in progress. What I’m doing here is tracing a variation of a composition over the original. I wanted to see if this design would work better in a long format rectangle with more space between the clementines:
What follows here is sample of the exercises I’ve been doing at each stage. Although I first started messing about with these exercises around last Christmas time, it’s only for the last three weeks that I’ve been doing daily practice with them.
First practice drawings. These were done primarily to get used to using the Chinese brush and ink. The designs are copied from the Dow book.
These plaid designs are practice of the composition principle of opposition – straight lines intersecting at right angles.
Three more drawings practising opposition.
Practising ‘transition,’ the softening of opposition with curves.
Practising the creation of repeat patterns
Practising different ways to divide a square with regular designs. This is practising the placement of elements within a format, and is where I’m up to now. Rectangles and circular formats with come next.
This isn’t really looking like hard work is it? This is looking very much like play.
And it is. That’s a strength I think. I try endless variations of these designs, each one shifting and growing now more complex, now more simple.Tangents are followed out of sheer curiosity, just to see where they lead. Branches grow from the main stem of the practice all the time and spread,sometimes strong ones and sometimes weak.
None of it is really judged. At least, none of it is judged harshly. I tend to pick ones that I like the most and work up yet more variations of them, discarding ones that didn’t come off so well. But none of them are ever seen as failures. They are all, strong or weak, joyful explorations of design. They’re fun. This is the way practice is meant to be.
But there’s a serious point here too: the new neural networks that we physically form in our brains when we practice something repeatedly become stronger, more defined, when we’re enjoying what we do. You should be enjoying yourself when you practice. That means you’re learning better, more completely.
I’ll go into this in more detail in future posts, but for anyone who’s interesting in finding out more I’d recommend The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull.
A Lesson in Creativity
I’m going to wrap this post up today with a quote from the man himself, since no-one can really put it better than he can:
Study of composition of Line, Mass and Colour leads to appreciation of all forms of art and of the beauty of nature. Drawing of natural objects then becomes a language of expression
There you have it. What we’re dealing with here is a series of exercises designed to help you learn to express yourself more fully and more eloquently. This is a real departure from all the practice that I’ve done over the last five years. I thought it was all about learning to see. I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I was wrong – or at least, only partly right.
In a very real way, instead of imitate, I’ve begun to create. And it feels good.
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