“Marshall gives you what made the old masters, masters.”
JosH ReeD

Composition Reviews

I  don't recommend many books on composition. I've read at least a dozen of them and skimmed many more. Some are a waste of time (any book that tells you to divide the canvas into thirds or avoid the center — and really means it — be wary), others are so theoretical that they prompt you to talk about art but never create any. Most of them miss the whole point. There was a good set of lessons from The Famous Artists School that is out of print and as far as I know, inaccessible.

And then there's Andrew Loomis. If you had to limit yourself to only one teacher in the 20th century for your entire art education, it should be Andrew Loomis. He was a very good illustrator and a top-notch teacher. His book Creative Illustration will help you understand composition, even if it's limited. It is focused on the “classic illustration” style of American illustrators, especially Howard Pyle and the Brandywine school — a glorious tradition with roots that go back a few hundred years, but not diverse enough to satisfy all artists. The book is long out of print, but it floats around on the internet as a poorly-scanned-but-readable pdf. I recommend it. 

 Most of what I've learned about composition has come from thirty years of pursuing it and getting little hints from one artist or another, finding little bits in one book (like How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way which is true to its name) and little bits in another (like The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation which takes six months to read) but no worthy textbook. I learned many of the principles by studying story composition and seeing the parallels to painting. George Gallo, the screenwriter who wrote Midnight Run, said that he studied painting composition and saw the parallels to story structure. I've often wondered where he studied painting composition.

 There are many artists who know it. More who just feel it. Very few who explain it so that you can understand. Here are some in-print resources that I know and recommend.

Note: Some of these books may also be listed under other seminar resource reviews.


Picture This

This is a book that shows how she would illustrate Little Red Riding Hood by cutting out pieces of construction paper. It is also the only book on Composition for artists that I can confidently recommend to give you the old wisdom of the masters. That first section on Little Red Riding Hood, if it's all you knew about composition, would point your head in a direction that leads to mastering pictorial structure. The second section on Principles doesn't flow as smoothly as the first section, but every page is valuable. Even every sentence. And it's a short book, less than 100 pages with lots of pictures, and easy to read.

P.S. There are two versions of this book, one with the subtitle Perception and Composition and one with the subtitle How Pictures Work. They are essentially the same book. The only difference is in the shape of the book, the foreword, and perhaps a dozen word changes in the text. —mv

Click to buy from Amazon.com

Abstraction in Art and Nature

This book will not teach you how to compose paintings. It is not an art instruction book. I think of it as a “vacation book” to read when you have time to observe nature. Nathan Cabot Hale (whom I'm told is Robert Beverly Hale's son — can anyone verify this for me?) put together this wonderful book with lots of pictures that will help you to see beyond literal surfaces. He helps you to see patterns. Big structures. Shapes. In a word — Abstractions. It's what masters of composition use to compose.

Dover Publications has, as with hundreds of other good books, reprinted this cheaply and well. Take your time with it. Enjoy it. It may not seem immediately relevant to artists, but it nurtures a way of seeing that will help you to make better pictures. —mv

Click to buy from Amazon.com

Writing the Natural Way

This is an excellent book in every way. The best of its kind. It may seem strange to include it in the Composition book reviews, but Rico has contributed more than anyone to how I teach pictorial composition. It is technically a writing book, focused on poems, but it's much more than a writing book. It is a course in creativity. She represents the old wisdom that creative people have used for thousands of years to assemble works of art, mainly in the game of finding similarities and differences. Good exercises for writers, too. But will it help you compose pictures? If you can see the relationship between writing and painting, and how both artforms are “composed” (put together), you'll have fun making the link between disciplines. If you can't... there's my class. —mv

Click to buy from Amazon.com


Composition Seminar

Here's where I pitch my own teaching. I spent several years integrating composition lessons into my Drawing from the Masters classes at Fullerton College. Those lectures have turned into a course that I have taught all over Southern California in schools and corporations, and that has a history of bringing out some of my favorite artists' best work. Here is one quote from Chris Appelhans, whose work you may know from the visual development of Monster House and Coraline:

“Marshall teaches the true fundamentals of composition. After four years at a prestigious art college, he introduced me to important concepts I'd never before encountered. Even now, those are the concepts I think about every time I sit down to do a painting. It changed the way I looked at illustration and tell a story with art.”

And one more:

“Marshall's Composition Class. One of the most important classes I've ever taken.”

Justin Sweet

You can read more about the Composition Crash-Course on the course description page.

Please see my info pages for details on all my seminars, check my schedule for all upcoming offerings, join my announcement list for the latest updates, or contact me if you have specific questions.

Marshall Vandruff is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.