Yesterday when my November copy of Professional Artist magazine arrived, I read a thought-provoking article by Matthew Daub entitled “Design is not a dirty word”. He is a professor teaching Fine Art at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. What he had to say made me long to have had a teacher like him when I was in school. He starts off by letting his newest students do an initial drawing from a still life he sets up, and then over the course of several classes, lets them discover the importance of composition and all of its components in their work. He finds it is an ongoing proposition to get his students to think about a piece holistically rather than as pieces put together. He doesn’t espouse the golden triangle or the rule of thirds, but seems to feel that we must find our own essential intuition that tells us when something is right . As he says “composition is personal, not formulaic – not the product of do’s and don’ts, but the expression of the artist’s will that, at its finest, can defy accepted norms and practice”. He encourages his students to look at the compositional choices of what the overall shapes are, where the subjects are on a page, and even how much of an object is there to find their own clarity for a drawing.
He also seemed to have some of the same experiences academically that I did, albeit a few years earlier where the elements of composition were at best neglected and at worst scorned. What happened for me in reading this article was that it made me smile. It gave me encouragement that some of my hard-won artistic choices were heading in the right direction. Leaving extra space around a preliminary drawing was a great idea which would allow me to alter the composition if I felt it needed it. He said that 1/4″ was “absolutely important” which I thought funny considering I had just made that 1/4″ adjustment in my latest drawing (albeit inadvertently). And changing the course of a drawing in midstream was fundamentally sound if I felt that was what the picture needed. I now understand that my trying to find the balance of positive and negative space in my work is merely the discernment of the elements of composition crucial for me to feel that a piece can stand on its own. All of the stumbling and bumbling I did on my own was just finding out the truths about composition and design for myself. And in some way I felt it supported my need to step away from a work to be able to “see” it again and judge it as a whole. Perhaps this is why, when I look at a piece a few months later, I often have altered feelings about it. I am seeing it compositionally differently. Maybe at some point it won’t take as much time to make these judgements.
Professor Daub seems to be a teacher who encourages his students to discover for themselves the elements which will make their art great. Successful composition seems to be a great leg up in the process. So thank you Professor Daub. I only wish I could have met you earlier. I think it might have saved me a lot of angst over the years.
*These are my thoughts and interpretations of his article. I would encourage everyone to read it on their own if they can.