A Reading Guide to Dow's "Composition", pt. 1

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Arthur Wesley Dow was a painter, print maker, and teacher from the turn of the 19th century. He studied a wide array of different artistic traditions- Middle Eastern tile work, European painters, Greek pottery, European sculpture and architecture, and (most importantly) Japanese brush paintings. In a very Modernist fashion, Dow felt there was a deep compositional synergy between these different artistic traditions (a synergy that bypassed cultural and historical divisions), and that we too could understand and apply the methods by which these various masters divided and used space if we only paid close enough attention to their examples. His book, “Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color” outlines his approach, providing many compelling ideas, examples, and explanations.

I picked up Dow’s “Composition” two years ago, and although written in a floral, 100-year old prose, it's worth one’s time. I’ve read it over 3 or 4 times myself. And I’ve spent the last year trying to write a review for it. “Why so long?” you ask. Because, despite the fact that Dow seems to have been a compelling thinker, he has, at times, clear deficiencies as a writer. The text is dense as hell, has sections that aren’t useful (IMO) to painters, and has some holes in its applied approach. And yet… And yet. It’s one of the few books I’ve read for leisure with a pencil and highlighter in hand, making notes in the borders to noodle out some extra clarity. That example, in and of itself, is probably a good demonstration of the book’s value and shortcomings. At times, it’s a hassle to read and make sense of, and yet, having done so, I’m glad I did.

Here's a hot link to the edition I recommend. Why buy one, when you can read it online for free at the Project Gutenberg site? One, I'm an old fashioned fellow at times, and I like the experience of reading books with physical paper pages- if you're the type to write notes or use a highlighter, this is only reinforced. Two, the book has a lot of prints- both black and white and color- and they're important to the reading experience. Perhaps if you have a large format tablet, like the big iPad Pro, you'd get the same visual experience, but for 20$, I thought the print version was just fine.

What’s the Big Idea?

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Ok. So, according to Dow there's a method to playing dark against light, to balancing and dividing space, and whether it's the cast shadow of a sculptural motif falling across a building, the abstract patterns painted on pottery, or the arrangement of trees in a landscape painting they are all built using similar tools of composition. This applies to value-shapes and color-shapes, and lines-shapes too- all three of them are seen as tools to divide the picture plane abstractly, even while they simultaneously represent objects. That’s what’s so compelling about Dow’s approach. Everything is seen as a space-divider, and it’s the kinetic balance and to-and-fro decisions we make that create and drive the energy of a piece.

Dow's probably most well-known for introducing Western audiences to the idea of Notan. Notan is a bit of a nebulous concept. It’s about value, but it’s not a value-sketch (which can also be very useful!). In Japanese it literally means “Dark-Light”, but it’s much more than that.

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It’s really about the balance and distribution of dark forms against light forms. Yes, ye ol’ yin-and-yang. We can experience it by reducing an image entirely to black and white. Not even grey. Only positive shapes against negative shapes, silhouettes, heaven and earth. When you reduce an image to a Notan this way, you begin to see the underlying composition, and (with a bit of instruction and practice) more easily assess its strengths and weaknesses. Much of the best of the book is dedicated to exploring Notan, and, if for nothing else, I would have you check out the book for this concept alone.

From this perspective, Dow developed an approach to art making (and art teaching) that focuses very strongly on understanding elements of design and balance first, instead of putting such a strong initial emphasis on technique, drawing skills, or copying nature. “Mere accuracy alone,” notes Dow, “has no art-value.” A landscape painter’s goal “is not …to represent so much topography, but to express an emotion, and this he must do by art.” And what exactly does he think Art-with-a-capital-A is? “Art study,” he says later, “is the attempt to perceive and to create fine relationships of line, mass, and color.” Therefore, as I see it, if the goal of art making is to express emotion, and art study is the attempt to create fine relationships (composition), the thought follows that creating fine spatial relationships expresses emotion. Or so Dow suggests.

Can you express emotion through the arrangement of lines, shapes, and color in a picture plane? I don’t know. Maybe? Still, there’s no denying that contrast and spatial arrangement can create a dynamic kind of energy. How else to describe that “thing” which holds our attention? Georgia O’Keefe, who studied and applied Dow’s approach, has this great quote that expresses the guts of the idea- “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way- things I had no words for.” It’s definitely an “approach to art through Structure” that is “absolutely opposed to the time-honored approach through Imitation”.

So… in caveman terms- Composition line-mass-color = emotion= good. Only technique= bad. How do? Book read. Examples copy. Sweat work. Lightbulb=beauty. Keep painting. Grave. :P

Of course, there’s also the value of Story, that essential emotional human thing that makes us give a damn about a beautifully painted or composed image. Dow absolutely does not talk about this at all. We can debate that too, but the book focuses only on the tool of composition. So I take it with a grain of salt, and leave behind what’s not of use to me. I would say, however, that the impact of a great story badly told is much diminished. Similarly, a well told story that doesn’t have much to say is always just a trifle. So, the two elements go hand in hand.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Besides introducing Notan and arguing the importance of composition over technical accuracy, the additional key strength of Dow’s book is that it provides a framework for independent exploration and research. “Composition” is ordered sequentially, first focusing on learning Line, then moving to Notan (more on that later), finally leading to (a rather puny section on) Color.

 
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It’s useful and flexibly applicable to many “spatial-art” disciplines. It offers a basic vocabulary for discussing spatial layout (Dow’s five “Principles of Composition”… more on that later too), and provides many excellent historical examples that demonstrate the terms in use. It suggests exercises you can try out, which, I’m sure, bear more or less fruit depending on your approach and whether you have a teacher to guide you or not. All of which is excellent as a starting point for self-education or as a curricular tool for teachers.

So what’s the problem? What the book doesn’t do is provide easy answers. In fact, it seems to almost deliberately (perversely?) provide no answers at all. Are all compositions created equal? Absolutely not. And yet, how can one tell if a composition is good or not? If one does a series of experimental compositions to explore a concept, such as Dow often suggests, how does one judge them one against the other? They all use the same basic building blocks (which Dow discusses at length), but, of course, the layout of some images are more compelling than others. But I’ll be damned if Dow spends any time teaching us how to tell the difference.

What you will see is a lot of thought provoking, if sometimes vague, almost pseudo-religious talk about Harmony. This makes the book both highly interesting and rather frustrating. Composition, says Dow, is “the building up of harmony”, what he sees as a fundamental process of all the fine arts. Painting is “essentially a rhythmic harmony of colored spaces”. Notan “is the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces.” One gets the idea. The question, of course, is how do we get there? It’s an elusive subject. It’s easy to point at (see how this painting here works? Or how this light-dark pattern is interesting?), but it’s much more difficult to describe for the purposes of guiding a student.

Instead, what he focuses on is giving us the tools and approach to learn through a kind of artistic osmosis. One must learn how to apply things, as Dow puts it, through “appreciation” of the masters and the development of taste. If we can just get exposed to good art (what does that even mean?), and unspool the images of those masters we most admire, we can begin to walk down that same long path ourselves, as we blaze our own trails and develop our own sense of spatial relationships and composition.

That’s the basic idea.

So if you’re looking for a useful set of rules to guide you, you’re out of luck. In an era under siege from self-help books, this tome written 100 years ago completely bypasses all of that more marketable verbiage in favor of a less palatable, but perhaps more honest (and definitely more obnoxious) truth— that learning to make art requires you to learn through doing. And a lot of it on your own.

Having said all that, my hope is that this review, in tandem with my follow up posts, will provide a sort of “study guide” and path of entrance into the book. I think the best of “Composition” is that important and useful. I myself will be providing multiple supplemental posts opening up and exploring the use of Notan. Additionally, my perspective is that the input of those people who have taught me (people like Zbukvic and Chien Chung-Wei, in particular) can guide us some as we learn to judge what a “compelling composition” is. For what also becomes clear with reading the book is how essential it is to have a good teacher to get you up and on your way. No one wants to have to reinvent the wheel.


The “Good Parts” Version—

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As a lover of “The Princess Bride”, I offer this Good Parts version of “Composition”! A good way to dip your toe into the book and assess if it’s the right thing for you.

Structurally, the book starts off by exploring composition through line work, and then later moves into Notan and eventually into color, but it’s the section on Notan that’s the strongest and most widely applicable. Elsewhere in the book are a variety of bits and pieces, with varying levels of interest. As before, I’ve read it all 3 or 4 times… so all of it has interesting things to say, but here are the essentials as I see it—

Pg 3-14 “Beginnings” and “The Three Elements”. This is the intro. Well worth reading. All the big ideas are here.

Pg 21-28 “Principles of Composition.” Ways of creating Harmony. Opposition, Transition, Subordination, Repetition, Symmetry. Developing better judgment through “appreciation”. I have supplemental content I’ll be offering for this portion.

Pg 44-48 “Landscape Composition.” This is part of the section on Line. Really interesting to see examples from fabric design, cabinetry, and pottery compared to designs in landscape paintings.

Pg 53-74 Notan. The Heart of the book. Overview, Tasks and Exercises. Excellent examples. I’ve got a couple of upcoming posts on this.

After these pages comes a supplemental section on 3-value Notans (rather than the basic 2-value Notan). It’s interesting, but not as well constructed as the earlier section. Then there’s a section on color and another on composition, but these two really feel like afterthoughts to me, and aren’t as fully developed as (nor as fully connected to) the earlier sections.

In my next post I’m going to talk about the “Principles of Composition” section of the book. This portion is full of interesting ideas regarding what the “building blocks” of Composition are, but is unfortunately totally opaque on how to apply them for maximum impact. Fortunately, we have the lessons of Chien Chung Wei to lead the way in. We’ll put them all together and see what we get.