Monday, June 13, 2011

New Composition Lecture

Jeanette and I are on our way to the Illustration Master Class in Amherst, Massachusetts, a team-taught workshop with about 80 fantasy and science fiction art students.

IMC goes on for a whole week, but we’ll be there just two days. I’ll give the Color and Light talk tonight, and a brand new lecture on Composition tomorrow.

I’ll also be presenting the composition lecture in a seminar this October at LAAFA in Los Angeles.

Composition has traditionally been taught in abstract terms, using concepts such as eye pathways, golden section, or balancing masses. Most art schools and books teach it this way, and I believe it’s useful...up to a point.

I’m going to take quite a different approach, focusing on three things:
1. Visual perception (how do viewers really look at pictures?)
2. Storytelling (what does the picture hope to communicate?)
3. Tonal design (how can the lights and darks be arranged for maximum effect?)

My thinking draws on the science of visual perception, and on the ideas of American illustrator Howard Pyle.

Pyle revolutionized the teaching of composition by making the story paramount. Pyle’s student Jessie Willcox Smith recalled how one’s awareness of the story influenced the choices in composition:

"At the [Pennsylvania] Academy [of the Fine Arts] we had to think about compositions as an abstract thing, whether we needed a spot here or a break over there to balance, and there was nothing to get hold of. With Mr. Pyle it was absolutely changed. There was your story, and you knew your characters, and you imagined what they were doing, and in consequence you were bound to get the right composition because you lived these things. . . . It was simply that he was always mentally projected into his subject.”

If you live in Los Angeles, I encourage you to sign up early for my October lecture/demo workshop at LAAFA.

This will be the perfect material for you if you’ve developed good figure drawing and painting skills but you want to know how to develop a multifigure scene. 

The Jessie Wilcox Smith quote will appear in the essay I recently wrote for the upcoming exhibition catalog called “Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered.”

Illustration Master Class
LAAFA workshop on Composition


Mr Atrocity said...

The use of more cognitive science in analysing the arts is really gathering pace now (good). Noted film academics David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have been covering a lot of this kind of thing too here: There's much overlap with the reporting on this site. These are interesting times in which we live.

Michael said...

Totally agree with the importance of cognitive science. The Usability Design field is a good source which combines cognitive science and art. The seminal introduction to the booming field of Usability Design. "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug is a short, quick, fun read (has cartoons in it) full of wry humor that explains how to make things easy to use, but there are countless parallels to what you're writing about.

Also I'm really happy to learn more from you about composition. This blog is the best source for art instruction I've found!! I hope you create a book on par with your great "Color and Light" book regarding composition. I've got your "Imaginative Realism" book but haven't had a chance to go through it. Maybe it already covers composition?
I live in Wyeth and Pyle country, so I'm looking forward to learning much about this.

Erik Bongers said...

It will take time to really catch on, but I think your approach has a stronger foundation than the traditional view, so keep preachin' the words.

JonInFrance said...

Very interesting - thanks - hope you expand on these concepts in the future

Cody said...

Can you post the information on your blog so those of us who live to far away to come can get the information too? Please! :)

James Gurney said...

Jon and Cody, some of the stuff has been on the blog before, and I'll try to link back on those, and some stuff is new, and I'll roll that into future posts.

Lester Yocum said...

Jim, your lecture was chock full, very informative, and very fun. Great sense of humor, although I suspect you may have different flavors of the same briefing for different audiences. You are a master at taking what may seem lame questions (like mine) and repackaging them into uplifting theses. Thanks much!

Miłek Jakubiec said...

This is very exciting. Ever since you published the eye-tracking experiment results I have felt that the subject of composition is infested with cherished dogmas and beliefs that people cling to because they were established by authoritative figures and worthy artists. Now that the dogmas are proven to be wrong by science, the world wakes up, discards the dogma, and gets excited about exploring the new ground...right? More like yeah, right! I still keep hearing the same old advice about "leading the viewer's eye" and "creating areas of interest to attract the eye". There is hope, though. I am really excited and can't wait to read more. Thank you in advance. Do you plan to cover more than was mentioned in Imaginative Realism?