Composing Pictures: Behind the Scenes with Wall Notes


UPDATE: for those of you interested in ‘the book’ I’ve decided not to pursue this project until at least 2018. There just isn’t time to be both a solid author and excellent painter, and I’ve got far too many good paintings to make. So until then, I’m a painter. :)  Perhaps I’ll return to this project, perhaps not. I don’t know. But I’ll reassess in five years, in 2018.


Would you like to see a little bit of the work behind the scenes of my book about composing pictures, called “Doubletake: the Art of Composing Pictures”? The title isn’t finalized, it could also be Double Parallels, hinting always at the dual roles of percepts and concepts working together.

The overall intent of the book is to uncover and elucidate compositional forms throughout history, across cultures, in the contexts of art-making (not just art history, but from the view of the practicing artist), thus celebrating the accomplishments of so many great visual artists while setting the stage for today’s dynamic trends in composition. Much of the history of composition is not taught in art schools today, or, was reduced too much by the line-tone-shape-pattern camp of Modern and Bauhaus distillations: thus it’s fun, and really eye-opening, to recover some of the intricacy of older art forms as well as the innovations of contemporary thinking.

Along the way I’ve come to feel strongly that the book, in order to be relevant and truthful, must include a heavy dose of contemporary neuroscience and the psychology of our visual perceptions. Another issue that must be included is recognizing and identifying the compositional strategies and influences outside of my own upbringing and training within European figurative and realist painting — after all by the 19th century artists all over the world can and do communicate and trade with each other, a series of global interactions that mix everything up and lead us into today’s highly varied, diverse, and prolific contemporary art.

To help visualize these interactions, and their complexity, I’ve needed to map out the main trends on my studio wall, most recently in a corner. It looks like this:

Far too comprehensive to fit on a computer screen… the left side is pre-history, the far right is today. The layers are top: European methods and modes; then photography; middle: Japanese, then Chinese modes and ideas; then Inuit, Nigerian, Australian, and Mayan innovations, and Navajo. Not that these groupings are entirely comprehensive, but they’re a start, with some identification from every continent. The timeline is sequential left to right so that I can identify different trends in separate cultures at the same time… for example, in 1600 a.d., what are artists in China doing differently and similarly to artists in Italy? The chart helps me see that distinction and connection.

Part of what I’ve been doing here is recasting the whole of global art history in terms of visual forms and their use, and the ideas that drive their use, to define how people have arranged visual elements to create new pictures, to compose. Although that ties in with conventional art history, it’s more about the visuals than time periods.

So that’s the art historical set of notes. The neuro- and psych- visual perception notes are entirely different, and may require all of MASS MoCA’s largest gallery. Haha! In any case, as I develop this into a much more readable set of stories, the rough outline of the book goes like this, if you’re curious:

I. Introductions and Imagining a Life With and Without Pictures

a. the need for artistic license; the trial of Paolo Veronese

b. what the science of mind and vision reveals and related to visual art-making; organizing concepts.

II. Understanding Art History of Compositional Forms, and What Artists Do

a. In the context of global art history, identifying major ideas, trends, forms related to composing pictures

III. Case Studies of Compositional Forms and Innovations

a. the somewhat lost art of compositional forms, learning to recognize them in art.

IV. Case Studies of Specific Artists, Artworks

a. example made concrete by looking at great art.

V.  Composing Exercises for Visual Artists

a. ways to make compositions, study composing while making art.

VI. Summaries, Syllabi, Bibliography

a. everything we teachers and total art nerds love to know.

The content is borne out of a course I teach, called Art 312 Form and Composition. If you’d like to see a somewhat more in-depth case study of an artwork, check out this post regarding Rogier van der Weyden. I hope to post many similar case studies soon.

4 thoughts on “Composing Pictures: Behind the Scenes with Wall Notes

  1. Very interesting! Have you read “The Shape of Time” by George Kubler? I would be interested in your opinion of it. I set it aside before finishing – its a dense read (for me).

    • Hi Holly. Thanks for the comment. Yes, but I read it years and years ago… I too remember it as a dense, if not at times vexingly vague read. Probably it’s time for another read, I remember liking it, but also thinking that there’s a lot to be known about art and artworks through the filter of the artist’s life (biography, a tradition as old as Vasari) a method which Kubler sort of contested. Still, I think in essence that he’s correct that art is not a closed system (a history with a concrete beginning and firm ending), and is more like an open, dynamic, changing system that gets remixed a lot and revised as artists innovate. The visual patterns that repeat across cultures certainly reveal a story of visuals that people share in common globally, although often the specific meanings associated with the same graphic pattern are very different meanings, and not at all the same across cultures. Two people can both use the form of a sonnet to say radically different things…

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