Section 16. The Long Composition

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Section 16. The Long Composition

An Approach to the Study of Composition

If you wish to compose, no matter what you know of composition, you quickly find that you need material to compose with. Therefore, it seems logical that the first exercise in composition must be one in which you attempt to acquire the necessary data in relation to human activity and its environment. The simplest and most efficient practice is to do one composition every day, drawing from that day’s experience. That is an exercise you have already begun and one which you should continue faithfully even though you are to supplement it with a longer study having the same objective. You cannot express yourself with a language that is chaotic. A sufficiently large vocabulary of facts must be at your command to give you the opportunity of selection. If I asked you to draw, from the results of your observation up to date, a man sitting in ten different ways, I wonder how similar you would make all the ten postures. Yet, actually, how completely different are the ways in which one man can squirm around on a chair and change his position ten times in half as many minutes. You will need also to know the inanimate background of human activities, which helps to give character to the activity. Often I have asked students to draw from memory (with no artistic pretensions) the front doors of their own homes. In spite of the fact that they recognize their houses and are able to open their doors, they often do not know whether the door is panelled, what the trim around it is like, or even which side the knob is on. The artist should make an objective contact with all sorts of objects — and this contact is always to be made by paying attention to what the thing is doing.

During one of my former composition talks at the Art Students’ League one of my students, who had had the typical college training in art, asked me to draw a perfect composition. My answer was, ‘Of what?’ He said, ‘Oh, nothing in particular — just a plan for a perfect composition.’ And I asked him, ‘Doing what?’ Then I explained to him and to the class that possibly the most important point I could make was that there is no such thing as a perfect plan for a composition isolated from factual conditions — idea, event, actors, background. I reminded the class that in all our exercises we begin with the objective impulse and, until we are completely familiar with people and things, we study no theories. One terribly mistaken conception that I have found to exist in the minds of most art students is the idea that through some preconceived plan of design they can successfully reason out the action of a figure or a composition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only to the extent that you are capable of allowing yourself to feel the action through your own sense of balance can you understand.

The real way to get ideas or conceptions is through a practical experience in which the senses play a major part. If this part of your study — simple, first-hand observation — is done thoroughly and well, the so-called rules of composition will never trouble you seriously. It can be said that the design of a painting (that is, its composition) is the element which insures its unity, and gesture is the unifying element. Without an awareness of the gesture there can be no understanding of the design or its reason. You do not start with the rules of composition. You start with the gesture which gives the design. It is wrong to make a plan first and then fill the plan with activity. The activity should come first. One sees murals in which workers are about to hit each other over the head with their pickaxes instead of hitting the earth. In such paintings the plan came first. The plan should grow out of the activity, out of what is happening. The pattern grows out of a concrete and actual condition. No matter how interesting the mechanics of composition are, they lead you to nothing. You can cold-bloodedly create a composition with which there is no apparent fault, but what of it?

Diagrams without a real objective search are meaningless, and that search must be touched by the thing called the creative impulse, which is willing at all times seemingly to destroy the rules. When you become self-conscious about rules, they impose limitations upon you. Just as certain expressive slang terms actually become part of a language, so new forms created by the painter take their place in art. You cannot govern the creative impulse. About all you can do is to eliminate obstacles and smooth the way for it.


Half Hour Ex. 2: Gesture (25 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (25 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (25 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (25 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (25 drawings)
One Hour Ex. 32: The Sustained Study, Nude (one study composed of three drawings) Ex. 33: Study o( the Bones (one drawing)
Quarter Hour Rest Rest Rest Rest Rest
Quarter Hour Ex. 2: Gesture (15 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (15 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (15 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (15 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (15 drawings)
One Hour Ex. 32: The Sustained Study (one study composed of three drawings) Ex. 19 and 31: The Head in Pencil (one drawing)

Homework: Ex. 14 or 30: The Daily Composition.

Ex. 34: The Long Composition (fifteen minutes a day for one week).

Remember the Daily Composition (Ex. 14 or 30) every day.


This is a study on which you will spend not less than fifteen minutes or more than a half-hour a day. I suggest that you view it as homework, working every day and completing a composition each week regardless of how often your class meets. If that is impossible, take fifteen minutes out of each lesson, completing a composition with each schedule. Work entirely from memory, using a large piece of paper and pencil or, later, any medium you choose.

 Collection of Philip Hofer
The Dead Christ by Veronese
The long composition should begin with the gesture

 Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts
The Dead Christ by Veronese

Begin by selecting a definite place which you can visit easily in the usual course of the day without making a special trip — for example, a drug store. On the first day do not attempt to memorize any particular things about the store or to analyze or understand it. Merely observe your reaction to it, your feeling about the place. Upon entering the drug store you are immediately aware that it has a different atmosphere from a grocery or any other kind of store. There must be something, or a combination of things, which creates this impression. These things might well be different for different people and it is not too easy to know what they are for you. Therefore, do not jump at a conclusion.

 Donnat Museum, Bayonne, France
The Visitation by Rubens


Antwerp Cathedral
The Visitation by Rubens
And no ‘life’ is lost in the final thing

On the first day put down a record of these impressions just as you do in the daily composition. You will find that, while you have gathered a general impression, your drawing is apt to be weak when it comes to details and the precise connection of things. So you go back to the place the next day, understanding this weakness, knowing what to look for. Do not attempt to study too many details on one day — I should say not more than three. For example, on one visit to the drug store you might observe the exact contours of the syrup spigot and of a container on the fountain and one of the signs. Notice the gesture of each thing and from that sort of contact you will best be able to reconstruct its appearance. After you have done this for some time, you will find by experience that the first things to note are the largest elements you have to deal with — the shape and proportion of the entire interior, the arrangement and proportion of the various counters, the relation of the entrance to the counters, the system of paying. The place has been planned in a certain way for use. The person who comes in buys what he wants and finds the cash register on his way out.

Hausmann Collection, Breslau
Study for Hands by Durer
Compare Exercise 30

The displays that he passes on the way out are probably so arranged as to make him buy bargains. An appreciation of what takes place in the store will make you more observant. It is not necessary, nor is it possible in this exercise, to memorize the appearance of particular persons to be included in the composition. Having decided upon the posture or gesture of a person, study the details from other people that you see anywhere. If you are using the back view of a man standing at the cigar counter, you can study the back views of men standing in railroad stations, on street corners, or elsewhere to note some specific detail, as how the coat collar fits, whether it allows the shirt collar to show, how high up on the neck or how close to the ears it comes, or whether the line of it turns up or down.

After working for two or three days you may find that your paper is getting so crowded with lines that it is difficult to go on drawing. If so, put a piece of tracing paper over it and continue on that. Try to keep the drawing flexible and plastic to the very end. It should maintain always some aspect of the gesture studies. The time will come, several months from now, when you wish to introduce into the long composition the variation suggested in Exercise 30 for the daily composition. Then, you may start with a subject that is remembered or imagined, but keep in mind the purpose of this exercise, which is to give you an adequate knowledge of places and things. Start, as before, by building up the entire composition within a short time, regardless of correctness of details, thinking only of the gesture. You will discover as before that there are many facts to be used about which your memory is blurred and vague. This will point out to you what to look for. Then it is up to you to go every day, very conscientiously, to places where such facts and details may be studied, making observations and making the necessary corrections on your drawing.

Draw for fifteen hours as directed in Schedule 16.