Mastering Composition || Ian Roberts

The introduction to this comprehensive work begins with a story of how the author, at the age of 11, accompanied his father and a group of fellow artists on their annual painting trip. He recounts being impressed at how, at the end of the day, their discussion of their work revolved round not the use of colour, but the structure of the paintings, how the eye was led around the image and how the various elements related to each other. In a word, the composition. Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that all sounds a bit contrived, a convenient lead-in to how he developed a lifelong fascination with the subject of what just happens to be his latest book. If that had any of the hallmarks of, “what can I write about next?”, I’d be the first to agree with you, but it reads like a labour of love, perhaps even a bit of an obsession, and I think you have a real masterwork here.

Gosh, that about covers it, doesn’t it? But let me try to give you a flavour of just how comprehensive this book is. You start with the usual block, cone and cylinder exercises, but these almost immediately give way to an analysis of actual paintings that quickly show you how a good road map will lead the viewer through a visual work almost as though it were a document. The main body of the book is then given over to a lengthy series of demonstrations that show you, by altering colour, position and shapes, how a scene can be made to work on canvas. At this point, I’d better make it clear that Ian Roberts is an oil painter. The rules of composition are pretty much universal, but I did once write the sales pitch for a book on composition without really noticing that the author used acrylics throughout and a surprising number of people found that a stumbling block. Just wanted you to know.

Books on composition are relatively few and far between and that’s partly because it’s seen as a rather dry, academic subject that is difficult to make interesting. Well, Ian Roberts disproves that comprehensively. I used the word “obsession” earlier, but I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that he bangs on at length and could be used as a cure for insomnia. Far from it: this is a book that will make something you perhaps though was necessary but dull into something not just interesting, but actually fascinating. This is likely to be the standard work on composition for a long time to come and deserves to stay in print for many years.

There’s also an accompanying DVD, which is all regions and will play on a UK player. In it, Ian goes through some of the paintings in the book and explains, by means of lines and highlights, how the various compositions work. I’m not sure that this adds much to what is already in print, but it’s an interesting idea and hasn’t added to the price, so it’s certainly worth at least a look.

North Light 2007

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