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The Best Art Books - Composition and Design

Updated on January 17, 2015
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Katherine regularly reviews art books and has a very extensive art library (4 bookcases and lots of stacks waiting for the next one!)

some of my books about composition and design
some of my books about composition and design | Source

Improve the composition and design of your drawings and paintings

Find out which are the best art books about composition and design for art students, leisure painters, improving and advanced artists and art teachers.

Learn more about:

  • composition and design in art
  • how to draw the eye and lead it around your painting.
  • different approaches to creating a masterful composition
  • the "rules" of composition - including the principles and elements of design in painting.

It also includes reviews of art books about composition and design and links to helpful articles about composition and design

Making A Mark - the Composition and Design project

A number of my recommendations for books below are associated with a major project on my blog about composition and design. I subsequently developed a site (also on HubPages) called Composition and Design for Artists which examines in more depth the various principles and elements of design and composition - and how these have been applied by different artists and in different cultures

"It's amazing how many of us who don't have the benefit of a fine art degree seem to have managed to learn something about the different aspects of what's involved with composition and design without actually ever coming across the idea of the 'elements' and 'principles' of art/composition/design! Or at least that's my experience. I'd certainly never heard about these particular groups before starting this project."

from Making a Mark: Composition - The Elements of Design

Composition and design - a pile of the books I own

It doesn't have to be a NEW book to be a good book! Some of the ones I own were written a long time ago - and some were published between 10-20 years ago. It's the quality that matters not when they were published.
It doesn't have to be a NEW book to be a good book! Some of the ones I own were written a long time ago - and some were published between 10-20 years ago. It's the quality that matters not when they were published. | Source

Top Recommendations

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting (Mastering (North Light Books))
Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting (Mastering (North Light Books))

Hardcover: 144 pages

Publisher: North Light Books; Hardback/DVD edition (November 29, 2007)

 

'Mastering Composition' by Ian Roberts

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Ian Roberts "Mastering Composition" is one of the books I always recommend to people wanting to learn more about Composition. It has an accompanying DVD.

Rated:

  • USA - Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars (84 customer reviews) on Amazon
  • UK - Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars (17 customer reviews)

Read my review - Making a Mark: Mastering Composition - a recommended read

Plus check out the video below to get a sense of how Ian Roberts explains topics in his book.

This book covers the tried and trusted of compositional basics - in a clear and accessible way. It provides graphic explanations of structured methods which aid composition and design.

"It's an excellent book for all those who want to learn more about helpful principles and techniques for composition and design. It's all about understanding the structure and dynamics of the picture plane and planning your artwork. In my opinion it has something useful to say to both experienced painters and those starting out - and I have it tagged as one of those books which are not to be lent out!"

I highly recommend this book to all those seeking to improve their skills in design and composition.

Your painting will really only be as good as the tonal values

— Greg Albert - 'The Simple Secret to Better Painting'
The Simple Secret to Better Painting: How to Immediately Improve Your Work with the One Rule of Composition
The Simple Secret to Better Painting: How to Immediately Improve Your Work with the One Rule of Composition

128 pages

Publisher: North Light Books;

1st edition (May 7, 2003)

also available as a Kindle edition

 

'The Simple Secret to Better Painting' by Greg Albert

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Greg Albert's "The simple secret to better painting" is a book I always recommend to people who want to learn more about composition and design.

Rated:

  • USA - 4.5 out of 5 stars by 57 customer reviewers
  • UK - 4.5 out of 5 stars (2 customer reviews)

Read my review Greg Albert - The Simple Secret to Better Painting

"This is a book which you can come back to again and again. It's a 'basics' book for those wanting to learn more about composition and design and it can also act as a 'pick you up' for more advanced artists who feel they're getting stale and need a visual boost. This book makes composition as a topic both accessible and understandable to art students and would-be artists who've been ducking out of improving their knowledge of composition. For those who tend to neglect the importance of composition because it's 'too difficult' or there are 'too many rules' or there is 'too much to think about' there is now no excuse!"

He explains design dynamics and how to make pictures interesting. The books explains what can make a picture unbalanced and how to correct this - and his "One Rule of Composition". Tackling how we look at pictures, Albert explains, in both text and graphics, how to please the eye and how to attract the eye to the focal point and lead the eye through a picture. He has simple and effective explanations of the 'rule of thirds', sweetspots, leads, pointers, blocks and exits. The impact of tonal values and colour on design are highlighted.

The book contains sections specifically devoted to still lifes, landscapes and portraits. In each of these he covers the basics which help to make a successful composition. He addresses issues such as:

  • selecting still life objects
  • arranging a still life
  • making use of photographs (for landscapes)
  • basic value patterns for landscapes
  • cropping the figure and cropping the portrait
  • dealing with multiple figures

Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers
Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: University of California Press;

Reprint edition (February 1998)

also available as a Kindle edition

 

Composition by Arthur Dow - A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: This is a classic book which provides workbook exercises to develop a better understanding of design.

I first found out about Arthur Dow while visiting a friend in the USA. She had a copy of this book. I came home and immediately bought my own copy!

Dow is perhaps best known as a mentor to Georgia O'Keeffe and the man who literally "wrote the book" on composition. First published in 1899, this manual influenced generations of teachers and students. In fact, Arthur Wesley Dow's Composition has probably influenced more Americans than any other text to think of visual form and composition in relation to artistic modernity.

Dow taught Georgia O'Keeffe the notions and principles explained in this book - and I bought my copy at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

Greatly influenced by Japanese art and 'notan', he explains a theory of "flat" formal equilibrium as an essential component of telling pictorial creation. He explains how to create good design using harmonic relations between lines, colors, and dark and light patterns.

When reading the Amazon reviews, do bear in mind that some are pretty unforgiving of the age of the original book and the fact this is a facsimile.

Harley Brown's Eternal Truths for Every Artist
Harley Brown's Eternal Truths for Every Artist

Hardcover: 144 pages

Publisher: International Artist (March 15, 2001)

Harley Brown is a Canadian artist who works in pastel

 

Harley Brown's Eternal Truths for Every Artist - by Harley Brown

This book has a huge number of fans (I'm one of them!) and an excellent rating on Amazon

Rated an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars based on 46 customer reviews

I bought this book because it's by a pastel artist but learned a great deal more than just how to tackle a painting in pastel. It's a generic book covering a lot of topics but one of the chapters is titled "Composition - Who Needs It?" - with a strapline of "See why most paintings are boring. And why a few will knock your socks off".

the reason for highlighting this book here was that reading this chapter was I think the first time I "got" what impact choices about composition have on a painting.

This is an artist who is very clearly stating that good design is not an optional extra - it's why professional artists work more on this aspect than many amateur artist. I also liked his notion and explanation of "Not Everything Should Be Equal!" which has been very easy to remember.

One thing worth noting - because it certainly marks this book out - is that Harley Brown writes in a very direct and forthright way and is very accessible. Some will find it a very refreshing change from the style often used in art instruction books.


The Perspectives of Practising Artists

Below are some books which include compilations of the perspectives on design and composition of many different practising and professional artists.

These are NOT books which will provide you with the level of in-depth instruction that you will find in other books recommended above and below. However they are useful when developing a more well rounded insight into different ways of tackling this topic.

The benefit of this type of book is that it helps you understand that there are many ways of approaching this topic. The trick is to find the way that works best for you.

A Painter's Guide to Design and Composition
A Painter's Guide to Design and Composition

Hardcover: 144 pages

Publisher: North Light Books (February 7, 2006)

 

A Painter's Guide to Design and Composition - by Margot Schulzke (Author)

in 2006 - sold 15,000 copies in 18 months. Rated - 4.4 out of 5 stars (24 customer reviews) on Amazon

The book comes in two parts. The first part focuses on Design Basics

  • Elements and Principles - the building blocks of design
  • how artists think they create - from creating a design to making choices about colour to make the design work

The second part forms the Master Class part of the book where 26 different well known painters describe their approach to design and composition. It's billed as "secrets" but in reality these are all well established tips - however it does demonstrate that different approaches work for different folks. Contributors include: Daniel Greene, Albert Handell, Richard McKinley, Bill James and Clark Mitchell

Design & Composition Secrets of Professsional Artists: 16 Successful Painters Show How They Create Prize-Winning Work
Design & Composition Secrets of Professsional Artists: 16 Successful Painters Show How They Create Prize-Winning Work

Paperback: 128 pages

Publisher: North Light Books; illustrated edition edition (May 2001)

 

Design & Composition Secrets of Professsional Artists

Rated an average 4.2 out of 5 stars by 10 customer reviewers

This is International Artist Magazine publication - which means essentially this book is like reading a series of articles from International Artist about composition and design back to back. Which means if you like that sort of approach you'll like this book.

The premise of this book is that "16 Successful Painters Show How They Create Prize-Winning Work" - basically a 'show and tell" book. However if you want something more, there are better books with better instruction. Nevertheless insights from others artists about how they create their work are always useful.

Composition and Landscape Art

Landscapes - selecting and designing your painting

There's a lot to do if you are sketching and painting landscapes plein air. Two decisions that will have the biggest impact on the quality and effectiveness of the outcome - irrespective of the skills of the artist as a painter - are:

  1. the choice of subject and then
  2. decisions about how best to represent it in 2D format.

One of the ways of becoming more skilled at making choices is to learn more about what makes a landscape work. That way you can end up doing what I and numerous other artists do - selecting subjects to paint and working how to paint them even when we have no paints with us!

I learned a lot of what I now about selection, cropping and design from books. It was aided by tutors - but the space and time that good books give you to review and return to pointers on how best to turn what is in front of you into a good work of art is invaluable.

A number of the more generic books (top of this site) are extremely valuable in relation to landscape painting. However those below relate design and composition to this topic in particular


Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice

Hardcover: 192 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill; 1 edition (November 17, 2009)

 

Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Rated

  • USA - 4.7 out of 5 stars (112 customer reviews) on Amazon.com
  • UK - 4.6 out of 5 stars (14 customer reviews) on Amazon.co.uk

This book takes the core concepts and skills required of those creating any type of representational art and interprets and relates how these apply and work within the context of landscape art. He uses the principles and elements of art to explain composition of the landscape - and how to select wisely and simplify masses.

The lessons are supplemented by illustrations drawn from more than 40 contemporary artists and such masters of landscape painting as John Constable, Sanford Gifford, and Claude Monet.

14 Formulas for Painting Fabulous Landscapes
14 Formulas for Painting Fabulous Landscapes

Hardcover: 143 pages

Publisher: North Light Books; 1St Edition edition (December 2003)

 

14 Formulas for Painting Fabulous Landscapes - by: Barbara Nuss

Rated an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars based on reviews by 11 customers

This book has a neat idea for a way of thinking through options for design when looking at a landscape and thinking about how to create a painting. The author, Barbara Nuss, has come up with a checklist of 14 alternative approaches to how to paint a landscape. (In effect it's the landscape equivalent of the old adage of there's only "7 ways to write a book"). This formula based approach suits some artists - particularly those who are new to landscape painting.

I'm not a huge fan of such formulaic approaches - while at the same time recognising there's a lot of truth in the idea there's only so many different ways that really work effectively.

As you would expect the book has 14 chapters which cover each of the alternative design formats - and she explains and demonstrates each one effectively - in both words and images. Her books also includes useful and generic tips and techniques relating to landscape painting plein air.

Barbara Nuss is an experienced and award-winning landscape painter and teacher who is a member of a number of prestigious American Art Societies e.g. the Salmagundi Club of New York City and the National Oil and Acrylic Painters' Society. She has been teaching landscape painting for over 30 years - including via plein air workshops.

Composition of Outdoor Painting
Composition of Outdoor Painting

Hardcover: 169 pages

Publisher: DeRu Fine Arts; Seventh Edition edition (2005)

 

Composition of Outdoor Painting - by Edgar Payne

Rated an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars based on reviews by 58 reviewers

Originally published in 1941 this book by Edgar Payne has been described as the "bible for outdoor painting". That accounts for the high price now being charged for the copies still available to purchase. Used copies can also still be obtained secondhand

As with all older books, they were written using a different approach and style - and with a lot more words - plus the size of the font is much smaller. Some people may find it more difficult to read than books written by contemporary authors.

Painting with Impact
Painting with Impact

Hardcover: 128 pages

Publisher: Batsford (September 7, 2010)

 

Composition - plan, place or arrange elements of art in a work.

Painting with Impact - by: David Curtis with, Robin Capon

  • 4.3 out of 5 stars by 11 customer reviewers on Amazon.com
  • 4.1 out of 5 stars by 9 customer reviewers on Amazon.co.uk

In this book Curtis talks about the secrets of producing paintings with impact and how to achieve balance and contrast in tone, colour and compositional elements. This is a painter who achieves masterful balance in a suble way. His paintings never ever shout at you but still manage to draw you in from across a room. I know - I've reviewed exhibitions they've been in many times and I always really look forward to seeing his work and am very rarely disappointed.

The key elements covered in the book:

  • Selection - what to paint, what excites you and how to simplify or dramatise those elements;
  • Mood - creating a strong sense of mood through choice of medium, colour and painting technique; and,
  • Colour - choosing the right colours to suit the intentions of the painting.
  • Locations - looking at different treatments appropriate to different locations

Those awarding a low rating for this book on Amazon are in essence saying you don't need it if you already have the other David Curtis books - however the other reviewers rate it very highly.

David Curtis is a well known award-winning landscape artist who paints in oils and/or watercolour nearly every day. He's based in the UK. He's also the author of the bestselling art instruction books Light and Mood in Watercolours and Capturing the Moment in Oils. As with a number of artists he uses a co-author to help organise his material and bring out the best of his ideas, tips and techniques on paper in a book.

Composition & Design - more historical perspectives

The Elements of Drawing
The Elements of Drawing

Paperback: 264 pages

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

(October 24, 2013)

 

The Elements of Drawing (as originally published in 1857)

This book is an absolute classic. More than 150 years after it was first published this book is still bought by and can be found on the bookshelves of many people who care about drawing.

  • Letter 1 concerns the basics of drawing which involve the elements
  • Letter 3 concerns itself with "On Colour and Composition" and Ruskin's 9 laws

John Ruskin's book was written in part to provide a basis for his teaching and imparting of knowledge about how to draw

The Elements of Drawing (Draw Books)
The Elements of Drawing (Draw Books)

Series: Draw Books

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: New Amsterdam Books (September 1991)

If you want to buy a copy, then I recommend that you get this edition with editing and annotations by Bernard Dunstan

 

The Elements of Drawing - with editing and annotations by Bernard Dunstan

I've got two versions, the original and a second version which annotates Ruskin's text with notes by the Bernard Dunstan RA.

This is it - and it's the one I'd recommend people buy - especially if you're somebody who is not used to reading books which are 150 years old.

It's not always an easy read - and it certainly has nowhere near the number of illustrations as people have come to expect. However what is missing in images is made up for by the clarity of his descriptions of the process of drawing

Pictorial Composition (Composition in Art) (Dover Art Instruction)
Pictorial Composition (Composition in Art) (Dover Art Instruction)

Paperback: 104 pages

116 illustrations

Publisher: Dover Publications - Reproduction of 1967 edition edition (June 1, 1976)

FIRST PUBLISHED 1903

 

Pictorial Composition - by Henry Rankin Poore

Rated an average of 4.1 out of 5 stars by 26 customers on Amazon

This is an old book which has been reprinted. The reviews on Amazon are worth reading. It's very obvious that a number purchased this book without realising what that it was originally published in 1903. I'd recommend people take advantage of the "look inside" option available on Amazon to see whether or not the approach is one which you are happy with - a lot has change in how books are written and produced since this one was first printed in 1903 (a fact Amazon chooses not to advertise!)

Some people consider it formulaic and written in an old fasioned way. Others find it succinct and an absolute gold mine. They highlight that it covers a lot of detail not generally covered by most art books or tutors. This has become one of the main reasons why books like this are reprinted - you learn different approaches to design and composition.

Picture Perfect 3 in 1 Plus View Finder

Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars based on 20 customer reviews

A lot of people trying to grapple with design and composition for the first time find viewfinders very helpful. They are designed to show you where the thirds lines lie. The red allows you to see different tonal values clearly.

This viewfinder is particularly large when compare to some and folds up to 5" x 11"

Comments and Suggestions - Let me know what you think....but please do not spam!

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    • john-doornkamp profile image

      john-doornkamp 3 years ago

      As I said on another lens: landscape photography and landscape art are so close that the practitioners of one ought also to read the books on there other.

    • sheilamarie78 profile image

      sheilamarie78 6 years ago

      You are such a go-to person for information about art. I appreciate all you share with us!

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