"Perhaps the greatest weakness of modern art is the relative neglect of what is ordinarily called composition, or what I prefer to call by the good old word design. The word composition means, of course, the putting together of the picture, and seems to imply a more or less mechanical assemblage of separately existing parts. The word design conveys the finer and truer idea of an original guiding thought, a principle of unity, out of which the parts and details of a picture are developed by a natural and organic growth. You compose a pudding or a black draught--you design a work of art. Yet the word composition is a convenient one, and one so commonly understood that I shall use it interchangeably with the word design. Whatever it is to be called, that the thing itself is rather out of fashion there can be no doubt. Our tendency has been to exalt the other parts of the art of painting at the expense of this fundamental one of design, and to decry and belittle composition as a thing of small or no importance. Indeed, if one may believe all one hears, its very existence has been denied; for a well-known and justly admired American painter has been quoted as telling his pupils that "There is no such thing as composition." If he ever said so, one is left in doubt as to just what he could have meant. It is possible that he intended to say that there is no science of composition, and no valid rules for it, that design is, and must be, a matter of instinct and of unconscious creative action on the part of the artist. In that case, what is true in his statement is equally true of drawing and color and handling.
In all these things the business of the artist is to create and to leave to others the task of finding out the reasons for the form of his creations. It is possible, in any art, to formulate principles to account for what has first been done, it is impossible, by the application of rules based on these principles, to create a new and vital work. This is not a reason for neglecting the study of the masterpieces of art, for ignorance was never yet creative. It is simply the statement, in another form, that the artist, however well trained, must be an artist born, and work as the artist has always worked.
It is possible, also, that what was meant to be expressed was merely a personal preference for informal and expressive design over formal and monumental design; for the composition of the isolated easel picture over the composition of the great mural painting. If so, it was the expression of a preference so common in our time as to be nearly universal; a preference which has caused us to place on the walls of great public buildings pictures that seem to defy rather than to enrich the design of the surrounding architecture; a preference which has led to the writing of textbooks on composition that include in the list of their don't's nearly all the things which a study of the great masters would inculcate as things to do. Whatever else was meant, it is almost inconceivable that a literal denial of the existence of composition, or design, can have been intended, for that would have been the denial to the arts of the one thing they have in common, of the one great fundamental and unifying principle that makes art. Design is arrangement, is order, is selection. Design is the thing that makes a work of art a unit, that makes it a whole rather than a haphazard collection of unrelated things or a slice of unassimilated nature.
It does not merely concern itself with great decorative compositions or arrangements of many figures; it is necessarily present in the simplest problems art can set itself. Suppose you are to paint a portrait head. There will be questions of drawing, of character and expression, of light and shade and color, of the handling of your material, to all of which you must find answers; but before you can consider any of these things, there will be the initial question: where are you to place the head on your canvas?
How far from the top and the bottom, how far from the left or right-hand border. And what is the shape of your canvas to be, rectangular or circular or oval, and what shall be the proportion of height to width? This is the fundamental problem of design, the problem of the division of space. If you are going to do a little more of the figure, other problems will come into play. Shall you include the hands, and, if so, where shall you place them?
That is the problem of the balancing of dominant and subordinate masses. What is the general silhouette of your figure, and where shall it cut the borders of your canvas? That is the problem of line. If you do not settle it intentionally and well it will settle itself accidentally and, in all probability, badly. The problems of design are essentially the same in everything you do; they only become more complicated as the subject becomes more complex. If you are to paint a still-life, it is evident that you must arrange the objects somehow; they will not come together of themselves. You might, conceivably, begin a portrait and wait for a happy accident a spontaneous pose of the sitter to give you the arrangement of the hands: you cannot wait for the copper kettle and the dead fish to place themselves agreeably. And still, less can nature or accident determine your composition of a number of figures unless you rely entirely upon snapshots. If you have any intention, any story to tell, any idea to express, if it is no more than the idea of a crowd you must arrange your figures, well or ill.
Even in landscape painting of the most naturalistic kind, where it is not uncommon today to accept what nature gives, abdicating the right to put in or leave out and retaining only that right of choosing an agreeable view which the photographer exercises equally with the painter even there, though you may reproduce a natural landscape as literally as you are able, you must determine where to cut it off. You must decide where to make the division between your chosen matter and the rest of nature which you reject, you must think whether your material will go best onto an upright canvas or an oblong one, and what are to be its proportions and dimensions. In that act, you are exercising the art of design. You cannot escape from design; you cannot avoid composing. You may compose badly but compose you must.
And if the demands of design are fundamental they are also universal. It is not only your lines and masses that must be composed but your light and shade, your color, your very brushmarks must be arranged; and the task of composition is not done until the last touch has been placed upon the canvas, although, for the sake of convenience, the term composition, or design, is generally limited to the arrangement of lines and masses, the arrangement of the other elements of the picture being considered separately. As design is the underlying and unifying principle of every work of art, so it is the classic principle, par excellence, the principle which makes for order and stability and clarity and all that the classic spirit holds most dear. It is conservative in its nature and tends to preserve the old molds even when new matter is put into them. It holds on to tradition and keeps up the connection with the past. It changes, but it changes more slowly than almost any other element of art.
Great and original power of design is more rare than any other of the powers of an artist, and a radically new form of design is very nearly inconceivable. Artists will make a thousand new observations of nature and almost entirely alter the contents of a work of art before they make any but slight changes in the pattern in which it is cast; and in all the history of painting the men are but a handful who have made any material addition to the resources of the designer. If in our own day we seem to have cut loose from tradition and to have lost our connection with the great design of the past it is not because we have suddenly acquired a surprising degree of designing power and are inventing a new and modern art of composition, but because most of us have forgotten altogether how to compose and are trying to get on without any design at all; the result being bad design and mere chaos...."