If there is one area of foundational skill in art education that always feels elusive, it’s composition. This is probably because there is no short answer to the question, “what makes a composition good?” And if you were to ask a room full of art students to each come up with a successful composition, they would all come up with something completely different. So how do you study something that is vague, subjective and doesn’t have concrete rules or instructions?
Master copies or master studies are a tried and true approach to learning to create compelling compositions. The idea is that you make copies of successful compositions. By deconstructing compositions you like, you can begin to understand what makes them work. This is something that I did when I studied oil painting. The instructor would have us flip through giant books filled with paintings by John Singer Sargent or Diego Velázquez or Joaquin Sorolla and then when we found one that appealed to us we would paint it.
It seems so obviously, but I never really considered that this same approach would be equally helpful to my illustration work. I recently started taking a class on Schoolism by concept artist Nathan Fowkes called Pictorial Composition. For the first assignment he asks us to begin a file of images that have compelling composition. I have been collecting mine on a Pinterest board labeled “Compositions.” You can pull your inspiration from anywhere: photographs, live acton movies, illustration, fine art, concept art, animated films, or even real life.
We are supposed to choose three of those images and for each one make three studies that focus on conveying the main idea of the original.
Study #1: Reproduce the image using simple shapes and only three values.
Study #2: Reproduce the image using a full range of values.
Study #3: Reproduce the image using full color.
It's Not About Making an Exact Copy
The idea of the reproductions is not show that you can make an exact copy of the original and it's not about rendering textures or details. It's about determining the intent and focus of the original image and then figuring out how the original artist used shapes, value structure and edges to convey those ideas. In some cases you may even find that you want to change things just a bit to give the image more clarity. Nathan Fowkes says that ideally you should spend 30 minutes to an hour on each of the studies. This is where I will need to use some personal restraint. I’m not sure how much time I spent on mine, but hopefully as I do more of these I will get quicker and will begin to know when to declare it finished.
Sharing Master Copies Online
One more important thing to note: master studies are a learning tool only. If you are going to share your master studies online, be sure to label them clearly so that anyone who stumbles across your image will be well aware that yours is a copy of someone else’s work. This post by James Gurney is helpful.