This section is dedicated to books that help the artist “put it all together”, tell the story, master the Visual Language.  Most books on composition are theory based more than they are technique or process driven.  As all of the categories here in our Recommended Reading section, the books are placed in an order of importance and from most useful to most theoretical, but all of them are equally important in my opinion if you want to really understand our Visual Vocabulary and how to effectively speak through it.

Click to Download – Visual Language Core

by Anthony Waichulis

The PDF summarized:  Anthony is an amazing instructor and not a bad artist either (joke-he is amazing!).  His book, the Visual Language Core is a fantastic document on composition in art.  It dispels many myths that are attached to the old books on composition, much of it related to armatures, the golden rule, and many more tools that were once considered the fruit of knowledge regarding perfect composition, placement, etc.  Remember that art is a visual language, many of the old tools, as mystical as they might sound, are useful but not as important as they were once regarded.  This book breaks down the myths and replaces them with useful objective information on pictorial structure, composing and building the canvas, and so much more.  This does not replace the previous books above, instead it clarifies them and gives them greater purpose once we understand our objective as a visual story teller.


Click To Buy – The Command to Look

by William Mortensen

The Book in Three Sentences:   With its risque subject matter, staged and and vivid, William Mortensen set out to redefine modern photographic composition.  William defines composition for the first time in an easy to grasp straight forward dialog with fantastic diagrams and examples to support his theories.  This book is a great compendium to Creative Illustration as it explains in great detail many of the composition grids that Andrew Loomis briefly covers.

Click To Buy – The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art

by Charles Bouleau

The Book in Three Sentences:  If you are learning how to compose a composition and have heard of the “armature” of the picture, this book is all about the history and origin of many of the different concepts that influenced artists throughout the centuries.  This book was written during a time when examples weren’t used as frequently, the few examples offered are terrific in understanding the geometric breakdown of a canvas.  This book also has some fantastic information on the origin of canvases, their scaling and the standard that we use today.

Click To Buy – Composing Pictures

by Donald Graham

The Book in Three Sentences:  This is one of the most important composition books written and an extension to the Primer of Visual Literacy.  Donald, in his many years training Disney artists, compiled some of the most important notes on building a picture and the technicalities that go in to the delicate nature of visual storytelling.  Just about every page of this 416 page manual is a stand alone Gold Star lesson on visual composition from canvas to film frame.

Click To Buy – Creative Illustration

by Andrew Loomis

The Book in Three Sentences:  This is a classic manual on putting a picture together, from billboards and greeting cards to story book illustrations and covers.  The book briefly highlights many many tools an artist uses to craft an image, much of it reads like a school manual with brief descriptions and lots of grids, charts, and rudimentary step by step processes.  He has a great section on Howard Pyle and his teachings, along with some wonderful words on how the Golden Age illustrators created their amazing paintings.

Click To Buy – Picture This: How Pictures Work

By Molly Bang

The Book in Three Sentences:  This book is a fantastic wealth of information, as simple as it might be presented, for the illustrator to better understand the goal of illustration and the visual language.  Mostly pictorial, Molly uses the shape language to explain why we react the way we do to the pictorial elements given in an image.  Color is briefly touched upon, using only the primary palette she gives fantastic examples of the use of color, how it is perceived and how we react to it.

Click To Buy – Composition of Outdoor Painting

by Edgar Payne

The Book in Three Sentences:  This book is a fantastic balance of philosophy and technique in the art of landscape painting, but could be applied to any subject matter.  Edgar Payne breaks down the technical divisions of the canvas space and spatial organization through clear and concise graphs and charts and a naming convention for the tools he is describing.  He gives some wonderful advice on creativity and manipulating the landscape for a stronger intent, and aesthetic  judgment, making good choices in best portraying the subject.

Click To Buy – Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers: 1st (First) Edition

by Arthur Wesley Dow

The Book in Three Sentences:  This is the only book I have found on the market that has a thorough description of Notan and the many uses for it.  The book is an older book on composition so many of the applications no longer apply but the exercises hold up in any medium and I think it is worthy of getting to practice some of these exercises for dexterity, and for a greater understanding of pictorial design.  While the book focuses on decorative art, the armatures, the design choices, and the philosophies are universal, and these are very well written in a slight nineteenth century style.

Click To Buy – The Discovery of Pictorial Composition

by Thomas Puttfarken

The Book in Three Sentences:  This book discusses pictorial composition and how attitudes towards it changed between the early Renaissance and the beginning of the nineteenth century.   He follows the necessity of composition from the walls and ceilings down to the tableaux and easel pictures, and how their compositions were influenced by their size, location, perspective, relief, the relationship between ground and figures and between the figures and the frame.  The book is beautifully illustrated with fantastic examples and charts.

Click To Buy – Composition and Rendering

by Albert Thornton Bishop

The Book in Three Sentences:  This book is about composing for architectural rendering, however, as I have found from books back in the day (early to mid 20th century), many of the concepts and ideas about composition, color theory, perspective, and story telling do not exist in a simple and complete art instructional book, but rather, the information is spread out amongst important subjects of that particular time.  This book has some fantastic example illustrations and more importantly, a very good guide to not only good composition practices, but also examples of bad decision making as well.  There are also fantastic examples of shorthand for textures of various sorts in building materials that I have found useful in both sketching and painting; as obscure as the book is, it is a worthy one on the composition shelf.