Notebook, 1993-

RELATIONSHIPS - On Composition

Ruskin, John, The Elements of Drawing. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1971 [Originally Published in London, 1857]


. . . . Composition means, literally and simply, putting several things together, so as to make one thing out of them; the nature and goodness of which they all have a share in producing. Thus a musician composes an air, by putting notes together in certain relations; a poet composes a poem, by putting thoughts and words in pleasant order; and a painter a picture, by putting thoughts, forms, and colours in pleasant order.

In all these cases, observe, an intended unity must be the result of composition. A pavior cannot be said to compose the heap of stones which he empties from his cart, nor the sower the handful of seed which he scatters from his hand. It is the essence of composition that everything should be in a determined place, perform an intended part, and act, in that part, advantageously for everything that is connected with it.... In a well-composed air, no note, however short or low, can be spared, but the least is as necessary as the greatest: no note, however prolonged, is tedious; but the others prepare for, and are benefited by, its duration: no note, however high, is tyrannous; the others prepare for, and are benefited by, it exaltation; no note, however low, is overpowered; the others prepare for, and sympathize with, its humility: and the result is, that each and every note has a value in the position assigned to it , which, by itself, it never possessed, and of which, by separation from the others, it would instantly be deprived..... Similarly, in a good poem... every syllable has a loveliness which depends not so much on its abstract sound as on its position..... Much more in a great picture; every line and colour is so arranged as to advantage the rest.... It is not enough that they truly represent natural objects; but they fit in to certain places, and gather into certain harmonious groups.... we ought to see that the work is masterly, merely by the positions and quantities of [the elements] . . . .

. . . . it is impossible to give rules which will enable you to compose. You might much more easily receive rules to enable you to be witty.

If it were possible to be witty by rule, wit would cease to be either admirable or amusing: if it were possible to compose melody by rule, Mozart and Cimarosa need not have been born . . . . The essence of composition lies precisely in the fact of its being unteachable, in its being the operation of an individual mind of range and power exalted above others [other operations].

But though no one can invent by rule, there are some simple laws of arrangement which it is well for you to know, because, though they will not enable you to produce a good picture, they will often assist you to set forth what goodness may be in your work in a more telling way than you could have done otherwise; and by tracing them in the work of good composers, you may better understand the grasp of their imagination, and the power it possesses over their materials. [Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1971. On Composition, pp. 161-164. (Originally Published in London, 1857)]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].