Arthur Wesley Dow

I was introduced for the first time to the work of Arthur Wesley Dow in the spring of 2013.

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I had taken a workshop with an artist who raved about Dow, and he encouraged me to buy Dow’s classic text on composition.  From the moment I opened the book until I finished the last page, I realized that most of what I had been taught about drawing and painting was incomplete.

My personal bias towards most endeavors is structural in nature.  I took a synthetic approach to most problem-solving issues and found that Dow too took a remarkably similar approach.


In the introduction of the book Dow says he chose the word Composition as the title because “that word expresses the idea upon which the method [he] presented is found – the “putting together” of lines, masses, and colors to make a harmony.  Composition therefore is a building up of harmony and is the fundamental process in all fine art.

I could hardly believe what I was reading. For quite some time I had dabbled with line, notan and color. But I hadn’t understood how these three structural elements went together. Now I was beginning to put the pieces of the puzzle in their right order.

Dow had a simple (or so it seemed at first) four step process to developing his composition.

These are the four steps he presented

  • Make a simple drawing
  • Decide where the lights will go
  • Tone the remaining ground in a mid tone
  • Add the darks

This seems like a very straight forward process. And in the next post we will broaden the ideas and bring them to light.

A Simple Exercise

On a small note pad Draw a composition using only four shapes. Consider an outdoor scene with sky, ground plane, a distant hill, and some trees. Make a pleasing composition to your liking. Outline these big shapes in a thin line. Vary the composition in terms of length and width. Make several designs.

Til next time


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