Understanding Art and artistic theory - help!!


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May 1, 2008
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I've recently been trying to learn more of the artistic side of photography as well as art in general and whilst I've come across a lot of terminology its quite clear that the artists are speaking a language that I can't understand.

So does anyone know any books or good references that go into some detail concerning compositional theories such as the Golden Section Rule, Golden Spirals as well as building into understanding concepts like shape, form, lines, etc....

Some of these I understand in very basic theory and others are a total area of confusion for me. Sadly most of what I find for photography is the good old "rule of thirds", but I would like to broaden my options and understanding.
You might try Michael Freeman's book on compostion. He talks about these things in photo terms, so at least some of the verbage will be familar. And it is a good book
Try looking up the principles and elements of design. There are many variations of the lists on the Interenet, but you will get the ideas. What works visually for drawing and painting will work, compositionally, for photography.
Elements: line, shape, form, texture, colour, space
Principles: balance, movement, emphasis/contrast, repetition/rhythm, proportion, unity/harmony
Each item in the list could be a whole unit of study. For example, movement could refer to compositional movement: leading the viewer's eye, or implied movement: blur trailing behind a fast runner. Rhythm can also create movement because the eye will follow a repeated pattern, especially if it is progressive like a series of fence posts at regular intervals. The trick is to recognize when these things are occurring in our surroundings and make for a good capture.
Great idea to read up on this stuff as it will definitely help your photography compositions. Any foundation art book will provide examples on the above topics.
Ann - I actually have that book (somewhere) and I've been meaning to give it a proper read (been away through summer so probably left it somewhere in my flat). Thanks for the reminder

XCountryGuy - I will give it a look around but I tend to find it hard to find good midrange level material (either online or in books). What I tend to find is a lot of entry level that manages to have a lot of words that don't say very much or highrange which tends to leave my head blasted out. ;)

Onion - my what now? Hehe I somewhat lack one of those sadly ;)

c.cloudwalker - I look forward to hearing more :)
Freeman's book is good, but just search the web for 'artistic principles' or 'elements of design' and honestly a lot can be learned by just looking at the last century of photography and looking at how all the parts of an image work together.

"The Photographer's Eye" by Michael Freeman.

If what you're after isn't in there, than it's not art, it's bull**** :)
I have recently purchased a couple of books with a similar thought as yours.

Betty Edwards
Color, A course in mastering the art of mixing colors.
(I want to understand colors more)

Trey Grey
Color Confidence 2nd Ed
(This book is written for photographers)

Stephen Quiller
Color Choices, Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory

Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, Paul Fugua
Light Science & Magic 3rd Ed
(Not color related, but really helps to understand light - a big part of art-especially in photography)

I also have the others mentioned above, they are good as well.
I took a course in the history of art, but it was not suited for photography specifically.

Otherwise, it is somewhat difficult to find a good book on the study of art. I think it will take some help here and more than one book.
Certainly I would be surprised to find all the answers in a single book - but it is a case of picking through the picture books and getting at those that have more content beyond looks.

Also I can't find my copy of the freeman book - grr its somewhere I know its somewhere!
I think I have a list at home, I'm at school now, but when I get a hold of it I'll post some for you. :)
Sorry but I've been busy and, frankly, forgot about this thread.

I'm not much for schools but I did take a few classes in an art school and I often tell people to go take a design class. The best money I ever spent. Of course the professor you get has a lot to do with how much you will get out of it too. Seeing the reactions of professor and classmates made understanding the concepts a lot easier than if you were sitting alone at home with a book.

But I have been looking for a book myself so as to have something to suggest to those who can't afford a class but I have yet to find one.

I do not like photo books on composition. They leave a lot to be desired because they leave a lot of stuff out if it's not directly related to photo. The problem is I have found that a lot of that stuff is useful to know and understand. A general design class is a much better bet.

That said, the basic theory in art is that anything goes. Accept that first or you will have problems. It doesn't mean that you have to like everything, it only means that if you like it that is enough. When you mix art and commercial work you of course have to take your client into consideration. Some will allow you to be very artsy, some will not.

By the way, few people really understand PHI, the Golden number/ the Divine Proportion. I get some of it but, to be honest, everytime I reread my book on the subject, I find I got some of it totally wrong. :)

Here are two books that may help you:
"Divine Proportion/PHI" by Priya Hemenway. The only one I kept from the bunch I got to study the idea, I thought it was the best.
"An Introduction to Color" by Ralph Evans. This is a pretty old book so may not be easy to find but it is very good. It was published in England too btw when it came out in 1948. Understanding color and how they relate to each other and how they play on the eye is primordial in any artistic endeavor. Including B&W photography, because it allows you to know what shade of gray a color will convert to.

In the meantime, look at art, look at art, look at art. And always try and figure out why you like some stuff, why you dislike other stuff. And of course doing so in a gallery is a much better idea. Unfortunately most affordable art books are pretty poor reproductions of the works and really do not give you a good sense of the works.

Hope that helps.
Find Freeman's book ... it'll help.
books are good, but what you really need to do is go to a few galleries and just look at what jumps out at you.... and art is inside you, ti's not in a book. i can read tons of cookbooks but emeril will still kick my ass in the kitchen.. it's what's inside YOU, not what's inside a book that matters

Mike Leggero


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