In the summer of 2010, I dedicated the warm evenings of July and August to investigating the confusion regarding the theory of visual composition. I know, not much of a leisure activity for one someone on break from teaching art. But, as I mention in my courses, my frustration with contradictions between the various lists of art terms had come to a head, and I was determined to see if, in the discipline of compositional theory, clarity was possible.

At first, I thought it might be an historical/literary investigation; one that might delve into the thoughts of the many theorists who had, before my time, laboured to assemble competent lists of design elements and principles. Unfortunately my research turned up precious little in the way of any substantial evolution of compositional analysis.

A few turn-of-the-century writers seemed to be at least a little bit concerned about the terms used in describing and analyzing visual art. There was one unique journal dedicated to data which marveled at the inability of several art texts to agree on what the art terms were and how they were defined. I’m sure I used some of those textbooks in my career as a secondary school art teacher. And of course, beyond that, was the immense quick fix, step-by-step, self-help style art handbook industry and a plethora of internet sites that presented illustrative poster lists for the up and coming art or design student.

So what might have been a research project, quickly turned into a ‘back-to-the-drawing-board’ thought experiment in which the extensive bin of commonly accepted art terms was sorted through and each term examined for conceptual integrity. I set a few standards for testing the legitimacy of each term but also persisted with high expectations for what sort of relationships a competent list of terms might harbour. When would I know I had arrived at a list that was complete? When could I be sure that all concepts required were represented by the list?

Not only was I satisfied with the results of my query, but I was increasingly surprised by the benefits offered by the investigation. And it is these benefits that I offer in my courses on the elements and principles of design. So if you’re interested in visual composition, either as a designer, artist, theorist or some combination of the above, join me in exploring the best list of visual art terms available to date.