The Autodidact and the Art of Composition

au-to-di-dact [aw-toh-DAHY-dakt] Noun: 1. a person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education; a self-taught person

Sketching and drawing are central to my life, and a sketchbook is a constant and best-loved companion. Though most architects can sketch and draw with varying degrees of facility — many of them diagrammatically, understanding graphic competence is a real skill. For me, an extension of the drawing exercise is to draw well: I have always wanted to be proficient and good. But I also wanted to draw beautifully, to understand the possibilities of two-dimensional composition, of shadow and color, and to capture the way things look in ever-changing light.

As a student in 1981, I traveled Europe with fellow architecture classmates. Our many visits to museums were ostensibly to see the build-ings, rarely the contents. Beaubourg (le Centre Georges Pompidou) had just opened in 1977, and we took the obligatory ride up the escalators for the view of Paris — all but bypassing the modern art inside. However, one of my teachers opened our eyes to the glories within those galleries. Alan Cook was one of those folks you meet who, without pushing too hard, influences your way of looking at things, effectively changing your life. At his suggestion and with his guidance, we looked at the things on display in those galleries. He helped us understand how modern art and modern architecture developed at the same time, as did the art and architecture of the Renaissance. He sought to help us combine an understanding of what artists were doing in their painted compositions with what architects were themselves striving for in their three-dimensional buildings. Because of Alan, I could see a literal connection between the pinwheel plans of Frank Lloyd Wright and the compositional studies of Piet Mondrian. Likewise, I began recognizing similarities between the layered compositions of Ferdinand Leger and the rationalized plans and facades of Le Corbusier’s early villas. After that trip, museum-going was never solely about the buildings, and I began to pay attention to the art around me, not only in museums, but on the walls of the places I visited, even in my own home.

I’ve never taken an art history class, nor even a formal art course in drawing, painting, or composition, but I have worked hard to 

understand what artists were doing in their work, and why. It seemed to me the best course to this understanding was to do the same thing I did to comprehend and analyze buildings: sketch them. So, I have set out to draw paintings I like and record them in my sketchbooks. It has proven an excellent way to learn a painting, particularly the composition and the way light is manipulated. I can’t mimic the subtlety of the colors or the technique of the brush strokes, or get any sense of chiaroscuro, but in studying them I can put these effects in my memory and learn to read the painting and, by extension, fall in love with it.

It’s not surprising that the artists I like best are often the ones whose work is the most architectural in composition and massing, artists that create architectural spaces within their canvases. A few of my favorites include William Bailey, Richard Diebenkorn, Marsden Hartley, Ferdinand Leger, Gerald Murphy, Henri Matisse (particularly the late-in-life paper cutouts), Piet Mondrian, and Giorgio Morandi. Pablo Picasso, who I often dismissed before studying his work, is particularly important to me. Picasso was a prodigious artist who was interested in literally everything, participating in most of the important art movements of the 20th century, from cubism, to surrealism, to pure abstraction, and later abstract expressionism. Compositionally, he was remarkable, and detailed studies of just this aspect of his work have been profound learning experiences for me. I admire him more every time I draw one of his paintings.

A reasonable question arises: Can this course of study lead to fruitful application in architectural practice? Emphatically, I think yes. Beautiful plans are at the heart of all of our work, as are thoughtful proportions, careful massing, and subtle coloration with attention to shadows. I often find myself thinking in this way when I am designing spaces and details for my buildings. Learning from a master is never a waste of time, and making them friends and life companions is even better. 

Michael Malone, AIA, is the founding principal of Malone Maxwell Borson Architects and the president-elect of the Texas Society of Architects.

Published orginally in the November/December 2014 issue of Texas Architect.