by Jan Clouse
Jesselyn Cyr, Norma Sarkin and Leslie Walker in Margaret’s class at the Huntington.
Sometimes a perfect composition presents itself like a gift from heaven, but more often than not it is like Jacob wrestling with the angel—a struggle for a blessing. In her three-day workshop at the Huntington Garden, Margaret Best repeatedly returned to fundamental principles of composition, guiding the class through basic do’s and don’t’s. Each morning began with a slide show, lecture, and discussion that both guided and inspired us to create a pleasing and dramatic painting.
As always, Margaret dispels the notion right away that we will walk out the door with a “finished painting.” Rather her aim is that each student will have a thoughtfully composed finished drawing ready for color. Many of us had done our homework: we had selected appropriate specimens; most had done preliminary sketches, and some had transferred the sketches to paper. Yet under her tutelage we all drew or rearranged our sketches to improve the placement of the focal point. First consideration was the “rule of thirds” or Margaret’s magic grid.
We also looked at examples from traditional to contemporary painters who in various ways illustrated the basics of planning, focal points, cropping, color placement, contrast, and the use of positive and negative space. Yet Margaret always sent us back to consider our own works.
Speaking for myself, the process of looking at a variety of paintings and discussing them with nine other keen-eyed artists who all offered perceptive comments sharpened my eyes to assess the potential strengths and pitfalls in my own composition. I appreciated the fact that Margaret drew on the skills and talents of her students: individuals offered plant information to others, and Christina Baltayian even did a spontaneous colored pencil demonstration. Margaret is an exceptional artist, but she is also a masterful teacher notable for her ability to create an atmosphere where knowledge is readily shared.
I will admit that painting at the Huntington was an inspiration in itself, and indeed I gathered a couple of fallen bits from an oak just outside the Botanical Building, which turned out to be compositional gifts from heaven.