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Composition is Not a Formula or Rule

Pierre Subleyras - Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee - WGA21959
Pierre Subleyras, Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee, 1737

In this post I'd like to tackle a subject that I have been thinking of for a long time. As a photographer for nearly 30 years I devoured many books on how to take better photos and wasted numerous rolls of film trying to develop an innate sense of framing and "finding the shot" before I take it. And it works. Photography is great experience in honing your eye for what to include and exclude in the frame, and even what to enhance or focus on. But when it came to applying what I learned toward my art, I realized I still had much to learn. Indeed.

One of the most misunderstood yet fundamentally important elements of art is composition. Incredible, but true. Many believe it's their signature or choice of color palette, or their artist statement that will garner more sales and gallery representation, not giving much of a second thought to the very element that literally holds their painting together visually or believing they just "know" how to put their paintings together. Or worse, we listen to instructors and websites that offer simplistic, pat solutions such as the "rule of thirds" or the "Golden Mean" as gospel truth that will solve all problems in a painting so you can get on with the business of signing your name and making some money. Yet if I were to ask you to name five artists whose use of composition was brilliant, could you name them and why?

Before we get started on artists, I'd like to take a closer look at the so-called "rules" of composition and see exactly what kind of merit they have in helping us with our art. First, is the most famous (infamous) "rule of thirds":

The theory: place your most important elements on the four dots

In this photo I took outside the Louvre, you can see how the statue's shoulder and upper thigh lines up with two of the dots, while the two dots on the left provide space that leads the eye to the statue. The figure has a grace and solidity that the dots of the grid reinforce well. Overall, it works.

Here is the Golden Mean:

Here in this photo I took in London, I reversed the image to better illustrate how the golden mean can neatly fit into an image such as this, where architecture and sculpture are included in the composition. Assymetry and linear balance help to create a visually dynamic composition.

So can this be helpful in art? The problem lies in using "cookie cutter" methods to conceive your art. Although these methods have been used for centuries, they are visual guidelines more so than actual compositional methods. Now lets take the painting at the beginning of this post by Subleyras:

Pierre Subleyras - Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee - WGA21959

Without even trying we can already see that both the rule of thirds and golden mean are completely irrelevant here. This is a horizontal composition with multiple figures. The bottoms of the columns against the wall add visual balance to the prominent lateral arrangement. It is apparent here that the figures themselves are the composition. And they are arranged by direction, body language, position, placement and color. All serving to tell a narrative.

Below are some examples of how Subleyras uses the various elements of composition:

triangular grouping

visual rhythm

linear direction to indicate key figure

color contrast (warm/cool) of dynamic and key figures to stand out

motif, or visual repetition of figures

alternating figure direction and placement

contrast of group arrangement

Let's take a different example, one less complex:

The Flute Player, Ernest Meissonier

Meissonier uses a dominant vertical composition in the height of the player and echoes this in the sheet stand and the vertical lines of the window and corner. The horizontal lines all seem to point toward him. What Meissonier creates here in this corner of a room, is space and perspective. Note the contrast of light from the window with the dark corner behind him. Even the window lines themselves on the left side of the composition, contrast with the sheet stand occupying the right side of the painting, providing a visual balance to the whole.

And here let's look at psychology as a compositional element:

Evening, Jules Breton

I love this painting. Breton isolates this young woman by placing her in the foreground instead of off in the corner, and instead places her gatherers off in both one-point and atmospheric perspective to the left. The hazy sky above reflects her confusion and state of mind. What exactly could be on her mind is not clear, but we feel her isolation nonetheless. A good painting asks questions, creates a mystery, and makes us feel something we all understand.

Composition is more complex than we often realize. There is no shortcut to narrative and arrangement. Everything in your painting needs a purpose, and must be expressed within a visual language. As shown here, when it is well-conceived and executed, there is no limit to what you can achieve.

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