Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it. – Henry David Thoreau, author, poet, philosopher.
Composition makes or breaks a picture, so we often hear.
I wouldn’t disagree. The more I practice composition and the more I become sensitive to it, the more I realise the truth of that.
But frankly, if you want to go about improving your compositions, you’ll probably struggle to find an effective way forwards.
It’s certainly not because there’s a shortage of advice on how to compose better pictures. There’s plenty. The problem is that most of that advice isn’t going to help you.
Heres a good example: We often hear that we have to learn the rules of composition before we can break them.
I’ve never seen the definitive list of those rules. Neither have the people who so blithely make that assertion.
Here’s another: Some people like to insist that we should learn complex geometry like the golden section in order to improve our compositions, because the old masters did it that way.
Some of the old masters did use geometry in their compositions, sure. But most of the geometric overlays I’ve seen of old master paintings have been tenuous at best. And to my eyes, the more obviously geometric the composition, the less effective it is. Most importantly, geometry won’t guarantee you a good composition.
Here’s a particularly hilarious example of overlays I came across on youtube the other day (warning, it’s long and it’s mostly nonsense):
Notice the promise in the title to tell you geometric secrets of the composition. Looks impressive. Lots of lines of overlays. This kind of thing actually makes me quite angry because it gives you absolutely nothing useful. It wastes your time and keeps you from progressing positively.
It’s snake oil.
So how do you learn to make better compositions?
Focussed, structured, regular practice. Practice that pushes you beyond your normal limits and practice that you enjoy.
Not very glamorous, is it? Not very impressive or exciting. Not very mysterious and certainly not a very saleable idea.
But practice works. And in fact it’s the only thing that does, in my experience.
Think of yourself as having a design muscle. If you want to strengthen that muscle, you need to work it regularly. A little every day is best.
Why does structured, focussed practice work?
It works because good composition depends on having a good sense of spacing and a sensitivity to placement and design. That isn’t something you can learn by rote, it’s not simply a case of digesting information.
Here are a few of the advantages of improving your composition through practice this way:
- You actually do get better
- It’s enjoyable
- You get over your procrastination and make a start. May not seem like much, but that’s huge, actually
- Your confidence builds as you see and feel improvement
Contrast this with trying to learn composition by rules or by geometry
- It’s frustrating. The information doesn’t translate into better compositions
- We end up losing confidence in our own abilities
- It’s difficult to keep going with no structure to follow. Like as not, we peter out after the initial wave of enthusiasm dies
Okay, fine, but how to practice?
Here’s how I approach it:
I adopted Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow as my structure. It has a series of exercises to follow so it’s a great place to start. It was written in 1912 so has required quite a lot of interpretation. There has been a lot of thinking, selecting and revising to do as I’ve gone along.
I’ve kept a record of the practice I’ve done so far here. It begins with some basic composition practice exercises. At this point I was still very much finding my feet.
In the latest set of exercises, I’m moving further and further away from the original life drawing, using the original material as a vehicle for pure design. Here’s a demonstration of working on a border decoration based on the shapes of the original drawings.
How does that help you make better compositions?
It might not be immediately obvious why a decorative design like this is an effective way to improve composition skills. But in fact, any practice with design is stretching and working my compositional ‘muscle’, and it’ll work yours the same way.
The process of deriving these designs from the original drawing from life mirrors the actual process of developing a pictorial composition from the visual impression. This is where the art happens, it’s where we stop recording and start making pictures. I believe it’s where we ourselves enter the picture.
And it’s also a very, very effective way to develop better spacing and design skills – the core of good composition.
Eventually, with enough practice, these enhanced skills will naturally come into play as we draw and paint, without us having to think about them. That’s really the goal of all this practice: to evolve skills that with time become second nature. Automatic. A part of everything we do, effortlessly.
There’s really only one rule that will help you improve your compositions. And that’s the rule of regular, structured practice.
Thanks for reading,
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