Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Composition Can't Be Taught, It Must Be Learned

I'd put up a cover of Picture This: How Pictures Work, but I feel this would a disservice to the book as a text about composition, because it shares weaknesses with all books (and articles, and videos, and entire art school curriculums) that seek to entirely encompass composition theory within themselves.

Many people want to work with the rule of thirds or the golden ratio because these provide seemingly simple, reliable answers to a huge problem: how do we arrange a picture—whether a piece of visual art, a movie scene, or a photograph—so that the whole thing speaks to some working purpose?

And yet neither the rule of thirds nor the golden ratio—nor breaking things into triangles or using leading lines or paths or anything else—ever really works on its own.

Composition is more complex than the mere placement of objects; it's about the relationships between elements in a scene. This includes every relationship you can think of—from the agnostic facts of color contrast to very culture-specific philosophies of symbolism, and an infinite multitude of possibilities in between.

In other words, composition plays with an uncountable number of relationships.

That's why I say that composition can't be taught, unlike math or language: because any enumeration of its principles is not just technically deficient, but practically and pragmatically so as well.

However, composition can definitely be learned. The difference is that in learning composition for yourself, you discover the relationships between elements that matter to you as an individual artist and human being.

You don't try to find all the rules and then select the ones appropriate for a situation—instead, you learn and formulate which ones that matter the most to you. And because they matter to you, you will learn best how they work, and your work will be elevated because now that work means something to you.

As for how to go about learning composition: you must look at scenes and think about what does or doesn't work for you, how you feel about this particular sort of relationship you've sussed out, and then go and do your own arrangements and experiment.

Observation and experimentation are the only ways to really "get" composition.

You must do both of these a lot.

And while it's true that any composition book, video, or course can help you get started in thinking about composition, only you can finish that work.

Art is about expression. I'd argue that composition, more than anything else, is the soul of art. You can master every element of color theory and medium techniques under the sun, but the problems of composition will always leave you humble.

Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at avajarvisart.com. If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.