Photograph above taken at Splashes of Hope Castle in Long Island, NY with a Leica M240
15 Myths About Composition in Art and Photography
With composition being one of the most popular and least understood topics in art and photography today, it's necessary to discuss many of the myths that prevent artists and photographers from reaching their goals in creating successful and masterful compositions. In my experience, 99% of the information written about design on art and photography websites is either misinterpreted or entirely incorrect. Below are fifteen myths about composition in art and photography that never seem to die.
1. Composition in art is intuitive (or random)
Because of the 20th century Modern Art movement in America, many artists and photographers have been falsely led to believe that composition in art is intuitive when in fact, it's not. Master artists take great strides to develop intricate designs that go down multiple tiers, and it's simply not possible for anyone to create artwork with geometric precision based on intuition alone. And even though intuition does play an important role in one's style, it's not enough to create masterful compositions. All art, regardless of the medium used, requires the knowledge and application of respectable design principles, and randomly placing elements in a composition will not result in a consistent body of work.
2. Composition can't be taught
Any artist or photographer that claims composition cannot be taught is either intentionally being misleading or simply uninformed. Composition can be taught and has been taught for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In fact, in Eastern European schools, children starting at the early age of seven are trained in the principles of design (Dynamic Symmetry and the armature of the rectangle).
Unfortunately, because so many modern artists aren't trained in design or offered actual design information in their education, whether it be at the university they attended, workshops they have taken, or books they have read, it's naturally assumed it's something that can't be learned. However, despite the many romanticized claims by a lot of modern artists, nobody is born with the ability to grasp all the principles of design. Learning composition is a skill in art that needs to be studied, mastered, and applied.
3. Some people are born with the "gift" of composition, while others are not
The idea that some people are born with the "gift" of understanding composition while others are not is pure nonsense. Design is a visual language, and nobody is born with the capacity to grasp all the concepts and techniques in creating masterful art. I have analyzed 1000's of masterpieces, and they all contain universal design principles that were learned and applied by the artist at some point in their career.
Furthermore, in my experience, those that claim they are born with this "gift" continually demonstrate a lack of understanding of composition when you analyze their art. In other words, their body of work isn't consistent or visually strong because they haven't studied or applied the fundamental principles of design.
4. Design systems, design grids, and rules in composition kill creativity
Creating art using design grids and applying “rules” in composition do not kill creativity. In fact, the opposite is true. Because of the Modern Art movement, the term "creativity" became inconsequential in the art world and was mistakenly interpreted as "do whatever feels good" or create art "spontaneously." However, creating a successful work of art requires more than just doing what feels good or being spontaneous, and without acquiring the knowledge of time-tested design principles, any creativity or spontaneity an artist feels can never be adequately expressed.
As Juliette Aristides states in her book Classical Drawing Atelier, “Without understanding the elements of design, artists have to rely solely on their intuition when composing a picture. While intuition and feeling are, of course, a major defining element for an artist, they alone are not enough to consistently achieve a mastery of composition that rivals that of nature. Intuition and feeling without the knowledge and judgment of design principles are a liability in art— for without the knowledge and the know-how of design principles, the composition can easily appear chaotic and disjointed.”
5. Design systems and design grids make art appear too rigid
Utilizing an authentic design system to create art does not make a work of art too rigid. The definition of rigid is "unable to bend or be forced out of shape, not flexible, and not able to be changed or adapted." Using Dynamic Symmetry offers an infinite amount of variety, is extremely flexible, and will allow an artist to make various changes before a final composition is completed.
Unfortunately, many modern artists mistakenly use the word "rigid," when they really mean structure. However, a masterpiece must always have a logical structure that efficiently utilizes the geometry of the rectangle the artist chose for their composition. Otherwise, their art will appear chaotic and ultimately fail.
6. Photographers don't need to study design because they shoot on the fly
Many photographers assume that they don't have to learn design because they don't have the time to construct elaborate compositions like a master painter. While there is some truth that taking photographs is intuitive in nature, the photographer must always administer the same design principles to their images that a master artist would apply on the canvas. Otherwise, the photograph cannot be considered art.
Wife of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martine Franck once said that "Composition in photography is in a way intuitive because you don't have the time, but obviously, you have to recognize all the elements. It's a familiarity that comes with art training." It's not surprising that Franck happens to be one of the greatest female photographers that ever lived. Not only was she a master photographer, but she was also an exceptional designer.
7. The Rule of Thirds is the best system of design for photographers and artists
The Rule of Thirds is not the best system of design. In fact, it's not a system of design at all. It's simply the most familiar and easily understood "rule" or "guideline" on composition in photography and art circles today. The reality is, most photography and art website articles only recommend the Rule of Thirds because many artists aren't familiar with any other systems of design. Unfortunately, because Dynamic Symmetry isn't well known, the Rule of Thirds has become the dominant approach to composition.
Despite its overwhelming popularity, primarily because the concept is so simple, the Rule of Thirds is not a practical tool for creating sophisticated designs and master artists don't use it in their art. Also, because the Rule of Thirds grid doesn’t incorporate diagonal lines or consider harmonic divisions in a given square or rectangle, it forces the artist to rely heavily on intuition, increasing the chances that the composition will appear disjointed and static. As Jay Hambidge once said, “Design created within rectangles which do not possess Dynamic Symmetry, the qualities of life and growth, are always flat and dead.”
8. The Rule of Thirds is used everywhere in advertising
The Rule of Thirds is not used everywhere in advertising. A trained master artist or designer in advertising will use Dynamic Symmetry or the armature of a rectangle because it will give their work variation, theme, and harmony.
9. The Rule of Thirds grid is derived from the Golden Section rectangle
The Rule of Thirds doesn't have anything to do with the golden section and stretching a Phi rectangle (1.618) to fit the dimensions of a 1.5 rectangle (digital camera sensor/35mm film) isn't the proper way to design. That is to say, whenever you see a golden section spiral grid overlaid on top of a 1.5 rectangle, it's safe to assume that the artist or photographer isn't properly trained in design.
10. The Rule of Thirds allows the artist to be creative with their compositions
The Rule of Thirds doesn't allow an artist any freedom with creativity. In fact, it's a dead end composition tool right from the start. Because the Rule of Thirds doesn't offer any flexibility and is extremely repetitious, every artist that employs this famous grid into their work is burdened with the reality that every composition is identical regardless of the subject or scene. In other words, there is no harmonious variety from one piece of art to another.
11. The Rule of Thirds can be traced back to classical and Renaissance paintings
The Rule of Thirds, as it's interpreted and applied today by most artists and photographers, has little to do with the sophistication of a classically designed painting. The Rule of Thirds concept was first documented in the book "Remarks on Rural Scenery," by John Thomas Smith in 1797.
12. You should avoid placing your subject in the center of a composition
There is absolutely nothing wrong with placing a subject in the center of a composition as long as there are supporting elements that balance out the whole. The overwhelming popularity of the Rule of Thirds grid is inappropriately based on this myth and, unfortunately, has steered artists in the wrong direction for creating strong compositions in their art.
13. You need to be great at math to master the art of composition
Using calculators and understanding math is not a requirement for learning composition because design in art is a physical geometry. As long as an artist knows how to intersect a diagonal line with another diagonal line at 90 degrees, that's all the math they need to know. In fact, you can create all the root rectangles in the Dynamic Symmetry system of design with a square and a piece of string.
14. Famous photographer quotes are a great source for learning composition
With the recent rise in popularity of blogging and free online e-books, many writers will use famous photographer quotes as a guide to teaching the art of composition. However, most of these books are solely written with the intent of boosting social media stats and making money by selling books on Amazon. The fact is, learning composition in art requires time, years of research, and a clear understanding of classical design principles. In contrast, publishing free e-books that contain an endless list of contradictory photographers quotes requires no effort at all. More importantly, most photographers quotes are over-romanticized claims that have little to do with time-tested knowledge on composition.
15. Photographers can learn composition from photography websites
Most mainstream photography websites only have an interest in making money by selling cameras, camera accessories, and photography software or producing an endless stream of daily blog posts and YouTube videos to boost social media stats and manipulate Google SEO rankings. None of these objectives have anything to do with mastering the art of composition or becoming a highly respected artist. In my research, I have only found one photography website that is worth exploring. You can find it listed under the "Recommendations" section at the top of the menu bar under "Websites."