Photograph above, Splashes of Hope, taken in Frederick, MD with a Leica M240
Learning the Rules of Composition and Then Breaking Them
What would life be like if you woke up one day and couldn't read? The everyday things that you take for granted would become unbearable. You couldn't read the ingredients on a cereal box label, the morning newspaper, your email, road signs, billboards, your iPhone, a lunch menu, or a magazine at the grocery store. You would be completely lost.
Not understanding design as an artist is like not having the ability to read. You wouldn't be able to interpret (read) the design structure in paintings by Edgar Degas, Peter Paul Rubens, Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, or any other master artist. In other words, you might have the satisfaction of viewing their work, but you won't have the ability to learn from it.
I read a lot of books and articles about composition and most of them sound the same. Learn the rules of composition and then break them. Or worse yet, some artists and photographers will recommend not following any rules at all or claim that there are no rules in art. To reinforce my point, below are several quotes from famous photographers about rules in art and composition.
“Rules are foolish, arbitrary, mindless things that raise you quickly to a level of acceptable mediocrity, then prevent you from progressing further.” —Bruce Barnbaum
“There are no rules for good photographs, only good photographs.” —Ansel Adams
“Photography has no rules, it is not a sport. It is the result which counts, no matter how it is achieved.” —Bill Brandt
“The photographer has almost as much control over his subject matter as a painter. He can control light and shade, form and space, pattern and texture, motion and mood, everything except composition.” —Andreas Feininger
As interesting and "artsy" as these quotes sound, they aren't based on logic or common sense. If there are no rules for good photographs, how can a photograph be good? How do you distinguish a crappy photograph from a good photograph if there is no way to measure either? If rules are foolish, arbitrary, and mindless, why is it that so many master artists of the past followed stringent rules when it came to designing their art? Should we call Leonardo da Vinci foolish, mindless, and refer to his art as mediocre because he used the golden section? Why can a photographer control light and shade, form and space, pattern and texture, motion and mood, and yet, they can't control composition?
As Juliette Aristides states in her book Classical Painting Atelier, "Design rules must be actively sought out, learned, and applied. There are rules for drawing, there are rules for color, and there are rules for composition. In fact, the rules or limits of any discipline help define it and give the participant in that subject freedom to create and express himself. Jacques Villion (the brother of Marcel Duchamp) put it well when he said, “In the artistic chaos of these last years, when the absolute liberation of the individual instinct has brought it to the point of frenzy, an attempt to identify the harmonic disciplines that have, secretly, in every period, served as foundations for painting may well seem folly. Yet the framework of art is its most secret and its deepest poetry.” The time has come for the modern master painter to begin to reconstruct the skills and unearth the lost traditions of this secret framework."
Becoming a great photographer doesn't come naturally, and none of us are born artists. Learning a set of foundational skills is necessary, and design is not intuitive. As humans, we do possess an innate sense of balance, but that’s not the same as mastering the art of composition. To compose great photographs, you need a solid understanding of design rules and guidelines. And despite the modern-day myth that great art comes from self-expression, intuition, and creativity, all of the great artists of the past composed in a structured and well thought out design system. Did it kill their creativity? Of course not. It actually allowed them to be more creative!
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What Others Are Saying About Dynamic Symmetry Art "James Cowman's user's guide on composition and Dynamic Symmetry, in particular, was one of the greatest milestones on my journey of becoming a better artist. Dynamicsymmetryart.com is undoubtedly the best resource on the subject out there, which I keep recommending to anyone interested in taking their compositions to a new level. It shocks me that even otherwise excellent artists today often know nothing about these old systems and rely mostly on their intuition to create their compositions. It's time that artists rediscover and revive the lost knowledge of the old masters and bring art back to its former glory. Jame's user's guide is a unique and invaluable resource in this effort." - Storm Engineer
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"I just graduated from the BFA in Graphic Design at the Federal University of Pernambuco, in Brazil, and one of the chapters of my monograph was about composition. As a motion designer, the proper layout of elements is a very important phase in my creative process, so any tool that helps with making decisions on that is very valuable. What I love about your studies is that it's full of images and resources, it's a gold mine in my opinion. Thanks for providing so much information at an affordable price." - Eveline Falcão
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"The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist is, without a doubt, one of the most comprehensive e-books ever written on the topic of design in art. Whether you're a beginner, intermediate, or advanced art/photography student, this user's guide is indispensable. I recommend it to all of my artists and photographers and have it linked to my website The Artist Angle." - Jennifer Finley
"Though I am not a newcomer to photography, I am far from being a professional. So too, it has only been in the past few months that I discovered dynamicsymmetryart.com. I was transformed from being concerned with camera equipment, f-stops, shutter speed, ISO to considering how I would apply the principles of classical art training to my photography.
As I began reading about the old world masters, including da Vinci, Degas, Rembrandt, and Renoir, I learned that Dynamic Symmetry structurally changed paintings from being passive to active and dynamic. Furthermore, I didn’t realize that a small, yet renowned, group of photographers were well known for using Dynamic Symmetry in their photographs of city life and people.
My journey began by reading. The Dynamic Symmetry Art website has numerous resources that gave me a crash course in art and composition. I had to learn about the visual properties of different kinds of rectangles and how each can be divided into compositional elements. Then I began using the Dynamic Symmetry grid overlays in Lightroom to analyze and crop my photos.
I have found dynamicsymmetryart.com extremely beneficial, and it has contributed immensely with my efforts to improve as a photographer. Thank you for your commitment to art and art education." - Warren Wish
"There’s been something missing in my photography for some time now. It felt like I’d hit a brick wall. I was finding great locations and taking beautiful photos, but again, something was missing. I had no idea what it was; I just knew it was there.
I found myself repeatedly falling back on the Rule of Thirds, but this was becoming more of a hindrance rather than a help. Then one day I had the good fortune to stumble across the website Dynamicsymmetryart.com. There is no better teacher or resource on the internet regarding Dynamic Symmetry and best of all everything is free! I can assure you, once you begin to delve into the rich offerings on this site you won’t have any need to look elsewhere.
I, for one, can’t thank Jim enough for all the time and effort he has put into this and for taking my photography to the next level. His website and Youtube channel are both superb, and I'd like to thank him for sharing the knowledge on what is a very fascinating subject." - Tim B
"With the passing of Myron Barnstone, we lost a great resource on the application of the Rectangles of the Masters and the Golden Section in creating art. But the website dynamicsymmetryart.com is carrying on that work Myron so thoroughly believed in and taught. Dynamic Symmetry can be used in the simplest of ways as well as being infinitely complex if one desires. Great minds such as Leonardo da Vinci recognized the power that this compositional tool offers.
Dynamicsymmetryart.com is an amazing reference for artists who are open to exploring the benefits of using Dynamic Symmetry in their work. It applies to all the arts and resonates at a primal level of understanding harmony and beauty. Much thanks to James Cowman for his dedication to furthering this information to the public." - Master Artist and Teacher,Dot Bunn, Red Stone Farm Studio
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