Armand Cabrera

Not too long ago I was given a link to another art website where someone was going on about
the rules for composition.
How’s that again? This person had 20 or so rules to avoid for bad composition. There is only one rule of composition-
You emphasize the center of interest and deemphasize the rest of the painting so as not compete with it.
Achieving that goal has no set boundaries. There is no rule about placing the elements of your painting. Rules about leading from the corner or avoiding the center of the canvas are developed by people who have no understanding of painting. They are lazy truisms by lazy painters; just like don’t use black or the color blue always recedes rule or the term muddy color.
If your eye goes to a corner when you don’t want it to, it’s because you haven’t got a strong enough focal point, not because you have a lead in at the corner.

Sayings like, don’t put something in the corner or in the center or don’t divide your canvas in half, can’t be rules because they can’t know how the elements of the painting are organized for every possible painting.

To prove my point every painting I’ve posted goes against the truisms you hear repeated in bad art classes by incompetent teachers. Dividing the canvas in half, placing the subject in the center of the canvas, Starting a lead in with the corner, the use of black paint and don’t have vertical shapes too close to the edge of the canvas. All of these paintings are better than any of the paintings by the people handing out the advice.

14 thoughts on “Composition

  1. I like to tell my students that "there are no rules, only tools." As often as I can, I point out that the bad things that they're doing, could actually have a good application under a different set of circumstances. I was talking to another teacher about that and he says it's only a matter of semantics, but I think the terminology here affects how students consider their options. Because of that I really believe that the language has to be couched in the right way. I remember being really obsessed about finding the right "rules" so I could make correct "art". A great example I like to use is the fan brush. At some point I had been told that the fan brush was a no no, I believed that, stupidly, until I saw Assael paint with them.

  2. Sakievich,

    You bring up good points. When teaching I try not to lay down rules for painting because they get codified and repeated as dogma. I focus on teaching how to see the problems and find solutions for each painting individually.

  3. Thank you for your wise post on composition. The focus as you said is a painter's concern and everything else is secondary and less important.
    What is your comment about perspective. I have a difficult time when doing plein air and measurement. Barbara Molony

  4. Armand, I was very satisfied by reading your viewpoint. Just yesterday while painting three eucalyptus trees, I placed the obvious verticle trunks near the edge of the canvas. That 'rule' was haunting me. I said screw it, they are framing my focal point and went on to paint a lovely piece. I did tilt the trunks so they were not parallel though and my focal point was near one of the thirds. Composition is arranging the picture space to create a pleasing design and that is why I have been studying design. But it can get very confusing and sometimes we have to throw out the rules. I love breaking them.

  5. Barbara,

    Obviously perspective is important to representational painting and should be mastered. In organic scenes perfect perspective is not as critical as in architectural views. Pastoral images rely on overlapping forms and light and shadow to help reinforce the feeling of space and distance.

  6. I'm curious, Edgar Payne wrote a whole book on the subject and Andrew Loomis also writes about do's and dont's in compositions. While on the one hand I understand what you are on about, on the other there are some simple ideas about geometry that can be very useful in composing a good picture.

    I think there are rules that are good simple ideas that beginners can use. Such as know when to use a landscape or a portrait format for what they are drawing of painting. I doubt that Zorn would have put the hand of the woman at the edge of the picture plane, as it would have cut it off when framed.

    If you cut a persons leg off at the wrong place it can make the work look odd or unsettling. Most good portrait painters use some very simple tried and true rules of design, if they did not I'm not sure they would make a good living at it. Of course all rules are meant to be broken or stretched. I'm more of an advocate of geometry and how it can be used to keep a composition interesting and well designed.

  7. Jeff,
    We just disagree. Formulas make formula painters, they don’t make artists or art. There are plenty of books on how to paint trees and other nonsense. As for cutting off hands and legs in a painting its appropriate as long as it achieves the intended result. Have you ever seen Renoirs 'The Boating Party' or Degas Dance series or his painting 'Portraits in an Office'? Each paintings design must be considered individually, anything else is just laziness on the part of the painter.

  8. Well I don't think we disagree.
    I agree with your premise and I guess in retrospect I should have worded my comment better.

    I think composition and design should be something one studies and through trial and error you find what works and what fails in this regard. Using formulas seems to be a recipe for being staid and repetitive. I think there is a huge difference between a formulaic design element and the ideas about composition that Edgar Payne is on about in his book. In Payne' case I look at it as a tool to make better paintings. One could arrive at this oneself, but you never know.

    Degas knew this stuff well, which meant he could break rules and do what he wanted to do with his work.

    As to cutting off limbs, it does depend on the intent of the piece.
    I mean one would never make a portrait that made the viewer uncomfortable, that would be foolish. If you're a portrait painter you are going to have some tried and true design/composition ideas that work. Which is what I think you're saying as the intended result desired.

    I'm not a fan of formulas but I do study design and am fascinated by the use of geometry in creating pictures. I'm also a fan or triangles, they can be so helpful in drawing shapes and seeing relationships that might not be obvious.

  9. Well, said Armand.
    I think those "rules" are meant for total beginners who are just learning their ABC's so to speak. Or like training wheels on a bicycle. They're definitely something to move beyond as one developes.

  10. What you have said about the “truism’s” listed is true. They are all over simplified ways of dealing with compositional difficulties, but a poor list of rules doesn’t mean there are no rules. You mentioned a rule yourself …..”you haven’t got a strong enough focal point”.

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