Notes on Composition I

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A beginning photographer can hardly evade advice on the question of composition. As reward, he/she is told, wait more pleasing photos. Usually then follows a list of rules (with immediate advice that rules sometimes need to broken), like the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, use of leading lines and so on. But is only goal for a photographer to always make pleasing photos? I don’t think so. Therefore, I believe it is a fair question to ask what we really want to achieve with composition.

If we try to understand what we mean by composition we find that at the most basic level, it can be described as arranging visual elements in a limited frame. I think the term “limited” is quite important here. Paintings and photographs always use some limited two-dimensional plane (a canvas, a film, a sensor) to place the picture. Even sculpture can be thought of as using a limited, but three-dimensional space.

In most cases, the limited frame is static. I am saying in most cases, because the Chinese ink-painting scroll and modern movie and video have the viewing frame change over time. Still, even in these cases the single scene again requires an arrangement of the elements within. When I speak of elements, I mean line, shape, texture, colour, tone, space, depth and form.

But all these formal descriptions of composition don’t answer the original question. Yes, there is limited space to be filled somehow with elements. But to what end? If one looks at the reasons given for the need and importance of (good) composition one gets a bewildering set of answers. We met already the “more pleasing” argument, but there are others: to guide the viewer through the picture, to make the picture more impactful, to create visual flow (that one sounds at least interesting) or to create unity within the picture.

Many of these arguments are derived from the psychology of seeing, the way our eyes and brains render and understand a visual scene. As Gestalt theory has shown us, our brain not only has a certain way to interpret visual information, but also fills in gaps if the information is sparse or incomplete. Composition thus would be an arrangement that fits the brain’s way to render visual perceptions. It would liken a grammar in helping to make information readable. And we’ve seen in the “What is Art” post that there are clearer and less clear ways to express oneself visually. When one wants to say “Kiki” one shouldn’t show “Boubou”.

We could stop at this point but I would like to go a step further. To me it seems that showing the world in only the ways the brain finds easy to read as quite inappropriately anthropocentric.  For me landscape and nature art could instead try gaining insight into nature itself, not just arrange nature in a manner visually digestible for us. That is what I repeatedly have called “empathic perception”. While many artists have very successfully applied composition principles on natural scenes, I think nature itself often violates these principles.

Instead, I think, nature uses its own language and grammar in creating and placing shapes etc. A language we often find pleasing, too. But in contrast to the language of visual design we are not equally pre-equipped to read or speak the language of natural design. But enough theorizing, let’s look at an example.

In the following picture we see an island with a perfectly flat bottom (I am highlighting this because many islands are basically glacially rounded rocks, but not this one).

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Still, its two-dimensional shape is not flat or rectangular, it is rounded. Why is that? We can speculate that the unobstructed edges of the island create an ecological niche for trees to catch sunlight at an angle. Or it could be that the more wind-exposed edges hamper tree-growth. We can find that often when forests meet open spaces there is this rounded or even diagonal edge (see also the picture at the top of the post). If the sunlight theory is correct, the shape of the island might reflect the course of the sun (in the picture east is on the left, west on the right). Either way, the shape of the island seems to me a result of an interaction of plants with the surrounding space, the sun and the wind.

This, I think, gives us an important insight. If we want to understand the language of natural design, we should start to think in terms of energy, forces and relationships. And that is what I am going to do over next posts on the topic. Stay tuned.

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