Lessons in Composition for the Art Photographer

Epilogue Two: Spontaneity vs. Mastery

I once read a wonderful anecdote. The emperor summoned a renowned artist, pointed at the wall behind his throne, and said: "This entire wall is at your disposal. I command you to paint me a magnificent dragon upon it." He then dismissed the artist, who kowtowed his way out of sight. Some years later the emperor happened to recall the command he had given the artist and impatiently summoned him back to the throne. "It's been five years! Where is my dragon?" The artist bowed, walked over to the bare wall, and in a few swift, economical strokes painted the most magnificent and graceful dragon anyone had ever seen. "Sire, I have done nothing by day or night since I received your command but study and practice dragons."

Beware of this story. It is dangerous if naively understood. A concert musician practices her scales regularly. To master a difficult passage she first plays it at a microbe's saunter, only upping the metronome by a single notch when flawless at the previous pace. Rigidity and repetition may be the watchwords of the craftsperson; they are also a sure prescription of poison to the creator. Creativity is spontaneity and exploration and play - precisely the opposites of rote. Be careful to limit your rote behaviours to the craft aspects of your art. Even then, do so intelligently: repeatedly lagging a fraction of a beat to achieve a difficult fingering only serves to reinforce the error, not to eliminate it.

Fine art often has an aspect of haste, or casualness, or even a certain crudeness (remember Starry Night). Picasso said he couldn't be bothered to paint toenails. There is certainly a chasm between the casualness of a Monet landscape and the awkwardness of a novice's imitation. Monet was casual because he had learned not to over-paint; he had developed an intuition as to when further fixation on the same canvas became destructive rather than constructive. Presumably he also knew when to pack up his paints for the day or even for the month to allow his subconscious time to regenerate itself.

It all amounts to knowing when to come in out of a drought.

Further Reading and Viewing

Last but not least, after reading and digesting this tutorial, you may think to yourself: "This composition stuff is all very fine in theory, but how do I apply it in the field with a camera?" Good question. Here's my take: