Go to any museum or gallery and count how many paintings are based on the compositional law of thirds, golden mean, or some other formulaic solution to composition. How many of the paintings that you love use such conventions?
I’m finding that the more I explore composition the more I love composition that doesn’t rely on formula but rather is an idiosyncratic expression of a unique mind. There are very few consolations to adherents of this opinion. There are even less solutions or safety nets. Once exposed to this reality you have no alternative but to abandon common solutions and push off into uncharted seas.
It is a lofty goal, one I have yet to fully implement, but it does at least open the possibility to discovery and innovation. I suppose I arrived at this opinion due to the ubiquity of the law of thirds and other compositional solutions so prevalent in our genre. And yet I am haunted by the weaknesses of these formulas.
I haven’t always been an admirer of George Inness. The last time I was at the Metropolitan Museum I went specifically to study a painting by Thomas Moran. Adjacent to Moran’s painting was one by George Inness. As my wife and I sat gazing at the Moran the subtle power of the Inness began to pervade our visual field. Eventually we were totally overwhelmed with the Inness. This was a curious event as I am a long time admirer of Moran. It was especially interesting because, unlike the Moran, the surface of the Inness was seemingly artless and lacking in any technical sophistication. All the force of the painting was centered in the sheer power of the composition.
That was a great lesson for me and I began to study the composition of George Inness with renewed interest. At midcareer Inness totally abandoned the compositional conventions of his era in favor of an entirely homemade system. Due to the influence of Swedenborgianism and numerology Inness created a bizarre mode of composition based on the opposition of the seen and the unseen world. Whether you agree with his foundational ideas or not is immaterial. What is important is that Inness constructed an entirely personal and previously unknown method of composition. Of course, not all of George Inness’ compositions are equally great. Acknowledging that composition is the loftiest art in a constellation of difficult arts we can forgive Inness his occasional errors. But few deny that his best work is entirely unprecedented in its compositional uniqueness.
Evolving a personal compositional approach is a lofty goal and one that may elude me. But I now feel obliged to nurture those obsessions and idiosyncrasies that might make my composition the unique expression of a unique mind.