This section is from the book "Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography", by J. B. Schriever. Also available from Amazon: Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography.
349. The eye naturally seeks the principal point of interest, and if there are a number of interesting spots distributed through the picture, it goes naturally into the picture, touching first the least important, then the more important, then the most important points. Arriving at the center, if the picture is well composed, your eye will continue to move in a circle unless deflected by the composition. The clever artist will make his picture in such a way that the eye will not get off the picture. A spot here and a spot there will hold the interest.
350. It has been truly said that the artist feels for the surface of his object and unconsciously adapts the lines of his picture to express this feeling. And feeling counts for more than physical seeing in all landscape work. All good rendering of landscape requires elimination on the part of the worker. Skill and genius is shown in selecting only those things that help along the impression of the chief object of interest. All artistic rendering of nature is a translation, not an imitation. An imitation of nature is always imperfect and unsatisfactory. A landscape photograph may be absolutely correct so far as the appearance of the object or scene is concerned, yet be wholly without what is known as artistic expression. In seeking for realistic details in landscape work the spirit of the scene is often sacrificed. Selection is here again largely a matter of individual feeling. Thus there is an opportunity for self-expression in this kind of work' that should be improved.
351. Besides unity, one of the most important qualities in pictorial composition is the effect of repose, produced by the proper arrangement of the objects in the picture. This effect will be increased if the transitions from light to dark are gradual and not violent. The simple harmonies are the most attractive. All kinds of lines should not appear in the same picture. If we can make ourselves understood with two or three principal lines or combinations of them, the result is better than trying to put a number of them all in one picture, Study the proper distribution of lines as well as of light and dark. Pictures are fine only as they conform to the principles of beauty. These great principles cannot be ignored. They may be combined in newer ways, but to ignore them altogether is to leave out beauty, and beauty is the essence of every good picture.
352. To sum up the story of composition in picture making, consider first the principal object and generally place it centrally in the picture, but not exactly in the center. Secondly, do not place objects in a straight line with this principal object. Thirdly, try the effect of placing objects so that if the centers of their bases were connected an irregular line would be made. Fourthly, place them as if they belong together. Fifthly, place them in such a way that they will appear at rest. Sixthly, remember that objects should not have the same positions; that is, their axes should not be all upright or horizontal; they should not be parallel, or at right angles to each other. Seventhly, one of the objects should be partially hidden behind another, even if there are no more than two objects in the group. Finally, note if in the group you have made the objects appear of the same height. If so, change them, as the effect will not be pleasing. Observe unity, repose and variety, as they are all essentials to good pictorial composition. In fine, consider the general space relations as a test for the whole picture.
353. Contrast of form, proportion, etc., are intensified when contrast of value is added, and by introducing values we may either support or neutralize the line composition.
354. From the foregoing it is evident that composition includes not only selection, arrangement, proportion and space relations, but may also be studied in the works of the great artists. It can be produced only by the individual, as it of necessity implies original work. A true picture not only shows how an object or a group of objects appear, but also tells how the object looked to the person who made the picture. It tells not only what was seen, but also what he thought about the object. Whoever makes a picture tries to indicate in the photograph the part he cares for most. He also tries to show his ideas of beautiful composition. This human element added to the presentation of the subject is what makes the real picture. In all this, space relation and line direction unquestionably play important parts, and it must be remembered, in the end, that composition appeals directly to the creative faculty in the artist.
355. Composition stands for individuality in art. It is a method of expression, not simply an impulse. The artist is one who has mastered the laws of his art and he cannot progress, we repeat, without regard for those laws of composition that have been discovered and formulated by the master artists. These underlying principles are as fundamental in art as the laws of nature in the world about us. Just as the operation of certain laws keeps the natural world in beautiful order, so, certain recognized principles in the art world underlie all artistic work. While this work may be original and individualized as a whole, it should proceed according to method and in an orderly fashion. The lines in the landscape should contrast agreeably and the spaces bear pleasing relations. This harmonious proportion of the parts to each other and to the whole is secured by the observance of three simple laws, viz., principality, simplicity and repose to any picture. The law of principality means that one part of the picture should be more important than the other, hence contrast of dimension and value ensues. Opposition requires that there should be variation or contrast in direction of line and shape, while balance calls for a harmonizing of these contrasts so that the effect of the whole will be pleasing. In this way, one can develop judgment in arranging forms and ideas, and cultivate a power of idealizing familiar things in their relation to each other.
356. John LaFarge says: "I have far within me a belief that art is the love of certain balanced proportions and relations which the mind likes to discover and to bring out in what it deals with; be it thought, the actions of men, the influence of nature or the material thing in which necessity makes it work. I should then expand this idea until it stretched from the patterns of earliest pottery to the harmony of the lines of Homer. Then I should say that in our plastic arts the relations of lines and spaces are, in my belief, the first and earliest desires. And again I should have to say that, in my unexpressed faith, these needs are as needs of the soul, and echoes of the laws of the universe, seen and unseen, reflections of the universal mathematics, cadences of the ancient music of the spheres.
357. "For I am forced to believe that there are laws for our eyes as well as for our ears, and that when, if ever, these shall have been deciphered, as has been the good fortune with music; then shall we find that all the best artists have carefully preserved their instinctive obedience to these, and have all cared together for this before all.
358. "For the arrangements of line and balances of spaces which meet these underlying needs are indeed the points through which we recognize the answer to our natural love and sensitiveness for order, and through this answer we feel, clearly or obscurely, the difference between what we call great men and what we call the average, whatever the personal charm may be.
359. "This is why we remember so easily the arrangement and composition of such a one whom we call a master - that is why the 'silhouette' of a Millet against the sky, why his placing of outlines within the rectangle of his picture, makes a different, a final and decisive result, impressed strongly upon the memory which classifies it, when you compare it with the record of the same story, say, by Jules Breton. It is not the difference of the fact in nature; it is not that the latter artist is not in love with his subject; that he has not a poetic nature; that he is not simple; that he has not dignity; that he is not exquisite; it is that he has not found in the nature of his own instinct the eternal mathematics which accompany facts of sight. For indeed, to use other words, in what does one differ from the other? The arrangement of the idea or subject may be the same, the costume, the landscape, the time of day, nay, the very person represented. But the Millet, if we take this instance, is framed within a larger line, its spaces are of greater or more subtle ponderation, its building together more architectural. That is to say, all its spaces are more surely related to one another, not only to the story told nor to the accidental occurrence of it. The eternal has been brought in to sustain the transient.
360. "Yes, the mere direction or distance of a line by the variation of some fraction of an inch establishes this enormous superiority - a little more or less curve, a mere black or white or colored space of a certain proportion, a few darks or reds or blues. And now you ask, 'Do you intend to state that decoration -? To which I should say, 'I do not mean to leave my main path of principles today, and when I return we shall have time to discuss objections. Besides, I am not arguing; I am telling you.' "