The Clearest and Strongest Way of Seeing (Part III)

This article completes my series of essays on visual composition. Before proceeding, I recommend first reading Part I and Part II.

I borrow some subject or other from life or from nature, and, using it as a pretext, I arrange lines and colors so as to obtain symphonies, harmonies that do not represent a thing that is real, in the vulgar sense of the word, and do not directly express any idea, but are supposed to make you think the way music is supposed to make you think, unaided by ideas or images, simply through the mysterious affinities that exist between our brains and such arrangements of colors and lines.

—Paul Gauguin

In the previous two installments in this series I explained why our best tools to approach visual compositions are science and intuition (and not any overly-simplified attempts to reduce the subject of composition to simple rules or templates, which may in fact restrict and hobble an artist’s creative and expressive ranges).

Although science, in principle, may offer more decisive guidance for expressive visual composition than intuition, at this point (and likely for the foreseeable future) available science is very limited, leaving us with intuition as the best tool to rely on. We should remember, though, that intuition is not a fixed quantity. We may evolve, grown, train, and improve our aesthetic intuition with deliberate practice. Also, not all intuition is necessarily useful, and we should be willing to let go of, and to unlearn, those intuitions that in time prove unhelpful or false.

In this article I’ll suggest some practical ways to train your aesthetic intuition, to improve your creative abilities, and to broaden your expressive range. Rather than aim for the patently impossible task of teaching composition, my goal is instead to offer what I found (in pursuing my own work and research) to be good ways to think about composition and to continually improve and refine my own intuition about composition.

Before discussing intuition, however, I’d like to emphasize the importance of science in understanding artistic expression, however limited this understanding may be at this time. To be clear, my goal is not to suggest that intuition should supplant science—on the contrary, I believe that knowing the science is invaluable in guiding intuition (oddly, sometimes in what may initially seem like unintuitive ways). Intuition founded in science—in evidence—is far more useful than intuition founded in misconceptions or historical errors. Put simply, I recommend highly that you take the time to study what science there is, and not rely blindly on just your gut feel. Training intuition is not just about adding to the knowledge and skills you already possess; it is also about ridding yourself of intuitions dispelled by science, regardless of popular beliefs or how self-evident they may seem.

When it comes to the science of visual expression, two particularly useful disciplines are Gestalt Psychology and Neuroaesthetics. (Both rely to a considerable degree on other disciplines, such as neuroscience and evolutionary biology.) For gestalt psychology, a good place to start is Rudolf Arnheim’s seminal book, Art and Visual Perception, which has been studied and vetted for several decades. In contrast, neuroaesthetics is a relatively young field and therefore prone to a flux of new theories and revelations, but a couple of good places to start are V.S. Ramachandran’s Eight Laws of Artistic Experience, and the overview provided in Anjan Chatterjee’s book, The Aesthetic Brain.

To get a sense of the current limitations of science when it comes to artistic expression, and for a good illustration of why, despite decades of scientific research, intuition remains an artists’ most important resource, consider these words by Ramachandran. When asked in an interview how much science can tell us about how people experience art, he responded:

I think right now one percent or less is explained by neuroscience, but I think a time will come when we’ll maybe understand 10, 20 percent of it.

Training artistic intuition is a delicate dance among seemingly contradicting goals: using a structured approach to encourage unstructured thinking, using known patterns to improve our ability to depart from known patterns, applying deliberate and conscious thinking to make our brains more flexible and fluent in their instinctive, subconscious responses.

A good way to think about training artistic intuition is in terms coined by psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman divided the workings of the brain into “system 1” and “system 2.” System 1 is the intuitive system: it is the system that provides us with instant answers and perceptions, and that we have no conscious control of. For example, when facing simple calculations such as “what is 2+2?”, system 1 instantly presents us with the answer: 4. There is no effort or deliberate thinking involved. Just as important, there’s nothing we can do prevent system 1 from performing the calculation and giving us the answer. System 1 is also responsible for such intuitive functions as recognizing facial expressions or diverting attention instantly to the source of a loud unexpected sound. In contrast, system 2 is our conscious system. System 2 can perform difficult calculations, investigate complex problems, perform rational analysis, and so on. Faced with a complex task, such as “what is 23×17?” system 1 gives up instantly since the problem is outside its ability to respond quickly. System 2 takes over, and we get to decide if it’s worth our while to invest the effort needed to find the answer.

Systems 1 and 2 are not fixed in their abilities. In fact, functions that may originally fall under the purview of the conscious and effortful system 2, with enough repetition and practice, may transition over to system 1 and become intuitive and effortless. Think for example of driving a car. It takes time and effort to learn the controls, to get a sense for proper speed under different conditions, when and how hard to apply the brakes, etc. In time, the brain creates and fine-tunes the neural circuitry needed to perform driving functions safely and efficiently until at some point these circuits become fast and reliable, and the brain allows system 1 to handle them, freeing system 2’s resources for other tasks. An experienced driver rarely thinks consciously about how far to turn the wheel, when to slow down ahead of a turn, what position the shifter should be in, or how hard to step on the accelerator.

Similarly, we can think of training our artistic intuition as the process of first consciously (using system 2) creating the required neural circuitry: the thought patterns conducive to creative visual expressions, then exercising and “debugging” these circuits by repetition until they become fast and reliable enough that they end up taken over by intuition (system 1) and get applied quickly and automatically when needed (and for the most part without deliberate conscious thought, although there is always room for additional conscious learning and improvement). In simpler terms, our goal is to create “good” habits—habits conducive to creative thinking and artistic expression, by first learning what these habits are, then making these habits our default intuitive ways of engaging with the world and with our work.

In training ourselves to become better visual composers, it’s important to consider that our goal is not just to evolve applicable skills, but also to form and to practice general attitudes and personality traits conducive to creative expression. Of these, two that are especially worth honing are mindfulness (a practice) and openness (a personality trait).

Rather than repeat thoughts I already shared about mindfulness, I invite you to read an article I wrote on the subject for Nature Photographers Network. In summary, mindfulness is the practice of focusing conscious attention on qualities of your present experience—deliberately claiming whatever attention your brain may unwittingly spend (often waste) on distracting thoughts, worries, and ruminations not relevant to what you are doing right now—and instead to reassign every bit of your attention toward recognizing and acknowledging what is happening around you and within you in real time, without judgment or overthinking.

Adding to the points I covered in the mindfulness article, I should clarify that while mindfulness may increase your chances of coming up with creative ideas, don’t expect such ideas to come to your mind as you are being mindful. The point of mindfulness is to prevent your mind from wandering, to eliminate distracting and unproductive thoughts, to improve your state of mind and the quality of your experience, and to increase the odds of coming up with creative ideas later on. Creative ideas can’t be summoned on-demand; they often require a period of subconscious processing known as incubation before they mature to a point where you become conscious of them. This is the reason creative ideas sometimes seem to pop into your mind unexpectedly when you are distracted—when taking a walk or a shower, or on the verge of falling asleep. The point of mindfulness is not to force creative ideas, but to prime your brain to consider creative ideas even when you are not conscious of doing so. Mindfulness gives your brain the raw materials for creative ideas, such as awareness of things you can use in a composition, as well as awareness of your inner states—your moods and emotions—that may be worth expressing in artistic work (or letting go of, if they are unproductive).

There are many ways to train yourself in mindfulness, ranging from meditation to a technique I teach on my workshops that I call Visual Inventory. A visual inventory is simply a list, whether written or mental, of things you notice in your environment. To produce a visual inventory, make yourself comfortable (I recommend sitting down and removing your pack, eating or drinking if you wish to, so you are not distracted by hunger or thirst), scanning your surroundings and enumerating as many things as you notice, regardless of whether you feel they have any photogenic potential. This technique is similar to meditation in the sense that it focuses attention consciously on your present experience (and away from distracting thoughts). It also prompts your brain to become aware of things without judgment or preconception—just noticing things around you. Unlike most meditation techniques, a visual inventory is directly conducive to considerations of visual composition. It gives you a rich list of ingredients you may compose a photograph from that you may not otherwise notice. Simply put, you can’t compose photographs from things you don’t know exist.

Openness (known in some personality models as Openness to Experience) is a personality trait referring to the degree that you are receptive to a broad range of possibilities and experiences, to trying new things, and to venturing outside your comfort zone and default ways of thinking. Each of us is pre-programmed with some degree of openness. Much like physical traits, personality traits are largely rooted in genetic predisposition. They are likely also affected by external influences such as upbringing, culture, lifestyle, political ideology, etc. The upshot is this: if you don’t already have a high degree of openness you may have to work hard, perhaps even have to overcome some discomfort, to transcend your default habits and/or conservative mindset, to make yourself more open. Certainly this may be harder to do when it comes to such things as social or political views, but it’s worth reminding yourself that approaching art is largely a subjective and personal matter. There’s no reason why a person can’t hold traditional and conservative views in some aspects of life, and at the same time also feel free to explore and experiment freely in art.

Making yourself more open is about, as the platitudes go, pushing your envelope, prompting yourself to “think outside the box,” examining your convictions and prejudices, and taking incremental risks even when it may seem uncomfortable. Don’t feel you have to do anything extreme. Ultimately it may be that your predisposition to a certain degree of openness, rather than how hard you try, may limit how far you can push yourself. In this sense, openness is no different than athletic predisposition or having a propensity for extraversion—different people are wired differently. This means your goal should be to strive to become as open as you can be and not judge your artistic accomplishments relative to those of others who may be more naturally predisposed to creative ideas (and don’t necessarily envy such people, since the cognitive traits that make them more artistically creative may also make them profoundly miserable in other areas of life).

And so we come to the point where the proverbial rubber meets the metaphorical road: how to put all this to use when faced with a photographic opportunity. For this, I offer a reductionist approach: think of composition as an optimization problem—a problem of finding optimal solutions to three components of composition: framing, perspective, and balance. Being interrelated, all three components should be considered simultaneously, and not in any order.

Framing is the problem of deciding where to draw the frame boundaries: where to cut off the composition on the top, bottom, left, and right. Framing is obviously important in deciding what to include in, and what to exclude from a composition, but that’s just the beginning of it. Many gestalt principles governing what viewers will pay attention to, and what impressions they may experience, depend on where things are within the frame and the relationships between visual elements. I recommend training yourself to frame your compositions in your mind, without looking through a finder or a composition card. Free yourself to consider a variety of aspect ratios, inclusion and exclusion of certain elements, and so on, without the discomfort of having to manipulate physical objects or being limited to the camera’s aspect ratio.

Perspective is, as Ansel Adams put it, “knowing where to stand.” More precisely, perspective is the spatial relationship (relative positions in space) between your camera and your subject. Beyond just knowing where to stand, perspective also depends on the magnification of the lens you use (higher magnification, as in longer lenses, will have a “compression” effect, whereas lower magnification, as in wider lenses, will have a “stretching” effect). Think of how many things you can control just by moving yourself around. You can include or exclude certain things, bring things closer together or pull things apart, juxtapose some things against other things, make some things larger or smaller relative to other things, etc.

Balance may be the more nuanced of the three considerations of visual composition. Balance is about distribution of weight. For our purposes, the goal is to balance visual weight. (You will find a great discussion of visual weight in Arnheim’s book mentioned above.) Think of visual weight as a gravitational force for attention: the more visual weight an element within the frame has, the more it will draw a viewer’s attention. A balanced composition is one where the distribution of visual weight guides viewers’ attention toward those elements you wish for them to notice. Visual weight is affected by placement, color, visual relationships, and other factors.

Certainly, many of the topics I mention in this series of articles are worthy of more elaborate discussions. My hope is that I was able to successfully put them all in the greater context of composing visually, and to prompt you to want to learn more. Also, to help guide your thinking of visual composition to those areas most conducive to creative visual expression—to art, rather than thinking only in terms of maximizing initial impact. I hope you also understand the complexity and extent of what I refer to as the “visual language” and why it cannot—should not—be reduced to any small subset of simplistic “visual utterances” as most discussions of “rules of composition” attempt to do.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far and found value in these and other writings I offer freely, I really could use your financial support of my work. Please consider a small monthly donation to support my work using Patreon.

Mixed Feelings

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4 thoughts on “The Clearest and Strongest Way of Seeing (Part III)

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  1. “For this, I offer a reductionist approach: think of composition as an optimization problem—a problem of finding optimal solutions to three components of composition: framing, perspective, and balance. Being interrelated, all three components should be considered simultaneously, and not in any order.” Brilliant observation, can’t say I have seen this before. But oh so true!

  2. Guy, this is one of the articles that definitely changes my way of approaching nature and photography. In the three parts of it you delve in a clear, intense and direct way about your vision about the way in which you recommend approaching composition in landscape photography. Thank you very much for sharing your vision and opening our minds, the next time I am outdoors with my camera it will be different.

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