What makes a painting 'right'? what combination of elements does an artist bring together to produce a composition that works? I found myself pondering this after seeing a painting presented in an Artists group on Facebook. It was by Grizelda Cockwell (before anyone asks she is a relation of mine, my mother actually), a simple, exquisitely executed oil painting portraying a window in the wall of an old, corrugated iron shed, to the left is the edge of another shed, an iron clad nissan hut. Everything is very weathered, paint peeling, iron rusted, broken pane in the window....anyway why am I trying to describe it? look for yourself, here's a link to it. To my eye the only thing that didn't work was that composition was slightly off, the focus of the painting (the window) is pretty much central and this didn't quite do it for me, perhaps this wasn't the place for critique but I did comment as much, Griz then asked me how I would have composed it and I replied that I would have shifted the point of view and altered the contrast of some elements. A friend of Griz's (David McEwen, a very skillful professional artist) who had seen the painting in the flesh then put me in my place with the comment "I've seen it, it's right as it is.". That comment is what got me thinking about what's right or wrong in composition.
Can a composition can be fundamentally 'right' or fundamentally 'wrong'? Things can be wrong with a composition for sure, incoherent jumble of elements, objects distorted to fit the canvas, poor distribution and so on. But what about being right? can a composition be so 'right' that anything else is lesser? Taking an example of working from a good, well composed photo or static reference: If I alter the appearance of some elements or move elements around to make it work how I want it to would then the result then be a 'wrong' composition? and why? Would it be wrong because I had taken a good reference and messed around with the elements or wrong just in that the composition was bad in some way? If the latter was the case then fair enough but the former? I don't buy that at all, I've on several occasions taken a perfectly good, accurate reference photo or set of photos and composed the elements in a way that I felt worked as a painting, unless I've been suffering from some horrible compositional blindness this has always worked for me.
Where this is taking me is to thinking about that fine old platitude: "draw what you see, not what you think you see", this is fine up to a point as advice to help aspiring artists get over the hump of seeing what's there rather than a montage of preconceived ideas of what objects are...the sky is blue, grass is green, a human nose is a triangle with two holes in it and so on. Where it breaks down is when you've got that nailed, your eyes are open and you can draw what's there, now comes the problem where you need to paint or draw something that is known in the eyes of the viewer and yet cannot be accurately portrayed in two dimensions as a facsimile of what's there (as a photograph does). I'm talking, of course, about interpretation. As artists we can interpret what we see or what references we use in any way we like, some like to enhance colour, movement, feeling, some push or pull perspective, some allow themselves to be guided by the process of painting, by responding to how their paint reacts as they progress (as with watercolours of course). What restricts interpretation is only such discipline as to which we adhere, the discipline that is most restrictive to interpretation is photo-realism, at the other end of the scale is the crazy world of abstract expressionism, in this the artist has interpreted so freely that it can be the case that the subject or meaning of the painting is lost to the viewer. As to how much we as individuals interpret what we see...that's up to us, do we interpret and compose our paintings to please ourselves, to get across our feeling or our message, for the satisfaction of achievement, to please people who'll view our paintings, to make a money? When I paint I would hope to be able to achieve at least some of those goals.
"Draw what you see, not what you think you see" tells us to open our eyes and see clearly without interpreting, without automatically superimposing our knowledge of what we're looking at, This has to be achieved before we can take the next step which is to see clearly then to interpret what we're seeing, one could say: "Don't draw what's there, draw what you need to be there".