Greg Albert wrote a book a couple years ago which presented many common compositional mistakes and then corrected them by the application of one encompassing rule. It’s still in print and definitely worth buying…
As a rule (ha!), I dislike it when an artistic aesthetic is stated in the form of a rule. In general I try to avoid any sentence that begin with ‘Never…’, or ‘Always…’, or god-forbid the tyrannic ‘Should’. Because whatever follows those three words quickly devolves from a guiding principle into a stricture. And I feel that once an aesthetic is reduced to a soundbite it can get in the way of discovering the specific nature of our subject. We end up reaching for that rule to get us through our painting in lieu of properly examining the subject.
But Greg’s rule is something else.
It offers a flexible and encompassing way to fix a compositional problem on the fly. As humans, we have a wish for things to be neat and tidy in a way the natural world isn’t, and as a result we have a tendency to make things alike in our work. If we find our paintings aren’t going as well as we like we can take a break, inspect the work, and ask a few simple questions such as, “Should I vary the height of the distant mountains? Would it be better for me to place two trees to the right of the shed, and three more on the left, but further away? Did I allow for enough difference between what will be above the horizon, and what will fall below?”
But applying Greg’s rule in such a manner is still too simplistic.
Why? Because it is like asking Sir Lawrence Olivier to play a sit-com. Greg’s rule has incredible potential and it demands to be used to a fuller extent. If we can suppress our self-awareness that we are painting an object then we may begin to see the shapes and rhythms which make up our composition. We can start asking more interesting questions such as, “Would it be better for me to make the negative shape around the boat larger, and to express it more simply than the boat itself? Can I lose an edge here, between my boat and the the one next to it in the shadow area? Will it make my painting stronger if I vary this passage of paint in thickness, scale, and texture? Will it make my painting stronger if I minimize the color that is there and then strike in one strong accent instead?”
All of the above is a more interesting way to apply Greg’s rule of unequal intervals. And to his credit, Greg is perfectly straight forward about pointing that out.
Greg’s other important point is this: ‘The eye constantly looks for variety. Too little becomes dull, but too much can become confusing. So the painter must find a balance between the two.
So buy his book if you want a deeper explanation. Or, you could simply keep his rule in mind as you paint. Remember, it’s not that complicated. Just hard to do.
‘Never make any two intervals the same.”