The practice of composition in painting is much like the practice of scales and chords in music. Once it becomes second nature the real business of the “art” comes more readily.
The idea is not to think so much about the theory but to be aware and practice it as you discover the poetry of your work. Good composition does not make good painting, but good painting can hardly exist without good composition. There are countless paintings in which “the lights are on, but nobody’s home.” Almost all dollar greeting cards contain an image that is composed well-enough. Just as Row, Row, Row Your Boat is a well-enough composed piece of music but with a very low bar.
So as composition theory plays in the background of your visual awareness, the real attention is to be paid to the meaning of your “statement”. And that begins with subject.
“A ‘painter’ should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his ‘paintbrush’.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._B._White (A quote from the writer E.B. White with some obvious word changes.)
One of my favorite quotes that you may recall (by me) is: “Notice what you notice”. Paying attention to those things that “absorbs your fancy” will be your greatest tool for satisfying painting.
Once you notice when and how certain subjects grab your attention. Engage. Figure out what aspects of those subjects speak first and loudest. For example—if you find you’re attracted to architecture ask yourself: is it the straight, solid lines or geometry that attracts? The shadows and doors or what might they be hiding? What the space can contain? The sheltering aspect? The contrast between inside and outside? Etc. Don’t bother answering. What is important to you will make itself known over time.
As you are looking, shift your gaze either by using a view finder made up of thumbs and fore-fingers or just your mind’s eye to determine the most dynamic format.This takes only seconds. Again, you don’t have to do anything with it, just practice the awareness. Consider keeping a file of tear sheets for future use or small thumbnail sketches. Spending a little time at this drill will add ease to the process.
Two links to play with—the first one is the Hans Hoffman Push Pull game we’ve done in class. If you have time, it’s fun. And the second one is a photographer’s blog. Just scroll down that one until you see the dots. Just glancing at those will inform.
Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — There is no such thing — Making your unknown known is the important thing. Georgia O’Keeefe