Have a look at this picture, and try to self-monitor how you experience it.
The editors of the Famous Artists Course included this illustration by Robert Fawcett (1903-1967) along with an explanatory diagram to demonstrate some design principles. They say: "The scroll is the important point of interest in this picture. Robert Fawcett has skillfully used lines to direct our eye to it. The line formed by the arm of the foreground figure draws our attention almost irresistibly across the upper right of the picture, down to the scroll, and finally to the head of the king. Notice how we are forced to look back and forth from the king's head to the scroll."
I think it's a successful composition, but I don't agree with their analysis of why it works. To me the driving force of the picture's abstract design is the contrast between clutter and emptiness. At first I saw the busy detail surrounding the blank space, and I thought the empty space was a 2D shape left for design reasons.
A split second later, I realized that it was a piece of paper being held up by a soldier in chain mail, and that I was looking at the back of the paper. Once I saw the angry face of the seated figure, and I understood that he was a king, it dawned on me that he was being faced with a challenge by the knight, perhaps showing the Magna Carta to King John.
With the story in mind, my eyes scanned the picture driven by its human premise. I looked at the ecclesiastical figure, whose characterization isn't very well developed. I checked out the face of the soldier, and couldn't get much from him either. My eye then went to the various weapons on display to see if there was a foreshadowing of violent action.
Although I'd need to see an eye-tracking scanpath study to be certain, I'm quite sure my eyes never followed the pathways diagrammed by the FAC's editors, and I never spent much time in parts of the picture that had no story purpose.
My point is that I don't believe it when composition teachers suggest that my eyes are passively moving through a picture, led purely by design considerations. Design does play a role, but if there are faces and a human story, the viewer is operating on a much higher and more active level.
Your experience of the picture may have been totally different from mine, and I'd be interested to hear from you in the comments.
Robert Fawcett: The Illustrator's Illustrator
Famous Artists Course
Previously on GJ: Eyetracking and Composition
Eyetracking and Composition, part 1
Eyetracking and Composition, part 2
Eyetracking and Composition part 3