Understanding composition fundamentals is so very important, but how many of us really do understand it and/or how to use it effectively? We all know when something doesn’t look ‘right’, but how do we figure out why and how do we fix it? The following is an excerpt from a talk on composition that I give to all of my workshops. It’s a bit technical, a bit boring maybe, but knowing these simple rules may be helpful to you when something not ‘right’ befalls you in the studio. Read on…this is going to be fun!
There is a reason why some compositions look better than others and that is because the relationships between the colors and forms in the work are proportionate and likely somehow follow one of the following rules: The Golden Ratio and/or The Rule of Thirds.
First, let’s take a look at the Golden Ratio, also known as the Golden Mean and Golden Rectangle. The idea was started by the ancient Greeks, who believed that all things, both tangible and intangible, have a perfect state of being that define them and felt that one should always strive toward achieving this ideal state. Greek mathematicians, after repeatedly seeing similar proportions in nature and geometry, developed a mathematical formula for what they considered an ideal rectangle: a rectangle whose sides are at a 1:1.62 ratio. –Nelson. Ever wonder why the Mona Lisa is so pleasing to the eye when she’s actually not conventionally beautiful? It’s because she’s perfectly proportionate from the tip of her nose to her knees..see how she fits perfectly into the Golden Rectangle in the image below. This same idea goes for buildings and rooms, furniture and other forms of design. The closer to the Golden Mean they are, the more comfortable they will feel and the better they will look to us as humans. This is because our bodies are also proportionate and also fit the Golden Ratio, we are all familiar with the image below which illustrates these proportions. If you’re really bored and want to test this out, consider your comfort level in the room you’re in right now and rate it on a scale of 1-10. Now measure the room and see how close it comes to the Golden Mean. Interesting, huh? Now try it with one of your paintings that just isn’t working and see what happens.
Next up is the Rule of Thirds, which states that if you divide any composition into thirds, vertically and horizontally, then place the essential elements of your image either along these lines or at the intersections of them, you’ll achieve a more pleasing arrangement. Edmund Dulac was a stickler for this Rule and it’s perfectly illustrated in his painting below of the Little Mermaid. Here Dulac has placed the column, figures and the horizon line perfectly along a line of thirds. The empty space leads the eye to the action in the composition, therefore creating a more interesting composition. These images were borrowed from the informative Art With Nelson.
Now, watch what happens when the rule is ignored and the action is centralized…kinda boring… and why is that? The column now dominates the image, which takes away from the figures, the source of the action in the image. The viewer’s eye goes directly to the strong column shape and there is no empty space calmly leading the eye into the image. In any painting, one design element must be more dominant than the others, which creates an imbalance, thus creating tension and attracting the viewer’s eye. When the canvas is segmented in half, there is no imbalance or tension, which makes for a not so interesting composition. Imbalance and tension can also be applied to many compositional elements of your painting including value, color and contrast. I’ll talk about this a bit more in my next post, which will also include a nod to mathematician, Fibonacci.
A word of caution…don’t go crazy trying to make your composition fit exactly into these Rules. For example, you can apply the Rule of Thirds to any grid as long as you keep the major design elements on the segments and/or at intersections. The same goes for the Golden Ratio. These tools are not to be used as starting points necessarily, but as check points when we are trying to figure out what’s gone wrong. If you spend too much time thinking about these things when beginning a painting you won’t have any fun and your painting will feel stiff, technical and sad. Click on the images below for some proportionate famous and not so famous works of art and photography.