The Quest for Beauty: This is the second in a series of articles on simple steps and design concepts you can use to strengthen your compositions.
I first became interested in the use of diagonals in painting after studying the work of artists as varied as Don Stone, Matt Smith, Nicolai Fechin, and the Barbizon School. While these examples may not seem to relate to each other at first blush, there is a strong underlying design principle at work with regard to each artist’s use and placement of diagonals.
I eventually identified this principle as a form of dynamic symmetry. I bought the book The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry, by Jay Hambidge (1867 – 1924), because he is considered one of the preeminent experts. In fact he was recommended as a prime source in the Juliette Aristides book Classical Painting Atelier. But while the text is extensive in its description of the various forms of dynamic symmetry, as well as an exhaustively detailed analysis of the mathematics involved, I found it to be too arcane to be easily applied by the artist. It is certainly an informative text, especially in the construction of root-square rectangles, but Juliette Aristides does a much better job at communicating the same information in her book. Chapter Two: Composition, Design Systems of the Masters is a Master Class for those of you interested in the subject.
Now if I haven’t frightened you off with the idea of math in your artwork, root-square rectangles are actually a very simple concept. Basically it is a step by step process for dividing the space of any rectangle, based on 90-degree intersecting lines, to form harmonic divisions of space. Here is one of the few sites I’ve found on the internet that gives an example: it is from Doug Craft Fine Art. Scroll through the images: you will get an idea of what dynamic symmetry is all about.
Here is a page from my sketchbook, where I was trying to decide which format would work the best: the 12 x 16 format or the 12 x 18 format.
You will see the first major diagonal line from upper left corner to the lower right corner, then the line from the lower left corner up to intersect at a 90-degree angle. This is the first placement line, giving the location of one of the "eyes" of the canvas. By repeating this sequence you can find other main diagonal placement lines.
In my thinking process, I was curious as to which rectangle - the 12 x 16 (more square) or the 12 x 18 (more rectangular) would give me the most dynamic diagonal for the major lead in. I also knew I would have the two vertical lines for the post and the flag pole: I wanted to see where those would likely fall. I decided on the 12 x 18 format and further developed my sketch. You can view the finished painting here.
Another resource is this Golden Grid, from Goldennumber.net. This also relates to the root square division lines, but shown as diagonals from a single point. I printed out the image on regular copy paper, and then traced it on to a clear page protector. I use it frequently as a guide to place diagonals, as is evident in this recent painting, Chokecherry Farm, which was accepted into the American Impressionist Society’s 2011 exhibition this summer.
By far, though, the best reference for me has been the Juliette Aristides book, and I would urge you to check it out at the library or find it on the internet if you are seriously interested in the subject. I don't think this is a concept that can be fully exploited by a few downloads from the internet, so spend time trying to understand the proportions involved in placing your diagonals. Once you do this, you’ll never be intimidated by "root-square rectangles" again.
The next post on this subject will go into the idea of forms of composition as explained by Edgar Payne.
As always, if you found this article helpful please forward it to people you know who may be interested. And please leave your comments if you would like to contribute to the conversation.