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September 2011

The Quest for Beauty: Dynamic Diagonals

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 SmithNicolai 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. 

DSC07713web 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  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. 


The Quest for Beauty: The first in a series on simple steps to strengthen your compositions

    The Quest for Beauty: This is the first in a series of articles on simple steps and design concepts you can use to strengthen your compositions.

    This is the perfect time for artists to renew their passion for creating art.  The current economic conditions have forced a period of slow growth - but this is actually a gift to those of us who have been working in the fine arts arena for a shorter period of time than many of the artists we are now competing against.  With less pressure we can devote the necessary time to better understand our craft and find greater satisfaction in the work we produce. 

    There are tools the artist uses to compose a composition; we know them by words such as armature, rule of thirds, golden proportion, grids, and forms of composition.  Understanding the rational behind all of them will help you strengthen your own compositions, while freeing you from the constraints of following the "rules."

    You will discover that these concepts are not all that different from one another, but some are more effective at accomplishing certain goals than others.  They all address ways the artist constructs his composition, how he divides the space within the rectangle, where the major forms are placed, and the direction and placement of the dominant, visual directional lines. These relationships lead to pleasing proportions, a feeling of harmony and a cohesive whole.

    During the Renaissance, artists often sized their canvases to conform to the golden ratio: 1 to 1.618, rounded to three decimals.  If we were to apply this ratio to most manufactured canvases today we discover this: an 8 x 10 canvas should actually be 8 x 12.9 if it conformed to the golden ratio, and one sized at 16 x 20 should actually be 16 x 25.8. 

    What this means is that we can’t depend upon the shape of our rectangle to automatically produce a proportionally pleasing space.  We must design that space for symmetry and harmony.

    The easiest division of space is the Rule of Thirds.  This is often the student’s first exploration into the idea of the grid.  It is easy to use, but it can lead to predictable placement of your points of interest and a static rather than dynamic visual feel to your composition.

    A more sophisticated idea is to turn the Rule of Thirds into a Fibonacci ratio.  We are familiar with the Fibonacci sequence found in nature: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and on.  Each number is the sum of the previous two. 

    Applying this to composition, many artists divide their space using a ratio made up of two adjoining Fibonacci numbers, such as 3/5 or 5/8. 

    Let’s use the 3/5 ratio on a canvas that has a width of 20 inches.  First divide 20 inches by 8, the sum of the two Fibonacci numbers in your ratio.  The result is 2.5.  3 x 2.5 is 7.5 and 5 x 2.5 is 12.5, so the dynamic vertical dividing line would be placed at 7.5 inches in from one outside edge, leaving the remaining 12.5 inches to the opposite outside edge.  If your canvas has a height of 16 inches, you would again divide 16 by 8.  The result is 2.  2x3 is 6, and 2 x 5 is 10, so the horizontal line would be placed at this division point. 


Image from my sketchbook, and yes, my lines are not straight when they should be. 

    When you study paintings that you find visually dynamic in their design, take a moment to measure and draw out the major lines that divide the space. Identify the ratios the artist might be using.  Here is the link to an excellent article on this subject at, under Art and Applications of Phi.

  If you would like to play around with this on-line Golden Ratio Calculator,  plug in 20 inches: it will divide the space into 12 and 8, so it is very close to using your own ratios with the Fibonacci numbers.  

    This is just one idea, though, on how to introduce visual harmony into your compositions.  I find this subject fascinating, and I have been researching it for some time, after deciding there had to more to grids than using them to up-size a drawing - which was the extent of my exposure to the idea in the educational setting.  But I've said it before - the purpose of education is to teach you how to teach yourself, and to give you the tools to become a self-directed learner. 

    The next few posts on this subject will go into ideas around dynamic symmetry, as spelled out by Jay Hambidge, and 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. 









Avoiding Daycare for Grandma

    One of my goals this year was to seriously investigate plein air painting.  I have tried it in spurts in the past, struggling by myself because I was too uncomfortable to struggle in front of other artists.  This is a foolish way to approach a new learning curve, I know,  but I was also hesitant to go the workshop route.  Too many times I've signed up for a learning experience and found myself in Daycare for Grandma.

    Now this was not always the fault of the workshop provider.  It was primarily because what they were providing and what I was expecting did not mesh.  I realized, though, that if I wanted to learn through the workshop experience then I had to be very clear about what I wanted to learn.  And whether or not the workshop was the learning tool I needed.

    This past weekend I did attend a plein air workshop.  It was taught by a local artist with whom I was familiar.  I knew his work, and had talked to others so I had a good feel for his approach.  I admit to being a little uneasy with the newness of it all, but I made myself a promise to keep checking in with myself, making sure I was open to a new learning curve, and to allow myself to have fun.


    Three small 8 " x 10" paintings completed at Sparks Lake, with Ken Roth as the instructor.

If you look closely you will see gnats stuck in the paint - which seems to be a typical component of plein air painting. 


       The workshop was exactly what I needed.  I learned practical things such as how to adjust my easel, how to easily pack and transport equipment and wet paintings, and how much I could bring.  This was particularly reassuring, seeing the amount of materials that people brought: for some reason I had assumed plein air painting required you to work with six tubes of paint, one or two brushes, and a sun hat.  Funny how we make assumptions totally out of sync with reality when we don't think to ask.

    Since I had thought ahead about what I wanted to learn from my artist/teacher, I was able to share with him the areas where I found myself struggling.  Once he understood what I wanted he was able to target his instruction.  We both felt more comfortable with the interaction. 

    I won't argue that it takes time to become comfortable with something new. So preparation is key, experimenting on your own until some elements become familiar.  Think about what you want to learn, and how to approach your work and the questions you ask.  Find a workshop structure that works with your comfort levels. And have fun. 

    Besides, they don't offer you juice or graham crackers at Daycare for Grandma.

Confusing Expediency with Accomplishment

    I don’t know about you, but in my household the designated lawn person hates his job.  It’s not that he hates everything – he likes the lawnmower, so anything green that is above four inches is likely to be shortened.  And he likes his pump sprayer, especially when it’s filled with weed killer.  Seriously, I’ve taken to planting my vegetables in containers and I gave up on green bushes years ago.

    If you ask Lawnman why he chooses the tools he does, he’ll tell you it’s because they do the best job. They do the best job at what he wants to accomplish, which is finishing a boring and repetitive task as quickly as he can.

    How many times do we confuse the real goal?  And how does our work ultimately suffer?

    I’m not beating up on Lawnman here, just making an observation that it’s human nature to want to get through the tasks we hate.  The consequence of that may not be what we intended. 

    When we confuse expediency with accomplishment we lose sight of why we deemed the task necessary in the first place.  And when we forget why something might be necessary then we've taken our eyes of the real goal. 

    This applies to everything we do.  Whether it’s lawns, gardens, or the art business.    

Getting out of Panic Mode

   For the past few months I have been operating in panic mode without being conscious of the motivation.  I know it had something to do with two conflicting events that set up the fear and kept me out of the studio.  I lost confidence in my direction at the same time I panicked about repeating recent successes.  I explored new/old directions and visited galleries and art fairs and looked at a lot of art that seemed in demand but wasn't the art that I resonate with. I dug out old books, bought a new book, and wanted to be an itinerant Russian painter working along side Isaak Levitan.

  I eventually found my way back to a clear understanding of what I want to say as an artist, but it was a summer-long struggle that included doing the Dave Ramsey thing, experimenting with marble dust and pigment in a series I had abandoned years ago,  several long afternoons in the back garden with a glass of red wine, growing my own tomatoes, and writing that got me back to the real business of art.

  I began writing the second edition of my book Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist, the business plan (not just) for the mature artist as much for myself as for others. In the process, I rediscovered my voice, my courage and my passion.   I have received tremendous support from others in the art industry, for which I am immensely grateful, and my excitement for this project has been steadily growing.  In the process of building the Resources Section I came across a wealth of new sites that are too good not to share with you now.  They might provide the jump start you need to get back into creating your art.


This is a teriffic post from KISSmetrics, titled True Colors Infographic - Breakdown of Color Preferences by Gender.  

Following that, I linked up to the sources sited in the True Colors article and found these sites:

Color Matters - Everything about color - from color expert Jill Morton - fantastic resource.

Color Survey Results, from xkcd The blag of the webcomic, which is hilarious but definitely R rated so don't read it at work.

Which led me to Doghouse Diaries Monday Wednesday Friday. Thank you Ray, Raf and Will for the grins, chuckles, and outright laughter that accompanied a pleasant half an hour or so of what was definitely not wasted time.  Here is just one of the Random Comics  and another called Morning Routine which could easily be adapted to the activities of the artist upon entering the studio...yes, this site is addicting. 

Then I found an interesting service used by artists, called Blog Talk Radio.  Here is a sampling:

Artists Helping Artists

Art and Soul Radio

Annette Coleman

Nancy Wait Art and Ascension

And I began painting again. 


Have a safe weekend.  Keep artist Carol Marine - who lost both her home and her new studio in the Texas fires - in your thoughts, as well as the others who are struggling with the effects of severe weather and national security issues. 

How To Create Portfolio Images Using Microsoft Word is a new tutorial available. Easier to do than the one using photoshop.  Check beneath the Resources for Artists and Patrons section in the right sidebar.

AS ALWAYS, I enjoy your comments and feedback.  And please forward this blog to others who might enjoy it.