### DG13: Composition Based on Human Visual Dynamics

*Looking for Principles of Composition with the*

**Diagonal Grid 13**.Composition in art refers to the visual organization of the work. In

*The Art of Color and Design*, Maitland Graves writes, "The aim of composition is to create an interesting unit. Interest is the result of variety. Unity is created by dominance."^{1}In 2005, I was studying the anthropology of art and I wanted to understand composition. I had two reasons for wanting to understand composition. First of all, my focus in anthropology was the 200 years between 1800 and 2000 when profound changes had taken place in Western Art. During that period, painting went from striving to depict history and beauty to being contempuous of subject matter entirely. Everything that could be dispensed with was jettisoned—important subjects, meticulous finish, beauty, to name just a few of the early casualties. Cutting-edge, “modern” art became, in turn, a statement of tonality, impression, expression, line, shape, color, and finally nothing at all. I noticed that over time, although many people resisted each new change, eventually people came around, so that today probably the most popular styles in the US are some forms of impressionism or expressionism.

So my first reason related to my budding theory that over the 200 years, until art reached the dead end of pure nihilism, the great artists were still making great compositions and great compositions matter to people as much or more than the actual subject matter, finish and beauty. I wondered if there were a basis in biology for what humans consider great composition. How do we recognize them? Why do they resonate with us?

My second reason for wanting to understand composition was simply to be a better artist.

When art historians talk about composition, they seem mostly to talk about the objects and “things” represented in paintings. They might also talk about the relationship of the people and objects in the painting to each other. Sometimes they sketch vague triangular shapes, angular v or w shapes, loopy m shapes or arrows indicating the direction of eye movement.

Books for painters are no better. They are filled with do’s and don’ts, and general exhortations, but not with any clear principles or procedures that work to serve as a guide for either students or art historians. Even design books, which talk about harmony, balance, diversity and areas of interest, seemed to leave the student on his own to find what is “pleasing” as a composition, or they recommended using the golden ratio.

Golden Rectangle |

The golden ratio is the most famous constructive method for making the overall length to width of the artwork according to “pleasing” proportions. It can also be used to determine the size of subsidiary elements. The most famous building said to be constructed along the lines of the golden ratio is the Parthenon of Greece. Thus, this ratio has fascinated artists and mathematicians since Greece's Golden Age, about 2400 years ago. It is associated with the Fibbonacci series. The rectangle at right is an example of construction using the golden ratio.

Construction of a golden rectangle:

1. Construct a unit square (red).

2. Draw a line from the midpoint of one side to an opposite corner.(arrow)

3. Use that line as the radius to draw an arc that defines the long dimension of the rectangle

1. Construct a unit square (red).

2. Draw a line from the midpoint of one side to an opposite corner.(arrow)

3. Use that line as the radius to draw an arc that defines the long dimension of the rectangle

The Wikipedia discussion of the golden rectangle notes the on-going debates about which great painters used or did not use the golden ratio in which of their works.

Generally, the golden rectangle means nothing to the viewing public. For art viewers, viewing great art, the reaction is immediate. If the painting’s overall dimensions do or do not conform to the golden ratio, what does that tell us? Only that the overall dimensions

*should*be pleasing, if we even bother to determine whether the overall dimensions are in a golden rectangle. For artists, the problem with the golden rectangle is that the reality of what the artist needs to accomplish often does not conform to the golden ratio in terms of shape and size of the art. If the picture space is square, almost square, very tall, very wide, or just not in conformance with the golden rectangle, the question becomes, what should the artist do to make the composition designed within the given space as dynamically interesting and pleasing as possible?

The bottom line is that whether or not the outside dimensions of an artwork conform to the golden rectangle, the contents, meaning the forms and shapes, may still be arranged poorly. The golden rectangle does not help us to understand the arrangement of the art within the two dimensional space – unless, as in the rare case, the artist painted a compositional spiral like Velasquez’ Las Minenas.

So I eventually discarded the idea that even great artists routinely used the golden ratio for their work. The evidence does not support that conclusion. I also discarded the idea that artists would construct sections of a painting to conform to the golden rectangle, even if the work did not follow the golden ratio overall. I discarded it because artists are constantly and consistently concerned about the unity of their work, because great painting has an immediate emotional impact as a single whole, not as a sum of parts. Basically, a method construction that teaches the artist to address parts of a painting while saying nothing coherent about the entire painting would be pointless.

So it seemed to me that I had reached a dead end. There seemed to be no theories on visual harmony which presented specifics on how humans process the information within a two dimensional space of a picture as a unified whole. Thus I found no principles of composition of which I could take advantage, either as an anthropologist or artist. Finally I had nothing left but my two eyes and a blank piece of paper, and that’s when I had a breakthough and invented a new type of visual grid for composing and judging two-dimensional art.Because most of us have two eyes and we want to take in as much of the image as we can in a single glance, I reasoned that there could be a natural visual flow to looking at a painting that is informed by these facts. I marked the edges of my paper into thirds both along the length and the width so that each side had two marks. If I connected the marks horizontally and vertically, I would have had a tic tac toe grid. However, since my goal was to mimic how the eye might move around the picture plane, I knew that a static, horizonal-by-vertical grid would impede eye motion rather than promote it, so I drew the grid on the diagonal.

The Diagonal Grid 13 in steps |

**DG13**)

1. Construct a rectangle (or square) of any size.

2. Mark each edge into thirds.

3. Draw 4 short lines (adjacent marks, left box, above)

4. Draw 4 long lines (far marks, center and right-hand boxes )

The resulting grid has exactly 13 shapes: 8 triangles, 5 quadrilaterals (four-sided figures), never more, never less. Four of the triangles are right triangles, and 4 are isosceles. The mathematical relationship of each shape to the whole is constant with the smallest triangles being 1/36th of the whole. If we were to draw diagonals from the corners of the rectangle, we would wind up with 12 triangles and 12 quadrilaterals, each quadrilateral being twice the size of each triangle. It would be a nice pattern, but bascially static: we would lose the visual dynamics of the grid when it has the 13 areas, four different shapes of various sizes, including the large center shape which is one-third of the entire area.

If you have a computer drawing program, you can draw a square as a multiple of 3 units. Then you can easily place the lines and group them. After they are grouped, you can change the size of your box and the lines will automatically adjust. My theory is that this grid mirrors is the way the viewer's eyes efficiently scan the image and that art which conforms to this grid is more visually satisfying to the viewer.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein |

*The Ambassadors*by Holbein. Here is the painting to the left. If you have a drawing program you can draw a grid and place it over the painting and do your own analysis all electronically. Or you can print out the image and draw the grid by hand.

In the next post, I will show how the grid helped me to understand both the visual dynamics of this composition, the relationship of the men to each other and to their instruments, and the strange, stretched skull in the lower center.

I will also show more examples of work which seems to "obey" the grid and work which does not.

The key concept to remenber is that the rectangle or square is always divided by thirds along each side so that the resulting grid has 13 shapes.

When dealing with constructing a composition, I will show how the diagonal grid 13 (

**DG13**) helps the artist actually create the unity of composition to which all the design books would have artists aspire. DG13 will not automatically make an artist a better artist -- it's a tool, like any other. I don't claim to have all the answers, just an interesting way of dealing with the question. I'm going to assume that the grid can be used or misused. My purpose is to introduce it, turn it loose, and see what people make of it.1. Graves, Maitland.

*The Art of Color and Design*. New York. McGraw, Hill & Company. 1941. p. 242.
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