Research point: Basic Principles of Composition

Updated on 22 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

19 November 2016. For me it always means to work against an inner resistance when required to look into breaking art down into formal mathematical principles. Of course I know about the value to be able to consciously apply rules of that kind, but I feel that it immediately stops dead my intuitive approach. In the context of the exercise “Painting a landscape outside” I therefore decided to go for a reversal of processes. I finished my painting and thereafter applied the compositional rules to it (for results see separate post) to see whether any of them appeared in it.

The Golden Mean or Divine Proportion is a ratio, a number equalling approximately 1.618 and given the mathematical symbol Greek phi Didot.svg (Phi). It pervades the measurable components of our universe and describes the overall relationship between numbers in the famous Fibonacci sequence o, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 ….. (Meisner, 2015). The latter is the compositional basis for an incredible number of naturally occurring complex structures. Such structures, from snail shells to human proportions, are felt as being harmonious and beautiful (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Helmut Haß: “Golden mean in a sunflower head”. Source: Helmut Haß [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported] via Wikimedia Commons
Both were arguably known and applied as early as in Ancient Egypt and Greece, but intensely researched, described and actively applied in art only during the Renaissance (Meisner, 2012). See a comprehensive collection of images showing examples from nature and art on Pinterest (n.d.) and an analysis of famous works in the history of art (Meisner, 2014a), including a video on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (Meisner, 2014b).
The Rule of Thirds, and the very similar phi-grid based on the Golden Mean (Christie, 2016), on the other hand, are rough guides to overall composition regarding the placement of the main objects in a painting. Renaissance artists had found that paintings with a central focal point provided a visual barrier against guiding the viewer through the composition and the results were often unpleasant to look at. In order to avoid the compositional “error” of placing the main object at the centre of the support, any format can be divided into nine equal rectangles and the most important elements are placed on, or near, the intersections. If the above rules are observed and used together with the equally important elements of foreground, middle ground and background, the result should be a composition offering both harmony and a story.

Personally I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with the above rules not only for the reason I mentioned in the first paragraph, but also for their treacherous simplicity (leading to compositional freezing) and for an effect becoming more obvious with the increasing complexity of a painting: there seem to be so many suitable points to apply the rules that it appears impossible not to find them fulfilled. This, of course, may only prove the truth of the theory. We are so much part of nature that in acts of creating and designing we probably tend to follow its rules by intuition, if (!) we are mentally (and maybe spiritually) connected with our works of art at the moment of making them. So, given a secure working knowledge of techniques and materials and a freely flowing, truthful conversation with my work of art, whatever rules are applicable I would like to see become manifest as a consequence of, and not a precondition to creating a work of art.


Christie, J. (2016) Rule of Thirds or Golden Ratio – which should you use? – Ep.25. Tea Break Tog. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Haß, H. (2004) Blütenstand einer Sonnenblume mit 34 und 55 Fibonacci-Spiralen [photo] [online]. Doris Haß, Koblenz. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Meisner, G. (2012) History of the Golden Ratio [online]. Gary Meisner, 13 May. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Meisner, G. (2014a) Golden Ratio in Art Composition and Design [online]. Gary Meisner, 4 May. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Meisner, G. (2014b) Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi and the Divine Proportion  [online]. PhiPoint Solutions, Brentwood. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Meisner, G. (2015) Golden Ratio Overview [online]. Gary Meisner, 12 July. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Pinterest (n.d.) 1:1.618/Golden Ratio [image collection] [online]. Pinterest. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]



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