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]



Part4, project 2, exercise 1: Perspective – linear (or scientific) perspective

Updated on 20 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

1 November 2016. In Renaissance Filippo Brunelleschi’s (1377-1446, Italy) linear perspective experiment from 1420 and reference to Leon Baptista Alberti’s (1404-1472, Italy) first-time instructions (1435, probably rediscovering the idea after it had been lost after the Greeks and Romans) on using linear perspective in painting (Harris and Zucker, n.d.) ). Here is a very interesting interactive view on one-point perspective from the same site (Fulks, n.d.).

An ideal contruction making the most of the basic type of one-point perspective is Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519, Italy) “Last Supper” (da Vinci, 1490) (Fig. 1). By using the vanishing point not only as a way of constructing a believable three-dimensional space, but by creating a dialogue with the subject of the painting da Vinci draws the attention to the divine:

Figure 1. Leonardo da Vinci: “Last Supper”, 1490, mural (tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic), Milan. Source: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
And, moving somewhat closer to the present, here a selection of Andrew Wyeth’s work and his own use of linear perspective (Kantrowitz, 2014).

I have always had the impression that my intuitive use of linear perspective is not bad, but from time to time there are views, which are quite tricky. From Drawing 1 I remember one particular sketch I was trying to make in our shower room. There I probably understood for the first time how the mind works to distort what you see in order to make up the impression of space around you. I never even came close to finding a solution for drawing how that small room “wrapped” itself around my body. Reminds me of gravitational waves and gives me a headache.
Thoroughly warned I decided to try and pay particular attention to this fact when choosing my subject for this exercise, and by referring to the really helpful introduction to perspective (Tang, n.d.).

There is a relatively new university building not far from where we live. It offers a great variety of good views for drawing perspective with paint and I hoped that this would be safe ground. Since is has quite an impressive open hall and staircase, I went for that and with the suggestion in the study guide to use a stick and fluid paint to draw. This is the result on 42 x 56 cm acrylic paper (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Painting linear perspective with acrylic paint and a bamboo stick

Although this drawing is not without tonal variation, I tried to make line the primary indicator of perspective and I think that it did work well despite the very rough quality of the marks produced with my 1 cm diameter bamboo stick. At this stage I was not so sure whether the drawing needed more helping lines, but then left it as it was. I think that the horizontal and converging “vertical” criss-cross is sufficient to create a believable sense of space (Fig. 3):

Figure 3. Creating perspective using line

There are some points at the far back, to the left, where perspective is distorted somehow, because of the width of my stick, which would not allow continuous and/or narrow lines to be produced, but in combination with the rest of the hall there should be a harmonious whole.


da Vinci, L. (1490) Last Supper [mural, tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic]. Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Available at: [Accessed 1 November 2016]

Fulks, P. (n.d.) Linear Perspective Interactive [interactive animation] [online]. Khan Academy. Available at: [Accessed 1 November 2016]

Harris, B. and Zucker, S. (n.d.) How One-point Linear Perspective Works [online]. Khan Academy. Available at: [Accessed 1 November 2016]

Kantrowitz, J. (2014) Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In [blog] [online]. Art History News, [n.k.], 17 April. Available at: [Accessed 1 November 2016]

Tang, I. (n.d.) Linear and Aerial Perspective: The Techniques of Linear and Aerial Perspective [online]. Inge Tang, [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 March 2017]