Golden Ratio in Art Composition and Design

“Without mathematics there is no art,”  said Luca Pacioli, a contemporary of Da Vinci.

Just as the Golden Section is found in the design and beauty of nature, it can also be used to achieve beauty and balance in the design of art.  This is only a tool though, and not a rule, for composition, but still a good Art 101 lesson on laying out a painting on a canvas.

The Golden Section was used extensively by Leonardo Da Vinci.  Note how all the key dimensions of the room, the table and ornamental shields in Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” were based on the Golden Ratio, which was known in the Renaissance period as The Divine Proportion. The lines showing Da Vinci’s intricate use of the Divine proportion were creating using PhiMatrix golden ratio design and analysis software:

Da Vinci Last Supper showing golden ratio or phi proportions

Note on Da Vinci’s “The Annuciation” that the brick wall of the courtyard is at exact golden ratio proportions in relation to the top and bottom of the painting:

da-vinci-the-annunciation-divine-proportion

Even the fine details of the emblems on the table appear to have been positioned based on golden proportions of the width of the table:

da-vinci-the-annunciation-table

Other golden proportions can be found in “The Annunciation” but these illustrate the point and give evidence of Da Vinci’s intent. See other examples of Da Vinci’s use of the Divine proportion here.


In Michelangelo’s painting of “The Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, look at the section of the painting bounded by God and Adam.   The finger of God touches the finger of Adam precisely at the golden ratio point of the width and height of the area that contains them both.  Alternatively, you can use the horizontal borders of the width of the painting and get the same result.  Click on the photo to see a larger version of the image.

Golden ratio composition in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam


Some say that Bottocelli composed “The Birth of Venus” such that her navel is at the golden ratio of her height, as well as the height of the painting itself. Some argue this isn’t the case. Close examination shows that you can take the golden ratio point using several different logical variations, and they all come to her navel, as well as the bottom tip of her right elbow:

  • Red line – From the very top of her hair to the bottom of her lower foot.
  • Green line – From her hairline at the top of her forehead to the bottom of her upper foot.
  • Blue line – Her height, as measured from the middle of the feet to the top of her head at the back of the part in her hair.

Perhaps a coincidence in composition, but then again perhaps not.  See a more extensive analysis yet ofgolden ratios in The Birth of Venus. The best evidence is that the canvas itself is a golden rectangle.

Bottocelli's Birth of Venus and golden ratio of navel


The French impressionist painter Georges Pierre Seurat is said to have “attacked every canvas by the golden section.” In the examples, below the horizons falls exactly at the golden section of the height of the paintings, as are other key compositional elements of the paintings.  A more detailed analysis and commentary is provided the Georges Seurat and the Golden Ratio in Art Composition page.

Seurat Bathers at Asnières

Georges Seurat-Bridge of Courbevoie

Below, Edward Burne Jones, who created “The Golden Stairs” (Click for enlarged view), also meticulously planned the smallest of details using the golden section.  Golden sections appear in the stairs and the ring of the trumpet carried by the fourth woman from the top.  The lengths of the gowns from the sash below the breast to the bottom hem hits the phi point at their knees.  The width of the interior door at the back of the top of the stairs is a golden section of the width of the top of the opening of the skylight.  How many more can you find?


In “The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” Salvador Dali framed his painting in a golden rectangle.  Following Da Vinci’s lead, Dali positioned the table exactly at the golden section of the height of his painting.  He positioned the two disciples at Christ‘s side at the golden sections of the width of the composition.  In addition, the windows in the background are formed by a large dodecahedron.  Dodecahedrons consist of 12 pentagons, which exhibit phi relationships in their proportions (see Geometry for details).

The Last Sacrament by Salvador Dali uses phi, the golden proportion, in its composition as did Leonardo Da Vinci in The Last Supper

Note:  Insights on the use of the Golden Section by Seurat and Dali were provided by Jill Britton.


Art 102 – Painting faces like Da Vinci instead of Picasso … or “Why so long in the face?”

Many art teachers and books will tell you that a face can be drawn by dividing the face in halves and thirds, as follows:

  1. Draw a horizontal line halfway between the eye line and the bottom of the chin. This is the nose line.

  2. Draw a horizontal line one-third of the distance below the nose line and the bottom of the oval. This is the mouth line.

That’s a nice approximation, but if you want your faces to have both reality and beauty, use phi.  More information on the pervasive appearance of phi in the human face is presented on the Face page, but look at the subtle difference this creates in the length of the nose and overall facial proportions:

Reality By the books

The mathematical differences in the two approaches are small, but enough to make a difference:

Feature

Relative
position
when
based
on phi
Relative
position
“by the
books”
Eyes 0.000 0.000
Nose tip 0.382
(1-0.618 )
Nose bottom 0.500
Mouth 0.618 0.667
Chin 1.000 1.000
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