If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Choosing Canvas Shapes 2 - The Golden Ratio

Now that you know the basics, here's another question. Which rectangles look best? Is it a matter of opinion or fact? Well... Some people claim that the best rectangle is the Golden Rectangle, which is made from a square:

The ratio of a Golden Rectangle's sides is φ (phi = 1.6180339887...), an irrational number, similar to π (pi = 3.14159...). φ  is often called the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio. By repeating this process, you can create a lovely spiral:

The golden ratio has been used to create ideal canvas proportions, and to choose where to place elements in a composition. For this lesson, our concern is canvas shape. Some artists and historians claim that this "divine proportion" has been used by the greatest artists in history, from ancient Egypt and Greece to Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Turner, and Manet.

Note, the bottom line doesn't touch the ground or the top of the platform,
so the rectangle doesn't really fit.

They say you can also find examples in nature, especially seashells.

Note, the black line doesn't really follow the line of the shell. It's a different proportion.

On the internet, you can find many examples of this spiral superimposed on artworks, often in complicated, confusing ways.

It's described as a secret to making great art, like a magic bullet, that all the masters knew and used––something to excite beginning artists.
Here's the problem––it's debatable, and many professional artists, for example James Gurney, call it a myth. It's easy to superimpose these diagrams in any picture, but it doesn't prove the artists/architects actually used them in their planning, nor does it prove that it makes the art better.

Putting these spirals over artwork is easy, partly because of pareidolia - a psychological phenomenon where people perceive things that aren't really there. No, not like schizophrenia––this isn't about hearing voices. This is more like seeing shapes in clouds, or playing a song backwards, and hearing words. Our brain wants to understand what it sees, so it will sometimes see a pattern that isn't there, or was unintentional.
The golden ratio is only part of the debate in the importance of geometry in canvas shape, because supporters say there is more than one divine proportion. Artist and teacher Myron Barnstone describes a series of "root" rectangles, which are all related to a square, even though none represents the golden ratio:

With so many choices, it's easy to find a rectangle and a diagram that will fit any artwork, even if that artist never thought of it. So, how many artists have actually used any of this? And, how important is it? Is it necessary? Is it useful? Good questions. First, let's see what James Gurney has to say:

"If the golden rectangle (1.618:1) really was the ideal shape, why didn't it appear everywhere in our carefully designed environment? Why don't we find it in the proportions of movie screens (1.37:1, 1.85:1, 2.35:1), photographs (1.50:1) television monitors, (1.33:1, 1.78:1) computer screens (1.33:1, 1.60:1, 1.78:1), credit cards (1.5858:1), not to mention iPhones, tablets, and office paper? Those rectangles, each so commonplace in our daily lives, vary greatly, and none of them quite matches the supposed ideal.
Perhaps there's a deeper aesthetic truth to be gleaned from all of this. A masterpiece, it turns out, does not issue from fixed mathematical rules. It comes from a happy mixture of all the elements of composition cohering with messy particularity. For one painting, a 3x4 rectangle might be the ideal choice; for another, a square might yield divine results. The picture's central idea must drive the decision. Just as there is no optimum running length for a film, no optimum key for a symphony, and no optimum structure for a poem, there's no optimum shape for a painting."

Now, let's bring the question to Stapleton Kearns, a practicing fine artist:

"I suggest that you paint only about six different sizes and stick to stock sizes when you paint. The advantage of stock or common sizes is that you don't necessarily have to have all of your frames custom made, but can instead buy them off the rack. Here are some of the most common stock sizes for frames.

Here are the smaller sizes;      The most common middle sizes are;     The larger sizes are;
5 x 7                                            16 x 20                                                     24 x 30
8 x 10                                          18 x 24                                                     24 x 36
9 x 12                                          20 x 24                                                     30 x 40
11 x 14 
12 x 16

     If you choose two sizes from each of these categories, one elongated and one more square, you will have six sizes. You should be able to find premade frames for those sizes from almost any supplier. If you want to have custom frames made, by which I mean closed corner 22k. gold frames, you will be happy to be able to put the picture into a ready made frame. That's a good thing for when you send it to a show or gallery where you know your paintings will be stacked by tongue swallowing interns . . . You will save a lot of headaches by limiting yourself to six sizes. Having interchangeable framing is real handy . . . I make between 40 and 70 paintings a year, I throw about a third as many more away unfinished because they have some sort of an irredeemable flaw. So, if I paint too many sizes, it really gets complicated and expensive having many dedicated frames that only fit one painting."

Notice, that Mr. Kearns didn't mention the golden ratio once. All his advice is practical and economical, and none of the standard sizes above represents the golden ratio, although a 5" x 7" canvas is a root 2 rectangle. None of the others is root anything. So, there's the difference between the theory of an art school and the reality of a working, professional artist.

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