Saturday, January 02, 2010

measuring up...

"Making abstract work involves a lot of reflection. Even in work like this, in which paint must be put down with verve and speed, the artist has to spend a lot of time looking at the results and evaluating them. An area of paint has either come to rest in an optimal shape, density, transparency, hue, texture, and relationship to nearby areas, or it hasn't, and thus something needs to be done. But what? It depends. You decide by paying a lot of attention to your gut reactions about pleasing forms."
~Franklin Einspruch, Catalogue essay for
George Bethea's "Prajna: Color and Light" at Dorsch Gallery

The Golden Ratio and Beauty in Architecture

The Golden Ratio has appeared in ancient architecture. The examples are many, such as the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt which is considered one of the Seven World Wonders of the ancient world, and the Greek Parthenon that was constructed between 447 and 472BC. Not only did the ancient Egyptians and Greeks know about the magic of Golden Ratio, so did the Renaissance artists, who used the Golden Ratio in the design of Notre Dame in between the 12th and 14th centuries. Earlier I was speaking about how we can improve communication designs by looking in unexpected places. For example, by examining Wabi-Sabi concepts and sensibilities to influence our approach with designing visuals. Wabi-Sabi (demonstrated below by the Japanese Tea House) and Zen aesthetics are rooted in the natural world. The "design" of the natural world has a lot to teach us about symmetry, balance, beauty, and grace. Are these words you use to critique your presentation visuals- symmetry, balance, beauty, and grace?

We are drawn naturally to visuals that exhibit symmetry, balance, and beauty in proportion. Artists and designers have for centuries emulated a proportion called the "Golden Mean" or "Golden Ratio" found in nature into their works. The golden ratio is a proportion defined by the number Phi (1.618033988...). Kimberly Elam points out in her book, Geometry of Design, that "...use of the golden section rectangle, with a proportion of 1:1.618, is documented in the architecture of Stonehenge built in the 20th-16th centuries B.C". There is evidence as well that the ancient Greeks and Egyptians applied the principle, and of course, much has been made of Renaissance artists and architects who employed the golden ratio in much of their work. Kimberly also points out at least two studies in the last 150 years or so which concluded that, given a choice, people have a significant preference for man-made objects which have proportions closest to the 5:8 ratio golden section.

We see strong golden section preferences in the natural world, of course. The sunflower, for example, consists of 21 spirals moving clockwise and 34 spirals moving counterclockwise. This 21:34 ratio is 1:1.619, very close to the golden section. Maybe the reason we are so intrigued by the things in the natural environment such as flowers, shells, fish, etc. is because of the preference we have, at least subconsciously, for shapes that have golden mean proportions.

Below, using a Bayen painting from the 12th century Japan, golden section grids are applied over the image to see what would happen. The width of the image is multiplied (line A) by 0.618, which gives me line (B) and (C). Here we can see that (A) is 1.618 times (B) and (B) is 1.618 times (C). What is interesting about this painting is that the sight line of the fishing line (including that which we imagine under the water), pole, fisherman and boat roughly run along a line that is .618 times the length of the entire image. The image is powerful and we can feel the sabi of the fisherman and the vastness of the ocean. If the subject were placed exactly center would we still get an appreciation of the waves gently carrying the boat from left to right?

Attempting to design visuals according to the golden mean proportions is impractical in most cases perhaps for us. However, the "rule of thirds" which is derived from the golden mean, is a basic design technique that can add symmetry, beauty, and professionalism to your visuals. The rule of thirds, which is not a "rule" at all, is something you can use. Photographers, for example, use the rule of thirds when framing their shots and artists to construct composition. The objective is to stop the subject(s) and areas of interest (such as the horizon) from bisecting the image, by placing them near one of the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns and rows, ideally near the intersection of those lines.

The Golden Ratio has a great impact on art, influencing artists' perspectives of a pleasant art piece. Have you ever wondered why DaVinci's Mona Lisa is aesthetically pleasing and considered so beautiful? Da Vinci, a sculpture, painter, inventor and a mathematician, was the first one who first called Phi the Golden Ratio. And scientifically, her face actually appears in a golden rectangle, which also makes her face appear more beautiful to human eyes. Also another of his masterpieces, the Last Supper, contains Golden Ratios. The French Impressionist painter George Seurat is famous by his technique of drawing, Pointilism, and he is said to have "attacked every canvas by the golden section".

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