Research Point: The Golden Mean


Research Point: The Golden Mean

Research the Golden Mean (also known as the Golden Ratio or Golden Section) and its application to artistic composition. Don’t get bogged down in the maths of this. Essentially the Golden Mean is a proportion in which a straight line or rectangle is divided into two unequal parts in such a way that the ratio of the smaller to the greater part is the same as the ratio of the greater part to the whole.

Creating the Golden Ratio video

(Apologies for the music and advert – that’s YouTube for you!)

Examples of the Golden Mean may be found regularly in nature:

golden mean - Google Search:

Inside a shell showing how the Golden Mean may be seen in nature


Find out also about the rule of thirds in landscape. Renaissance artists realised that placing the main subject in the centre of a composition often led to unsatisfactory results. It’s possible to get a more balanced composition by splitting the canvas into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and placing the main subject on one of these lines or at the intersection point of any two lines…

Image result for the rule of thirds in landscape paintings:

An illustration showing the rule of thirds in a landscape composition


... Another way of thinking about this is to plan your landscape in terms of foreground, middle ground and background.





Look on the internet and find some examples of landscape paintings that exemplify these compositional principles.

Landscape by Dorrit Black an example of the Golden Mean:

Landscape by Dorrit Black an example of the Golden Mean













golden mean in landscape paintings - Google Search:

Landscape by Constable illustrating use of the Golden Mean








golden mean in landscape paintings - Google Search:

The Great Wave off Kanagawa Golden mean in landscape paintings

Emil_Nolde_marsh with farm Rule of thirds:

Marsh with Farm by Emil Nolde Rule of Thirds














Landscape by Thomas Cole Rule of Thirds









Research Point


Research Point

Find out more about the golden section.  Find at least six examples by a range of artists and look at how they have used the golden section in the composition of their pictures.  Work out what is good about certain compositional arrangements and what works less well.  Make notes on your thoughts.

The golden section has several aliases such as the golden ratio, golden mean and divine proportion. It’s a proven mathematical ratio that is seen in nature and repeated in architecture and design.  The ratio being 1:1.618…, where 1.618 is infinite and denoted by the Greek lower case letter phi. I must be a bit slow as it took a while for me to get this. If an area is bisected at the point of this ratio, this produces a square and a rectangle, the resulting rectangle can then be bisected at this ratio again and so on.  An area can be repeatedly sectioned like this and elements of a composition may be placed in this golden section, which has been said to be aesthetically pleasing to the human eye, it has been proven that we are hard-wired to recognise such patterns.  It is loosely equivalent to the rule of thirds, which I understood much more easily, where elements are placed asymmetrically to avoid centring which is deemed to be less pleasing.  However, the golden ratio is more complex and therefore more varied, for example it can even be applied to creating spiral in nature as in a snail’s shell etc.

Leonardo da Vinci - The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci – The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci, not unsurprisingly with his scientific approaches, was known to make use of this compositional aid.  With the Last Supper, he has on the surface, placed his main focus directly in the in middle. The image may be divided in several ways using the ratio, something is happening in each section – length and width ways. Although, again to me, the rule of thirds is more obvious.

Seurat - A Sunday on la Grande Jatte

Seurat – A Sunday on la Grande Jatte


In this example, it is more obvious to me that Seurat has used the Golden Section.  The figures on the right are placed in the rectangular segment widthways and the reclining figures on the left are in the rectangular segment top to bottom.  A slight spiralling effect can be seen where the ratio split is repeatedly around the canvas.



Ingres - The Small Bather

Ingres – The Small Bather



Initially, I looked at Ingres – The Small Bather and thought yes I see the ratio at work here, yet again, when I try to put it into words, what I really see is the rule of thirds.  Why do I struggle with this? Maybe it’s putting a natural inclination into a scientific formula and it just doesn’t feel right.





Dali - Sleep

Dali – Sleep


Salvador Dali’s The Sleep, is a simpler composition and I can see that the main structure of the face is in the square and the “tail” end is in the repeat of the ratio split.




Corbusier - Red Violin

Corbusier – Red Violin


Botticelli - Slander

Botticelli – Slander









The more complex a composition, the more difficulty I have in explaining how the formula fits, yet I can see it working. I think the conclusion I must come to is, I see but can’t explain. The feel of a composition with a good sprinkling of the rule of thirds is more understandable to me. I have had another look at my final assignment work and, I think, the golden ratio formula may be applied – this made me chuckle as I certainly didn’t consciously work this through – I think I may have just proved the hard wiring theory to myself at least!