At the very first art club meeting I attended — last year — one member gave a brief talk about composition and how we can use it to improve our drawings and paintings. As he began, I sat there with a rather smug smile on my face. After all, I had studied composition. I knew all about the rule of thirds and the little tic-tac-toe concept for properly locating a focal point in art.
You’ve seen it before. You’ve heard all about, and maybe you’ve even applied it to your own art. According to Lori McNee from Art and Fine Art Tips, the rule of thirds is:
“…probably one of the most basic rules that has been used in painting for ages. It is a compositional rule of thumb that is commonly used in the visual arts today including painting, photography and design.”
My smug smile quickly disappeared though as the speaker went on to discount this method, denouncing it as a modern convenience that has diminished the quality of art being created today.
Artists of the past, he explained, used a much more valuable method of composition. It’s known as dynamic symmetry, and as he pulled out various grids with lines going this way and that, I knew at once that I was in way over my head.
Shown here is one such grid. It is only one of many. The Dynamic Symmetry website offers a free download with 142 different grids.
Soon our excited speaker was throwing out terms like Fibonacci’s Sequence, the golden section, and the harmonics of nature. I listened. I was lost. I only vaguely understood what he was talking about, and looking at illustrations didn’t seem to help much.
After that first meeting, I did my best to forget about dynamic symmetry, and when this avid promoter of the concept presented a full-day workshop on the subject, I happened to have something else to do that day.
I was content to work with my little rule of thirds grid, even knowing that — in the opinion of at least one artist — it was the bane of art in our modern era. So be it.
Oh, dear! All too soon I discovered that Barnstone was a proponent of dynamic symmetry, and those two words immediately struck terror into my artistic heart.
But didn’t I say I wanted to expand my knowledge of art? Hadn’t I committed myself to learning — and trying — new things? Wasn’t I also interested in and intrigued by art history?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Bravely I downloaded an introduction to the principles of dynamic symmetry and began to read. You’ll find this introduction here: Dynamic Symmetry – The Art of Composition.
My education was only beginning, however. As I made my way through this introduction, I came across the name of Michael Jacobs. I’d definitely heard that name before — it was one of several mentioned at that first art club meeting I’d attended.
Believing that it’s always good to start as close to the source as possible, I searched out and found The Art of Composition – A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry by Jacobs. Then, upon reading this text — from 1926 — I was directed back in time to 1912 and the publication of Nature’s Harmonic Unity by Samuel Colman. Another search, another find. Yet my quest was not complete. Colman led me to Denman Ross, and his 1907 theory of Pure Design.
I was intrigued by these words from the Preface:
“Art is generally regarded as the expression of feelings and emotions which have no explanation except perhaps in such a word as inspiration, which is expletive rather
than explanatory. Art is regarded as the one activity of man which has no scientific basis, and the appreciation of Art is said to be a matter of taste in which no two persons can be expected to agree.” – Denman W. Ross – A Theory of Pure Design
So here I am, wrapped up in early 20th-century prose, filling my head with theories of design, thoughts about harmony in nature, and concepts involving mathematical sequences and ratios. Am I really ready for this?
Time for me to face my fears, I suppose, and learn what I can about the principles of dynamic symmetry.
Actually, it’s not as awful as it first seemed, and I’m enjoying the study — so far. I’m also compiling a list of other references, and I’m excited to see how far my studies can take me.
There’s an old metaphysical saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears, so I’d like to think that picking up Classical Drawing Atelier was part of some divine artistic plan for me. That feeling was reinforced yesterday afternoon when the October issue of Artist magazine arrived. Yes, there within its pages is a design feature, “Striking Gold”, by Daniel Maidman, all about using the golden ratio in composition.
Could it be that I am ready now to move beyond simple games of tic-tac-toe and on to greater things. Maybe so. But, you know, I never was any good at tic-tac-toe, and oh, my goodness, what have I gotten myself into now?