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A discussion by Steven Sheehan in the American Artist Magazine, September 2007, included this definition of the Golden Mean or Golden Section:  “Also known as the Golden Mean, the Golden Section is a canon of proportion used in painting, sculpture, and architecture thought to have special meaning because of its correspondence to the principles of the universe.”  This proportion is thought to be most pleasing to the human eye, and can be used in designing visual art compositions.

In the 1930’s, Pratt Institute in New York interviewed several hundred of its art students as to which vertical frame they liked the best and the least.  The ratio of 1:2 was the least liked, while the 1:618 ratio  was the preferred frame.  If this ratio was to be used in a compositional format, the shape of your paper or canvas should be 10 x 16″ rather than 11 x 14″ or 12 x 16″ (standard sizes).  To figure out a larger format using the golden mean start with a square.  Using a compass, place the center pin at the midpoint of the bottom edge (B).  Swing an arc out from an upper corner and extend the bottom edge of the square out to meet the arc (segment C).  Complete the rectangle with B=C as the base.  Now A (height) is in the same proportion of B+C as B+C is of A+B+C (the Golden Mean).

We all know how to find the “sweet spot” in a composition for the center of interest: divide the format into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and where any of the sections cross is a good place to put your center of interest.  This is the easy way, but not quite in the same proportions as the Golden Mean.  The Pastel Journal of December 2005 features an artist who uses the Golden Section for her compositions: Sydney McGinley.  Not only does she use the ratio as her format and for placing shapes within the composition, but to choose the right proportion of hues.

Here is an illustration of how to devise your own format in the Golden Section using the method outlined above:

Golden Section






Have you ever heard of “The Golden Mean” or the “Golden Section?”   It is a method of design that has been used throughout the ages as the most natural and satisfying proportion known to man.  Occurring naturally in sea shells,  flowers, tree branching, certain vegetables , and even in the human body— it is thought to correspond with the principles of the universe.   Since the first century BC, it has been used in architecture, sculpture, painting, music, geometry, film-making,  furniture-making, and writing.   Modern architecture still uses the golden section, such as the United Nations building in New York. It has become a standard proportion for width in relation to height as used in facades of buildings, windows, second and third stories, and in paintings.

Vitruvius, an architect and engineer in the 1st century BC, was the first to write about the Golden Mean as the perfect proportion for buildings, rooms, and columns.  The Greeks and Romans used it to build the Parthenon, the Pantheon, and the buildings on the Acropolis.  Vitruvius’ theory became the standard for architecture, expressed in the ratio of the number 1 to the irrational 1.618034… or Phi.  In the Renaissance, Luca Pacioli of Venice published Divina Proportione, and explained the golden section thusly:


The line AB is divided  so that the length of the shorter portion is in the same ratio to the larger as the larger is to the whole.  In other words, the Golden Mean is the division of a given unit of length into two parts such that the ratio of the shorter to the longer equals the ratio of the longer part to the whole.

Phi is named for the Greek sculptor Phidias, who carved the entablature above the columns of the Parthenon.  Golden sections are formed by the distance between the columns in the ratio of 1:1.618 or Phi.  Here is a photo of the east facade of the Parthenon.



It will take several blogs to do any kind of justice to this topic, so watch for continuing articles.  Email me questions and comments, if you are interested.


Sometimes we find ourselves at a hiatus.  We’ve run out of ideas and have not been creating for a spell.  This is the time to explore fresh experiences in art– use new and different materials, use new and different subject matter, and look at our subjects from different angles. What subjects have you never tried before?  Interior scenes, fish, old people, old family photos, gnarled hands,  rock patterns, fabrics, toys, masks, crowds, death and dying, roots, nightmares, trees that look like people, mothers and children, Bible stories. The list could be endless.  Pick one thing and draw different versions in your sketchbook every day until you find something that excites you. 

What different angles and formats have you not tried before?  Looking down, looking up, upside down or from the top– something from the back, a vignette, a silhouette, a panoramic view, or a detailed closeup.

What fresh materials could you try?  Encaustic painting seems to be popular right now.  I’m interested in trying silverpoint drawing.  I’ve spent a lot of time with colored pencil and pen and ink lately.  At one time, I made several collages.  Maybe I’d like to do some printmaking one of these days, and ceramics has always interested me!  “So much to do and so little time!”

One other thing you could try is to place new subjects in unrelated settings. Take four subjects and four settings, and cross-match them.  For instance, apples and oranges on a theater stage, peppers on a beach, animals at a card game, books scattered all over the lawn! So try some of these ideas when you have “artist’s block.”  You’ll get all creative and excited about doing art again.



To continue the discussion of design principles, we turn to RHYTHM.  We can understand the use of rhythm in dance and music,but it is also important in the visual arts.  And it is common to human nature.  All we have to do is look around us to discover the RHYTHM in nature. The cycles of the seasons — the growth, production, death, and rebirth of the land is familiar to each of us.  Even the simplest one-celled organism has a rhythmic pattern that relates it to the complex world outside. Man’s own internal system demonstrates the rhythm of life. Music and the dance began with the simple rhythms of primitive man, as he beat patterns on animal skin drums and stamped out the rhythm with his feet.

These five basic principles of design (UNITY,  VARIETY, DOMINANCE,  BALANCE, AND RHYTHM) work together to form aesthetic wholes in any form of art: dance, drama, literature, music, or the visual arts. The major difference between art forms is the matter of timing. The musician and the writer can manipulate an audience over a period of minutes or hours, attracting our attention, building up suspense to a climax, and unfolding the denouement to our enthralled eyes or ears. The visual artist, however, places his entire composition before the eyes of the viewer all at one, and it is the knowledge and experience of the viewer that determines how much he gleans from it.  no one would leave a play in progress, but many walk by a painting with just a cursory glance. A work of visual art deserves the time and study necessary to discover the artist’s design – his plan of arrangement to achieve his total effect.

More on design principles later.


In any field of art, the first thing for the artist is his idea, or subject matter. After this comes the composition of his ideas to best achieve the effect wanted.  To do his planning, the artist must be aware of certain principles or rules to be followed. No matter if the field is visual art, dance, music, literature, or drama; we still see the same principles at work.  These are not considered to be rules arbitrarily made up by a teacher – they are basic to the human condition. An understanding of these principles is inherent in good art, whether you are an observer or a doer.

For example, it is a psychological truth in human nature that all men feel a “rage for order” – the need to control his situation and bring unity to his existence. We all strive for order – we organize into families, into clubs, companies, societies, and nations so that we can be stronger.  “United we stand, divided we fall.”  This is called UNITY.

However, UNITY can become boring at times.  We need some VARIETY to avoid monotony.  This often leads to CONFLICT.  Biological psychological, and emotional needs trigger competition between individuals, and between parts of an individual.  Life is full of conflict, and it must be resolved, or it leads to the breakdown of the individual or the society. “A man cannot serve two masters.” But CONFLICT can be constructive — it leads to growth and maturity. Every story or play must have a conflict that leads to a solution; otherwise we lose interest in it.

DOMINANCE resolves the CONFLICT.  One of the opposing forces becomes stronger than the other and takes over the situation; or a decision is made that leads to a solution. DOMINANCE, or EMPHASIS, restores UNITY until the cycle is again broken.  In a play or story, the solution is often called the denouement.

Although these are the most important principles of design, there are two others that are also basic to nature:  BALANCE and RHYTHM.  BALANCE, or stability, is indispensable to human life. For every breath we inhale, we must exhale as well. Our days of work must be balanced by nights of rest. Disease is an upset of balance, either by germs or the action of our environment. Proper medication or living style will restore the balance. In nature the rough bark of a tree is balanced by the smoothness of its leaves, and sometimes the smallest flowers have the strongest fragrance, while bright, showy flowers have no noticeable scent. This too is BALANCE.




Make a format about 7 x 9″ in your sketchbook.  Start drawing a face you’ve seen in a newspaper or magazine article somewhere in the center of your sketchbook page.  Then start to add faces on top of faces — all sizes, shapes, genders, ages, ethnic groups, and poses superimposing and overlapping each other.  These should be purely imaginative — don’t worry if they don’t look accurate–that’s not the point.  Keep going until you’ve used up most of the paper. Fill in negative shapes with dark values.  Use either pen and ink, charcoal, or pencil.

Simple Suggestions

Stafford Remembering Autumn

Design a frame within a frame – make a 3-5 inch margin completely around your rectangular format.  Extend your composition all the way to the edge, but reverse or modify the colors withing the margin.


Try a different format – a square, a circle, an elongated vertical or horizontal. or even a triangular format.   I’ve seen stretched canvases in different shapes if you work with oil or acrylic.


Paint a panoramic view — looking down from a mountain.  Arkansas has a lot of these — some may be painted from memory or from putting several scenes together as the one above — called Looking Southward.



Make a political statement – choose a word that affects you passionately and make a collage using newspaper and magazine clippings. Superimpose a symbol of your word on top and glaze over the entire collage using a related color.

Do the same landscape at different times of day and/or in different seasons. You can even try using different media to see which works best.

Use Adobe Photoshop to change colors on an existing photo.  Try for a mood with the colors that result.  When satisfied, print off the photo and paint an abstracted picture using the changed colors. Remember to match values.


Pie Apples

Put together an arrangement of still life items that relate to each other, such as the ingredients for an apple pie, or a few books with reading glasses and a lamp.

Make a list of things you fear (spiders, ghosts, snakes) and think of the strongest images to convey this fear.  Manipulate representational images to make them symbolic.

Incorporate designs from a different culture – American Indian, Islamic, Japanese as a border for an abstracted painting using  typical colors from the selected culture.