10 historical insights into visual composition

EVNVis Studio creative director and 3D artist Elena V Miller explores different compositional trends and histories through the centuries, looking at the work of Masters and how modern artists can utilize this knowledge…

Evnvis Studio


Within this article, we’ll take on a quest to understand the secrets of the great masters’ craft in arranging elements on their canvases. We’ll go through a few of the recorded efforts of theorizing visual composition along the centuries of art history, masterfully written and exemplified in the book "The Painter's Secret Geometry, A Study of Composition in Art" by Charles Bouleau. Please bear in mind that this is not a book review (although I highly recommend it).

In the arts nothing that is done well is done by chance, and I know no work of art that has succeeded except through the foresight and science of the artist. They all constantly use rules, lines, measures, numbers.

- Plutarch

With the help of this book (and others), I will explain ten important concepts of building the framework of an image, either made with traditional tools or computer-generated using 2D or 3D software – the principles are the same. The methods of applying these techniques will be detailed in a full tuition course in the near future (more information on my website).

Every work of art has an internal structure. This framework, like that of the human body or that of a building, is sometimes hidden but it cannot be absent as it makes the difference between amateurism and mastery.

What is composition after all? It is a subject of great complexity: a problem of the organization of creative ideas that are not confined only to the tools we use but requires our creative thinking.

Scale and proportion

Men always had the tendency to refer everything to themselves, the human mind seeking order, synthesis, and measurement. In monumental art, the problem of proportions was always debated, so the artist placed himself in the position of the viewer (user) trying to find solutions for the perspective deformations and optical illusions that happen from the eye-level point of view.

Two methods can be distinguished:

  • one is putting large and small figures in the same composition
  • the other is to alter the proportions of the human body, frequently used in gothic cathedrals in which sculpture and the bas-reliefs were aiming to match the shape of architectural elements resulting in either giant heads or disproportionate bodies

Pointing out the obvious, a bigger head gives an appearance of a small person from a distance, while a smaller head gives the impression of a tall person. Given the Greek canon of 7-8 head heights in the report to the total height of the body, gothic statues have a ratio of 4-5 head heights in the report to the total height.

The optical deformations arise when the user (or spectator) is walking through to admire (or just observe) monumental art – sculpture, murals, statues, and friezes – but can also be considered in virtual reality environments and film.

An example of statues on Notre Dame cathedral in Paris seen from about eye level. The disproportion between the head and the body (the classical canon is 7 head heights but here you can see a variation of 5, then changing the viewpoint towards the ground level the appearance is different, close to normal
Image: Photo I took when I visited Paris – composited in
Photoshop to show the head/body ratio

Secret geometry in the Middle Ages

Gothic art was characterized by purely geometrical compositions using the compasses. Geometry permeated decorative art deriving from arabesques, intersecting arcs, and polygons. Artists of the Middle Ages were using complex geometrical designs derived from the circle in which were inscribed pentagons, octagons, and even dodecagons.

From the beginning of the 15th century, the diagonals of the square which created two triangles became a convention – in art all is convention or symbol – but it led to the representation of a vast scene in a small picture and were among the first attempts to create perspective. Carolingian, Ottoman, and English miniature painting supplies us with many examples of this simple division of the rectangle.

An example of English miniatures from a "Book of Hours" - "The Bute Hours" around 1500. The text and illustrations follow the framework of the diagonals of the rectangle and the rabatment of the shorter sides
//Image credit (as supplied by PR):  Manuscript picture from Sotheby auction, overlaying my own diagrams to show the composition structure. ->

The Golden Ratio

The Golden or Divine Proportion (or ratio) was over the centuries an obsession across all artistic circles. The first published work on the subject reflecting long centuries of oral tradition through the Middle Ages – a treatise called “Divina proportione” written by Fra Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan friar, dating from 1498 and published in Venice in 1509.

In his manuscripts, Paciolli praises the wondrous effects of the divine proportion explaining its “godlike properties” in five points, the last one describing the construction of regular solids where we finally get to the involvement of the famous Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo drew the illustrations for his manuscript which proves he knew its secrets better than anyone else, but the evidence shows that it wasn't of much interest for his innovative mind. The golden number was not found in his own manuscripts, mathematical work, and geometric figures and he used it only on a few of his paintings. In his book, Pacioli finally made the divine proportion clear and was used from then as systematic knowledge. He showed the golden section in Euclid's construction of the pentagon (starting from the isosceles triangle), which is not as simple as the one given here in the figure below – known in the Middle Ages as Ptolemy's construction.

In conclusion, the Golden Proportion has its roots in the ancient knowledge of mathematics which had been transmitted through the writings of the theologians of the Middle Ages.

Let AB be the mean length; construct the square ABCD and join C to the middle of AB. Rotate this slanting line to the other side of B, at E. A, B and E are in the Golden Ratio. Most of the
artists used it as a progression in successive diagrams
Image: Personal demonstration

The frame

An image acquires its unity when it is separated from its surroundings by a frame. So the frame acts as a mould, giving its contents a certain form which can already be considered as a principle of composition.

One can trace the history of the frame since painting and sculpture started to be independent of the architecture, gaining their own individuality. If we jump to present times, we can't help but notice how technology takes over our visual experience – from computer screens, phones, cameras, to VR, AR, and cinema (including out of frame experiences such as 3D and IMAX) and recently even sensorial experiences. In this context, the subject of composition requires separate attention.

The most frequently used shape across all media is the rectangle. It is also the most common choice for canvas and easel painting because it offers the painter not only its diagonals but a series of regular sections that can be traced quite simply without the need of compasses or measures.

Very important to note: these simple divisions of the surface of the rectangle are not in themselves a composition. This network only serves as the scaffolding in construction. They help the artist envision ideas of how to place his elements and points of interest but are discarded afterwards.

The armature of the rectangle was the most frequently used composition scheme of all times due to its flexibility and allowing a huge variation of compositional choices. Another flexible and popular way of constructing a picture deriving from the rectangle was the ‘rabatment’ or rotation of the short sides upon the long.

Many artists regarded these methods as constraints and sketched freely, thinking about the framing only after the composition was completed. Sometimes the axes of the geometry can create a certain static enclosure, resulting in closed composition, and at other times they seem almost to break out of the frame, resulting in dynamic, open compositions.

Armature of the rectangle. These particular divisions of the diagonals were the most frequently used in masterpieces belonging to very different artists, styles or tendencies in art history. Note that the diagonals were almost never visible in the final result of the image only serving as an internal structure
Image: Personal demonstration

Perspective as geometry

Perspective is the discipline of constructing the illusion of 3D space on a 2D surface. The first record of teaching mathematical perspective was in Florence, where Brunelleschi transmitted his knowledge to Masaccio and to Donatello and by about 1435 they were all using it.

Contrasting with the perspective of the Northern artists, like the Van Eycks’, with many vanishing points that were more imaginative than correct, the Florentine school was based on Euclid's "Optics" and medieval mathematics, later published in Alberti's book "The perspective in painting.”

Although perspective is not the same discipline as composition, in Renaissance it often takes the place of geometrical composition. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the artists fascinated by perspective – he also theorized the term "aerial perspective" explaining:

"Perspective is divided into three parts, of which:

  • the first deals with only the line drawing of the bodies;
  • the second with the toning down of colors as they recede into the distance;
  • the third with the laws of distinctness of bodies at various distances."

This concept is the equivalent of the photographic lens effect of DOF (depth of field) that we now currently use in our 3D scenes thanks to our clever render engines.

Study for the “Nativity” by Leonardo da Vinci (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Detail of the construction – composition is established based on the perspective axes that converge to meet the
vanishing point at the horizon.
Image: Royalty free & personal demonstration


Alberti wrote three treatises on proportion and ornament: one containing theories on architecture, one in sculpture and another one about painting. The most innovative aspect of his book is that he applies the theory of musical composition in architecture for the division of floorplans and also in a painting’s framework.

He explains that the musical intervals agreeable to the ear can also serve as the basis for the plastic arts – the octave, fifth and fourth, correspond to the division of a string in 2, in 3 or in 4 (1/2, 2/3, 3/4). He gives the following divisions and shows how they can be applied:

  1. Diapente 2/3
  2. Diatessaron 3/4
  3. Diapason 1/2
  4. Double diapente 4/6/9
  5. Double diatessaron 9/12/16
  6. Diapason diapente 1/3 (3/6/9)
  7. Diapason diatessaron 3/8 (3/6/8)

Composition is the harmonious arrangement of the various surfaces in their right places. There must be no rough or sharp surfaces like old women's faces, but beautiful, smooth, calm surfaces. Never fear emptiness, nakedness or even poverty; fear rather an excess of abundance and agitation

- Alberti

Diagrams showing Alberti’s musical divisions which are used for guiding the elements of
composition in painting but also to draw architectural plans
Image: Personal demonstration

Dynamic compositions in space

Although the artists of Renaissance theorized the use of perspective by constructing the illusion of three-dimensional space, a sensation of unreal still persists in their paintings. The problem of depth and illusionism was to be elaborated further in the Baroque age when they used to achieve the illusion of 3D space in three ways:

  • the "multiple views" effect, introduced by Benvenuto Cellini, was trying to show more aspects of the model simultaneously: full-face and profile back and front;
  • constructing the sculptural posture of "contrapposto" in space of the painting, usually represented by figures on horses in dynamic S-shaped compositions observed in the works of Rubens and Delacroix;
  • a technique called "trompe l'oeil" (French - "cheating the eye") which was associating the background with the foreground in architectural details, resulting in a theatrical effect especially used in frescoes – imitation relief carvings, cameos and monograms.

Baroque aims for a total art uniting architecture, sculpture, and painting with the aid of monumental perspective, the result being perfect illusionism. It offers a dream world yet with an astonishingly concrete realism.

Fresco from Palazzo Labia, Venice. Illustration of the trompe l’oeil technique. Observe how painting uses architecture to create the illusion of another view in the same space.
Image: Personal demonstration using images from the web gallery of art blog

The sense of equilibrium

Since spatial representation became more realistic, forms become volumes acquiring weight which comes with a sensation of equilibrium or disequilibrium. The ratio of light and dark areas was not a matter of calculation but of instinct.

Vermeer, who truly mastered the painting of the third dimension, is the forerunner of the modern film techniques, using panels to reflect the light on his figures, which explains the luminosity of his shadows. He was establishing very strictly his geometrical space often using the musical ratio in his compositions.

“Girl reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Jan Vermeer van Delft. Looking at tonalities (in black and white) versus the colored version, we can notice the harmonious balance of light/dark quantities
Image: Royalty free image

Composition in modernism

The more we advance to modernism, rigorous composition schemes are starting to fade away or taking a large variety of ideas, being personalized from artist to artist. The rules get broken and never recreated, replaced by new inventions in the use of light, color, and representation – figurative as well as abstract. Listed below are the three techniques introducing a new chapter in art history – the one beyond representation or reproducing nature – a task to be taken by photography starting from the 19th Century.

The surprise effect

In fact, at its beginnings, photography had a great impact on painting and changed artists' perception of the composition. For example, Degas (an artist who reinvented composition) was influenced a lot by the freshness of photography – a spontaneous "slice of life." He often spent a long time photographing the scenes before painting them.

Cut compositions

Cut compositions were frequent with post-impressionists; the method being just cutting an entire scene and choosing only fragments that had a striking effect on the viewer, sacrificing a lot of the work.

Dispersed compositions

Dispersed compositions were obtained by scattering colored and luminous spots and patches which create a spatial effect. Pointillism' is one of the techniques this method led to, represented by Seurat, who also brought back the rigor of geometry in composition.

Contraries are those that form a right angle... calm is the horizontal; sadness the downward directions

- Seurat

Degas, photography (left) and sketch (right). The cutting technique he uses in the painting makes it almost indistinguishable from the photography which also has a very pictural quality.
Image: Royalty free

Figurative versus Abstract

In the 20th Century, painting literally exploded, fundamental changes arise in the perception of compositional space, light, and color. The representation of the 3rd dimension was not a preoccupation anymore as artists were in the search for the 4th: duration (time).

Composition still plays an important role in most of the modern art currents, an exception maybe being abstract expressionism (Jackson Pollock) where the pure gesture is replacing rational representation. The artist that stands at the starting point of this revolution is Cezanne. His idea of composition was based on the principle that all forms we see in nature can be reduced to the most basic shapes (cube, cylinder, cone, etc) marking the origins of Cubism.

The transition from cubism to abstractionism is made by trends as futurism, fauvism, expressionism and other innovative experiments in-between reflecting either a linear dynamic composition, with lines of force (the 'line-forces' of futurism) either guided by laws of balance (in Matisse's The Dance), or inspired from the past. A dominant figure of the abstract art was Vassili Kandinsky who entitled his works simply 'compositions' – reaching pure abstraction but also expressing an organic sensation.

Other expressionists were seeking a more peaceful or even primal feeling. Paul Klee compared composition to "a tight-rope walker who keeps his balance by moving his pole successively to right and to left.” He distinguished three kinds of balance: of sizes, of values, and of colors.

An artist whose perfect abstraction truly represents the feeling of 'repose' is the Dutchman Piet Mondrian. In 1920 he published "Natural Reality and Abstract Reality" where he expounded the austere but logical principles we see in his compositions.

Piet Mondrian, “Broadway Boogie-Woogie.” The horizontals and verticals in this
composition are all in the Golden Ratio.
Image: My demonstration overlaid on a royalty-free photo of the painting

Applying composition knowledge to our work

Reducing such a complex subject to only ten points and flipping through the pages of art history to extract these ideas, I can’t help but notice a common ground between different historical periods and different artists. The laws of harmony, rhythm, proportions, balance, spatial confinement, inclusion/exclusion, are part of a universal language that artists use to express emotions and move us deeply. To master it, one needs to go on a journey of self-discovery by means of research and experimentation.

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