Whether drawing or painting, one of the critical ways to improve your results is getting the layout of the painting right. Framing both the painting and the focal points within the painting is really important. People often ask me “how can I improve the Layout of my paintings?” and there is no one answer, but I will try and describe some ideas that should help you.
Canvas size and choosing the layout of your painting
There are some basic ideas that can help but one stands out as the most important in my view. You will often hear artists talk about the Golden Ratio or the Golden Section.
These are terms for both a number and an artistic ideal. It is common in the natural world and has an unusual effect on perception. It is all about the way our brains process any image that we see.
The Golden Ratio
People have been discussing the concept of the Golden Ratio for over 2300 years. It was first described by the Greek philosopher and mathematician Euclid. He studied the effect and it’s close relationship to his theories about the Fibonacci sequence. A string of numbers that are often found in the natural world.
The Golden Ratio describes a relationship between two numbers and can be represented by the Greek letter Phi. This is a unique number which we can approximate as 1.62, but the number is less important than the concept.
This number can be used to create the ideal proportions for your canvas and the frame size. It will also give you the ideal position for focal points within a painting.
I say “approximate” when desribing the number because Phi is one of those special numbers known as “irrational numbers”. You may remember the most common of these numbers we were taught about at school. It is the number we call Pi. They have several things in common. The most important is that if you write them down they continue forever after the decimal point without repeating. This means they can never actually be written down as a number completely accurately.
Luckily I am a mathematician and so I have an advantage when trying to understand the concept. In easy terms, it is the ratio of 1 to 1.62.
But what does that actually mean? I hear you ask.
Well, put simply it will help you choose the most pleasing size for any painting. It means that for every centimeter of the shorter side of your canvas, the longer side should be 1.62 centimeters.
When choosing or making a canvas or cutting paper to size, if the longer side is 1.62 times the length of the shorter side then it will simply look more pleasing to the eye than any other size ratio.
If your painting is 100cm in one direction it should be 162cm in the other. 50cm x 81cm, 30cm x 48.5cm and 10cm x 16.2cm are all examples of the same size ratio and it is the pleasing visual effect these proportions have on the brain that you are trying to harness.
To be clear, I am not saying that all of your paintings and drawings need to be on a canvas that exactly matches the golden ratio. However, if you you stay close to this size ratio then the visual effect will look more balanced.
How to lay out your painting for the best effect
When you have chosen the overall size of a painting, you need to look at how the image you are painting is placed within that picture. This is where certain parts of our brain often come into conflict.
We may want to use different sizes, but in general if you use a canvas that conforms to the golden ratio, more people will see it as being ‘right’. Specific paintings may work better if they are longer or narrower because they create a different effect. However, as a general rule it is always the best place to start.
Of course there are always exceptions, but as a place to start, this will help you choose the right size ratio. The painting can be arranged either vertically or horizontally depending on what you are painting. However, sticking to the golden ratio will make more people see it as well set out.
An example to show the concept
The painting above was done as a study into the whole theory of the golden ratio. The canvas and the painting itself features the golden ratio in many different ways. Study it and look at how the painting pulls you in.
It is not a meticulously measured painting and was done fairly quickly. I was able to do it so fast because it does just look right. People have often commented that they aren’t sure why but they really like it.
Choosing the right focal points within a painting
Most artists, especially when beginning, have a tendency to place the focus of a painting in the centre of the canvas. This is where the logical, rational areas of the brain tell us it should be.
However, pleasure, excitement and all the other emotions we may want to invoke as an artist are not rational or logical concepts. To trigger these emotions a different form of symmetry is needed.
The easy way to do this is to split up the canvas into an equally spaced 3 x 3 grid. So, on a canvas 100cm x 162cm, we would draw lines 33cm apart on the short side and 54cm apart on the long side, as shown below.
Creating this grid and placing the main focal point of the painting at one of the 4 central cross points will draw the focus of the painting away from the centre.
When we do this, it encourages the person looking at it to move their focus around the painting, so they see the whole image rather than simply focussing on the most important part and not really seeing the rest of the painting. It takes them on a journey ‘into’ the painting or drawing.
Study your favourite paintings
You will see that in most great landscape paintings the horizon line will roughly follow one of the 2 horizontal lines of the grid. Some, where the sky is the main focus, will have the horizon line near the lower horizontal line. Others, where the main focus is in the foreground, will have the horizon line following the upper of the two horizontal lines.
Even with portraits, off-setting the face will make it easier for the viewer to take in the surroundings and context of the face, bringing the portrait to life in a much better way.
The portrait of Einstein below is a perfect example of this and is without doubt one of my most talked about paintings. However, although the focal points are slightly offset, I wish I had pushed the face slightly more to the left and maybe even a little higher as I do think it is too central. It would have been an even more striking painting with the focal points shifted slightly.
Abstract artists can play with this concept really easily too. If you study most of the great abstract paintings on show in exhibitions everywhere, you will find certain focal points are deliberately placed at one or more of these four central cross points.
Framing a finished painting
One trick I learned from an artist far more skilful than myself, is that when painting a picture, don’t stop at what you think will be the edge. Extend the painting outwards a little, beyond the point where you think it should finish on every side.
When the painting is finished, take two “L-Shaped” pieces of white mount board and arrange them on opposite sides so they overlap at the ends and frame the painting. Then you can move them in and out independently until you find the perfect placement which will give the painting as much impact as possible.
Using the techniques above will give every painting you create a more aesthetic appeal that is not logical, rational or even conscious. It is a deep seated psychological attraction to something we recognise on a subconscious level. It is an easy way to achieve a very basic emotional response to your pictures.
Remember there are no immutable laws in art. Use this advice to help you but don’t let it restrict your creativity. There are always exceptions to every rule.
I hope this helps you to create drawings and paintings that will harness those emotional responses. These responses make a simple drawing beautiful and a good painting great. You may well be surprised how much difference a small change in the position of the frame can make.
As always feel free to forward this to any friends you think will be interested. Thanks again for your time and the great feedback. I hope you find this information as helpful as it was for me when I discovered it.