Thursday, 4 February 2010

Nothing accidental: François Millet

This is the start of a little series I’m writing about the composition of paintings; I’ve read a lot about the golden section and proportional geometry in general and have wondered where the balance lies. Is a well-composed painting the result of an artist with a great eye and natural flair? Or is it the result of a mathmetician with a brush in their hand? Maybe we need both characteristics as, after all, both composition and mark-making are scrutinized in the end.

I’m not sure of the exact wording but Jan Tschichold (at least, I think it was him) said that a design is only well composed when you can take any item away and balance remains. I find this true in painting but on a slightly different level. If you divide the frame into smaller proportionally-equal panels, each one should be pleasingly composed in itself. That’s not to say a panel can’t be empty – that would be the equivalent to ‘1’ if art were maths.

I saw this Millet painting reduced to mere restaurant decoration one night and, although I thought the content was a little glum, I knew the composition was ideal. So, in the images below, I’ve come to understand how the artist composed it – if, indeed, he set out to be so clinical in the first place! Who knows? Either way, I find it amazing that the human eye can see equal proportions in shapes so readily.

I found straight away that the frame is pretty much a root 2 rectangle – which is the nerdy term for DIN paper proportions (A4/A3/A2) i.e. a rectangle that can be split into two similar rectangles of equal proportion (fold an A4 in half and you get a smaller rectangle of equal proportion). Incidentally, a root 3 rectangle can be divided into 3 smaller similar rectangles, as a root 4 can be divided into…you guessed it, 4. The golden section, I’ll explain later when I use it to analyze another image.

Because this is a root 2 rectangle, the number 1.405 (which has been rounded up) is important as it determines the proportions. 295mm, for instance, is the length of an A4 page. 295/210 (length/width) is 1.4047… so I can use this number to further smaller rectangles with the same proportion. 210/1.405, for example, gives 149mm so I make a rectangle 210x149. This is what I’ve done in the images below to create the white guides and, low and behold, all sorts of coincidences turn up.

The first rectangle in on the first image shows a clear bounding box for the whole of the three women. The second shows some similarities with the angles of the arms and torsos and the dotted lines, which are made by the overlapping diagonals, also  serve to frame the figures. The third and fourth images clearly show why the horizon is at such a comfortable point in the frame and again squares off the figures. You could crop the image with any one of these guides and I’m certain there would still be a balanced composition. Finally, the last two images show what I think Millet might have planned. The panels are proportional to one another and the page, and clearly frame each new vertical slither of a figure or landscape from left to right.


  1. ! in all my art history survey courses, we always talked about the golden spiral/golden rectangle. all of my design classes were based around it.

    i've always found it extremely interesting. very neat!

    also: read your comment, and good luck to you as well!

  2. I'm enjoying your closer examination of the layouts of paintings. Jan Tschichold's quote will be thought food. I have always though of balance in the opposite way; if you take something away, shouldn't the balance be thrown off, demonstrating the necessity of the element's weight within the composition? When I think about elements sitting in a more organized grid system, Tschichold's quote makes more sense; the underlying structure would still be evident from the other pieces.

  3. Yes, you’re right. ‘Balance’ is completely the wrong word in retrospect. The Germans call graphic design ‘gestalt’ which, apparently, has quite a vague translation into English – some combination of structure, essence and tone. Either way, I suppose the main point is that each element on a page needs its reasons for being where it is. A grid would always sort this out but Tschichold, I think, was talking about arranging elements by eye (considering the hierarchy of their importance and so on) when he said what I attributed to him before. Glad you’re interested in my posts – I’ve one or two more to come on this.


➔ Please do not copy any image from this blog without permission; I keep proof of ownership on all of my work ☺