Using diagonals or “armatures” became very important to me about 12 years ago. I found it was like taking coat hangers and finding ways to carefully hang the “coats of my designs” on them.

Since I have been talking about the use of diagonals to enhance a painting, I thought this week I would take one of my favorite paintings of my son and show the thinking behind it and how it was constructed. You may see this painting in a whole new light once you see the planning behind it, and where the diagonals are helping me out compositionally.

The system I use for planning out my armatures is the – wait for it –  The Pythagorean Theorum of Harmonic Divisions of the Rectangle. Whew! I know it is a mouthful, but it has given me a lot of control over my paintings. (yes, Pythagoras was the math guy…)

I can’t get into the entire explanation of how it works, but just know that the intersects of these diagonals give me “good math” for divisions of the image. Just like music is composed of chords based on math of 3rds, fourths and 5ths, so too dividing up the canvas this way can give good “harmonic” spots to an image creating harmony in the relationship of objects to each other.

Here is the painting in its’ final form. Yes, he is a very cute kid and the story of him being cold is a fun moment I tried to capture in time. I wanted to show how this little boy was much different from my squealing girls, more stoic and “manly” in trying to tough it out while cold from his bath. But composition is based on placement, not objects. So let’s go back to the very beginning to dissect the composition and see how it was built…

Below are the beginning lines and the diagonals used in the painting. After much planning on paper, the actual painting always gets the diagonals put in like below. These diagonals are then used to “hang” my drawing on – like where I started to draw in the faucet below. The red spots are where his ears will be located on the intersections. I found the ears first because they are the main focus of the work, so I placed them both on intersects or what Pythagorus called the “harmonics.”  This puts his ears on the 4th division of the painting horizontally and on the half and 4th divisions vertically. Now that these spots are located on the painting in good locations, I can then develop and “hang” the rest of my drawing around these “sweet spots.”

This also serves to put his eyes are on the 4th division of the painting horizontally; with the right eye on the 4th division of the painting vertically. In other words, if you divide the painting into 3rds and fourths, these are important horizontal and vertical lines as well.

There are 3 ways to use diagonals in a painting-

1. Put an actual object along the diagonal – an arm, leg, etc.

2. Put an edge of an object along the diagonal.

3. Make a color and/or value change along the diagonal.

So in this intersection of his ear below, the painting changes along these lines. See how his tuft of hair falls along the edge?  Yup. Planned.  (Use #2) I had many photo references for his hair and many times when he posed for me where his hair was tousled very differently. I made that tuft important and act as a “directional” to the ear. Notice too how that crazy wet lock of hair goes across his forehead and follows the diagonal as well acting as a link between the left ear and his tuft of hair. 

Then may I call your attention to how the colors in the background change on either side of the lines as well. (use #3)

This directional below gave me a good place for the faucet to stop, and a color change in the window.

Notice below that the edge of the faucet shadow, the lines on the towel and the edge of his elbow up to the color change in the wall below the window all follow the bottom diagonal.

The light and dark areas of his head follow a diagonal, meeting at the same point with the other diagonal on the wall on the right.

After using “good math” in the diagonals, it helps to establish vertical and horizontal “supports.” See how many things fall along the pink line below. (This is 1/3rd of the painting vertically)

The edge of the soap; the crease in the towel; his right eye; the darkest lock of hair pointing to his eye and the edge of the window.

Yup. All planned. To me this kind of “locked in” placement feels visually correct.

And yup! It takes me a long time to plan out paintings. I have gotten faster at it, and sometimes I don’t feel the need to include so many diagonals. Many great and masterful artists don’t use planning of this kind and they are just fine the way they are, so don’t feel the need to design your images like this. But this system has given me a lot of control and helps me answer that age-old question, “is this a good composition?” Because, let’s face it, many times over the years I would ask an instructor… “How can you know you are designing a good composition?” And the answer I would get is that you just have to feel it. I always found that unsatisfactory.

This just works for me.

But, if designing like this piques your interest, I suggest finding one thing in your design that you want as your main focus and use just one or 2 diagonals to support that area. Trust me, this will get you started on a great journey to controlling your compositions!

Thanks Pythagoras!