Secrets of Geometry in Painting

by | Jun 10, 2012 | Blog | 3 comments

What is Geometry in Painting

Stare at a painting—just about any painting for a good length of time—and geometric patterns will appear. Why does this happen? Our physical world has infinite visual stimuli. We automatically reduce and edit from this multitude of imagery. By identifying geometric patterns, we simplify the view.

Painters can therefore use geometry in the work to move the viewer’s eye in a certain desired pattern. Geometric shapes commonly used in painting include squares, circles, diamonds and rectangles. In the Mondrian painting below the artist used squares that are easy to discern. Geometry in painting can be obvious and easy to see as in this Mondrian below, or used in more subtle ways.

Mondrian painting to show geometry for composition
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930, oil on canvas, 18″ x 18″

 

When geometry is used in a subtle way these will only become clear when we gaze at the image for a longer period of time. I like to call this subtle type of patterning underlying geometry. These shapes are subliminal, directing eye movement with invisible pathways.

What underlying geometry can you see in this painting?

Painting by Nancy Reyner with S-Curve
Nancy Reyner, Abiquiu Dam, oil pastel on paper, 9″ x 12″
The painting above makes use of what is called an S-Curve. By staring at an image long enough, our focus becomes softer, engaging our right brain side – the part of our brain that grasps subtlety. The shape of the “S” can be distinguished by noticing how our eye moves.

Using the painting above and starting at the bottom lower left, the eye will naturally begin to move along the orange path towards the right. This starts to draw the bottom of the letter “S”. Gazing longer at the painting, as the eye reaches the right side, it will shift to a diagonal heading back the other way towards the left along the edge of the rocks where it meets the blue water. This creates the middle portion of the “S”. When the eye gets close to the left side, the top of the “S” is formed by following the top of the mountain line where it meets the sky.

Each work of art generally uses at least one underlying geometric shape. You might see additional geometry in this painting, but the most predominant is the S-Curve.


 Another example of a painting using an S-Curve

Violet River, painting with oil pastel by Nancy Reyner, showing S-Curve
Nancy Reyner, Violet River, oil pastel on bristol paper, 6″ x 8″
 
What is negative space in painting

Underlying geometry works in conjunction with negative space. This is an art term that refers to the illusion of space we feel in a painting. This can be the space that appears to exist between forms, or it can be perceived as the atmosphere in an image, or a painting’s background. Negative space is usually quiet, hiding in the background, without asking for attention while viewing a painting. We gain awareness of it with our (often lesser used) right brain hemisphere, while shapes or defined forms are seen with our more frequently used left brain side.

As an experiment, place your hand flat on a table in front of you with fingers spread out. What do you look at first? Our left brain takes immediate control putting our attention on our fingers, while ignoring the spaces in between the fingers. In this picture, you may notice the green background (space) but only peripherally as your focus heads instead to the fingers (form).

Move your focus to the spaces in between the fingers by keeping your eyes fixed on those spaces, until your eyes start to emphasize them. The spaces will appear to grow larger, and we become fascinated by their interesting shapes. This is a sign that your brain has switched from using the left side to the right.

Our brain naturally defaults using the left side, so we feel more ease looking at specific forms or shapes, while it takes more of a conscious effort to see the spaces in between. While viewing paintings, take some time to see the space in between the forms, and notice the extra effort this entails.

I believe it is difficult if not impossible to see from both sides of our brain at the same time. To find subtle forms in a painting will therefore require a conscious switch between our two brain sides while viewing paintings, and also as artists, during the process of painting. When we allow ourselves time to view a painting with our right brain (viewing the negative spaces), we can easily see subtle geometric patterns.

As an experiment, place your hand flat on a table in front of you with fingers spread out. Our left brain takes control right away and so we first see our fingers. You may notice the green background (space) but your focus will most probably be on the fingers (form).

Now try to look at the spaces in between the fingers by keeping your eyes fixed on those spaces, until our eyes turn them into interesting shapes. You will need to switch from left to right brain hemispheres to fully view those spaces in between the fingers. Our left brain is our default system, so it is easier to look at forms while it takes more of a conscious effort to see the spaces in between. While viewing paintings, and trying to see the space in between the forms, it takes more of a conscious effort too.

I believe it is difficult if not impossible to see from both sides of our brain at the same time. To find subtle forms in a painting then, requires a conscious switch between our two brain hemispheres while viewing the painting, and also as artists, while painting it. When we allow ourselves time to view a painting with our right brain (viewing the negative spaces), we can see those subtle geometric patterns.

William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745, oil on canvas, 35″ x 27″

Overlay of colored lines show underlying geometry

It is a natural tendency to seek and find geometry in images. I believe that any painting you feel is interesting to look at, be it an Old Masters famous painting in a museum, or a contemporary one in a local gallery, will have some form of underlying geometry in its composition.

Nancy Reyner – painter, author and instructor – offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways.
Additional Reading

The Magic of S-Curves in Painting

 

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3 Comments

  1. Betty Pieper

    What an interesting post. Once when looking at a group of thumbnail images of my work I thought I perceived
    a likeness for crosses in the overall design. I will have to go back to look now that I've read your article!
    I know that sometimes I see the negative spaces and images more quickly and thorougly than the positive.
    Once when viewing a painting of trees by the Bulgarian artist, Petko Pemaro, I saw nuns in old fashioned
    habits. It is always the first thing I see; then I enjoy the trees.

    Reply
  2. Susan Holland

    This is possibly the most valuable information any maker of visual art can get. The exercise Nancy suggests is wonderfully easy to do, and once you try drawing from the negative space expert (the right brain) you will see magic happen!

    Reply
  3. Mary Manning

    Even in the most abstract works I paint, at the end of the painting, there are underlying shapes, often S-curves, spirals, and pyramids. Often while painting, I do not consciously see those shapes, but they appear as if by magic at the end.

    Reply

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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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