What Renaissance Paintings Can Tell You About Composition

What Renaissance Paintings Can Tell You About Design Composition
Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”Leonardo Da Vinci.

Who hasn’t heard about the magnificent masterpiece that is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? This artwork, still managing to gain the admiration and attention of the public centuries after its creation, is dubbed as the most famous painting in the world. Ever since the 20th century, Mona Lisa has been the object of mass reproduction and merchandising, hence becoming an influential icon in modern arts and pop culture. 

What most people aren’t aware though, is that Mona Lisa belongs to a certain art period called Renaissance. Other notable artworks created during this era would include Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, and Raphael’s School of Athens. All these oil paintings share similar characteristics; accurate depictions of the human anatomy combined with intricate, elegant poses. 

What Renaissance Paintings Can Tell You About Composition - Raphael's School of Athens.
Raphael’s School of Athens.
What Renaissance Paintings Can Tell You About Composition - Timeline of western art periods
Timeline of Western Art Periods.

The era of Renaissance (which literally means ‘rebirth’ in French) lasted from the 15th until 17th century in Europe, first originating in Italy. This period marked the revival of classical learning and an increased appreciation towards nature and individualism. A shift from the medieval era to Renaissance can be seen from how the paintings are able to depict space, mass, and light in a more realistic way.

Comparison of design composition between Renaissance (left) and Medieval (right) paintings.
Comparison of Renaissance (left) and Medieval (right) paintings.

Though humanism and Christianity heavily influenced this period, Renaissance artists also introduced new subjects to their works such as portraits and historical narratives. Interestingly enough, there’s a widely used set of basic principles and ratios in Renaissance that is still relevant and used by designers and artists alike today. These rules are guaranteed to help you understand composition in a design better. Want to know more? Read on below. 

Stability, not dramatization

Comparison of design composition between Renaissance’s pyramid structure and Baroque’s dynamic poses.
Comparison of Renaissance’s pyramid structure (left) and Baroque’s dynamic poses (right).

One notable thing about renaissance artworks would be how the composition is always harmonious, with an underlying sense of unity. Renowned painters in this era are known for their repeated usage of the Golden Ratio and pyramid-shaped compositions (which would be discussed next). This approach ultimately evokes feelings of stability and structure within viewers of renaissance arts. Though Baroque artists tend to dramatize their subjects using stark contrast, dynamic compositions, or darkening the backdrops (i.e. to shine the spotlight onto the main figures), Renaissance artworks are often the opposite.

This is not to say that contrasts and dynamic compositions are necessarily wrong in the world of designs and arts; such a statement can easily backfire as the art movement that came after Renaissance openly celebrates this approach. However, if you are aiming for union and harmony among your design elements; Renaissance art would be the perfect muse for you. 

The Golden Ratio

“Without mathematics there is no art.” – Luca Pacioli.

The Golden Ratio, also known as the Golden Section or the Divine Proportion, is a mathematical principle that conveys the ratio of two sums whereby their ratio is equal to that of the larger of the two quantities. If this statement has made it seem even more confusing, rest assured – simply look at the diagram below for an accurate visual representation.

Design composition 1 - Visual representation of the Golden Ratio.
Visual representation of the Golden Ratio.
Design composition 1 - Visual representation of the Golden Rectangle.
Visual representation of the Golden Rectangle.

Such principle has become a common “guide” (not rules!) of many renowned painters in the Renaissance era. The usage of the Golden Ratio can be found in the works of Da Vinci (being the pioneer of this principle himself), Michelangelo, Botticelli, and many others. 

It is believed that no other ratio can accomplish the same result in this, and that it is a sure-fire tool to achieve aesthetics, balance and visual harmony in both art and design. How Michelangelo used this guide for his masterpiece The Creation of Adam can be seen below. 

Design composition 1 - Usage of the Golden Ratio in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam
Usage of the Golden Ratio in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.

The Pyramid

The pyramid-shape composition, though pretty self-explanatory based on its name, is used as a way for artists to conform to the stability factor of their art horizontally. Pyramidal compositions emphasize unity, often making the highest point (or pinnacle) of the painting the central focus.  Tones and shades used in Renaissance artworks are commonly balanced, to further assert stability and structure. 

This can be seen in Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks in which the “peak” of the painting is Mary’s head, making it the first place that the viewers’ eyes landed on. This type of composition applies to sculpture too, as Michelangelo also applies the same technique to his legendary work Pietà

Design composition 2 - Pyramid structure in da Vinci and Michelangelo’s works.
Pyramid structure in da Vinci (left) and Michelangelo’s works (right).

Rule of the Thirds

Derived from the Golden Ratio, this general guideline is a simple composition trick that states that any image, painting or design should be broken down into a grid that consists of two vertical and two horizontal lines; which creates nine equal boxes. This results in an interesting and pleasing dynamic that draws the focus of the attention towards specific places of the work. 

Design composition 3 - Grid of rule of thirds.
Grid of Rule of Thirds.

Rule of the Thirds is guaranteed to enhance the visual impact of your design. Though nowadays it is often associated with photography, it actually originated from the Renaissance era. The artists back then had realized that placing the main subject exactly on the center of their artworks often turned out to be a disappointment. Hence, they resolved in dividing the canvas into thirds and placing the main figures on an intersection point of any two lines  (see the red dots above). This would then lead to a more balanced look. 

Design composition 3 - Application of Rule of the Thirds in Bolougne’s Christ and The Adulteress.
Application of Rule of the Thirds in Bolougne’s Christ and The Adulteress.

Applying these principles to your designs

Now you might wonder, how exactly can you apply these compositional guidelines to your works? 

For pyramid-shaped compositions, it is important to include a “peak” or the highest point of your design. This peak must be of the main figure or subject of your work, as it would undeniably attract the first focus of your viewers. Keep in mind that this positioning serves as an emphasis in which you want to capture and retain your audience’s attention when admiring your work. 

Designmaker template design using the Pyramid composition
Designmaker’s template design. (Source: Designs.ai|Designmaker)

Whereas for applying the rule of thirds into your design, you can simply lay a grid over your draft  (or divide your work into thirds with simple lines) and check whether the main subject is placed on any of the intersection points. 

Designmaker's template design using rule of the thirds
Designmaker’s template design. (Source: Designs.ai|Designmaker)

Regardless of how well-polished your technical skills, or how professionally done your pieces are, composition is vital in determining the success of both your art and design work. Hence, the compositional principles mentioned above will help you form better decisions when it comes to planning out your design’s layout. 

Keep in mind that they are merely guidelines and of course,  you are allowed to be as creative as you want. However, there is absolutely no wrong in understanding the common characteristics of these legendary Renaissance masterpieces and what makes them such a success. 

Now that you are familiar with these basic principles, head over to Designmaker to start creating your very own designs!

Designmaker interface by Designs.ai
Designmaker’s page. (Designs.ai | Designmaker)


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