Leonardo 500 and the Divine Proportion

Art direction is used in many disciplines throughout the Creative Industries from magazine design to film. But in photography there’s a mathematical rule that many of us unwittingly follow to create that perfect composition.

Now, no one could ever accuse me of being a mathematical genius, I fall firmly and happily on the side of creativity, where parameters are undefined, and pushing past accepted norms is actively encouraged. So, to me, it’s fascinating that a mathematical equation for pleasing aesthetics exists. The golden ratio is a pretty well-known compositional tool where the subject is divided up to form a well-balanced and pleasing composition, most commonly seen as a series of rectangles overlaid with the Fibonacci spiral.

The golden ratio is 1:1.618 and based on the division of rectangles; if the length of a rectangle divided by its height equals 1.618 it is a ‘golden rectangle’ so called because the lengths of its sides are at the ‘golden ratio’. It is the only rectangle where removal of its square section results in the creation of another, smaller golden rectangle – pretty cool… In 1509 Luca Pacioli, an Italian mathematician and collaborator with Leonardo da Vinci, was so fascinated by the complexity of the golden ratio, he wrote a book referring to it as the ‘Divine Proportion’. A later edition of Pacioli’s book was in fact illustrated by Da Vinci and it’s interesting to note that his iconic Virtruvian Man calibrates to this proportion, as do many of his other drawings and paintings.

Many studies have been performed to test the validity of the golden ratio’s appeal to the human eye and brain, the first being conducted by Gustav Fechner in 19th century, in which subjects were asked to select the most pleasing rectangle from a range with the results showing an invariable preference for the golden rectangle.

As a graduate of fine art, the concept is something I have studied, and though I don’t pretend to understand the maths, I’ve found it invaluable throughout my career. My view is that good composition is something which can be applied regardless of topic and that the appreciation of balance and form is innate. So, it seems unsurprising to me that the golden ratio is speculated to be prevalent throughout our universe, from the growth pattern of the nautilus seashell and the way leaves are distributed along a branch to the Egyptian pyramids, the musical compositions of Mozart and Beethoven and even black holes!

In my current role as Art Director, I still draw heavily on my fine art roots often using the golden ratio (or there about) when composing a shot or cropping an image for use in a layout, unsurprising really when you consider that it has even been proven that those with a natural eye for aesthetics instinctively employ elements from the divine proportion whether they realise it or not.

As an arty type and compositional geek, I was particularly excited to visit Leeds Art Gallery this weekend, where on display are some of Leonardo’s sketches from the Queen’s personal collection. This forms part of a wider exhibition celebrating his life on the 500th anniversary of his death. 144 of the Renaissance Master’s greatest drawings from the Royal collection are currently on display in 12 simultaneous exhibitions across the UK. This celebration of his work will culminate in an exhibition in London of 200 of his drawings at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, the largest exhibition of his work in 65 years. What I saw in Leeds was incredible, from the detail and delicacy of his line to the unusual and tiny script that came from the great master’s own hand, even the fact that the paper has survived so well blows my mind. Unfortunately, my experience was slightly marred by the complete disinterest of my lovely 4 year old daughter – so, I will certainly be making an effort to visit the show at the Queen’s Gallery, but this time I think I’ll be asking my Mum to baby-sit!

by Chloe Mallinson


1 February – 6 May 2019 – exhibitions of 12 drawings at the following locations:

  • Ulster Museum, Belfast
  • Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
  • Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
  • National Museum Cardiff
  • Derby Museum and Art Gallery
  • Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
  • Leeds Art Gallery
  • Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  • Manchester Art Gallery
  • Millennium Gallery, Sheffield
  • Southampton City Art Gallery
  • Sunderland Museums and Winter Gardens

For admission and ticket information please refer to each venue.

24 May – 13 October 2019 – exhibition of over 200 drawings

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London

22 November 2019 – 15 March 2020 – exhibition of 80 drawings

The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh