the armature of the rectangle

general description

The use of this compositional structure creates intrinsic harmonies and endows the work with balance, structure and order. This compositional device can be transposed to any visual representation, from painting to photography. Charles Bouleau (1906-1987) in his infamous book The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art (originally published in 1963)  presented the armature of the rectangle, associated to the overall proportions of the canvas, using fourteen lines in the designing of the structure; these cross the plane from the corners to the sides and serve as a support for the whole composition. Adequately, the meaning of the word “armature” in French, as Bouleau points out, can be perceived as the combination of parts which supports the work. Different from the looseness of applying the Golden Ratio in individual measures, the armature is a structure that is imposed on the work, globally; it is derived from the dimensions of the rectangle that defines its support, and can therefore be varying in size and proportions, but its inner structure (the connections between points) are always the same. Interestingly, the lines of the major intersections of the harmony create and correlate to the musical harmonic scale (one third, one quarter, one half, two thirds and three quarters).  Applying it is a way to subdivide the picture plane in different equidistant fractions, that serve various functions. Besides assuring a pleasing composition and creating correlations with musical harmonies and intervals, these points, distances and harmonies also represent where the eye of the viewer is naturally directed to.

The armature grid


Ratios and Harmonies derived from the subdivisions of the form

With the Rule of Thirds and Midsections

Planning the compositional structure will assure a more powerful imagetherefore using an armature in planning out the composition at an early stage, is a way of determining the location, direction and proportion of elements; the simple armature can be applied to any rectangle form, including the square, after which the angles of the lines can be used  as leading lines and the intersections of the lines can be used as points of interest. In this manner, the subjects or objects are framed and set within certain harmonic divisions. The armature accentuates the corrections between things that are pleasing to our ear (audible harmonics) and those that are pleasing to our eyes (visual harmonics), which are greatly associated with positive sensory responses.  Although there are other visual armatures that artists can use (such as the rule of thirds, and/or the Golden Section) the rectangle armature, because it is derived from the overall dimensions of the work, is a more holistic approach, and one that should be applied early on in the creation of the work. In fact, the rule of thirds is a simplification of the more complex rectangle armature approach, and in such a case, can be applied to more simple creations; however, if the work possesses a great level of elements and is visually complex, then the rectangle armature is a better approach to organizing the composition.

In order to form this structure, we can start at each of the four corners. Starting at the top left corner, for example, we connect a line to the opposite corner (bottom right); then, we connect the same left corner to the center of the composition, both at the bottom and the opposite side (left corner connects to mid-line on the right). We should end up with 3 lines coming out of the top left corner. Now, we repeat the process for the remaining three corners, only without repeating the diagonals which are already formed. After all four corners have three lines each extending to opposite sides, the last step is to connect the outer mid-lines: instead of the lines dividing it in half by forming an + , we connect the top midpoint to the left and right midpoints at the center; and the bottom midpoint to those same left and right spots. In the end, there should be three lines going to each of the four corners, and four lines at each of the outer midpoints (top, bottom, left and right).

The armature grid

Numerous examples can be used to exemplify how the armature can be used in two dimensional representations/creations. The studies presented below aim to clarify how different artists used those specific points of interests and directions, to create appealing and visually rich harmonious compositions. Although the examples presented below are mostly representational art, it is clear to see that more abstract works of art (non-objective), created/explored during the modern art movement, also uses composition as a fundamental tool at its disposal.

Adoration of the Magi (1489-90) by Leonardo da Vinci

The Holy Trinity (1427) by Masaccio

Lady with an Ermine (1489-90) by Leonardo da Vinci

Las Meninas (1656) by Velázquez

Last Supper (1495-98) by Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1506) by Leonardo da Vinci

Self Portrait at the age of 28 (1500) by Dürer

The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) (c. 1304-1306) by Giotto

Portrait of a Young Woman (1480-1485) by Sandro Botticelli