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Harmonic grids

The first gesture of composition is that within a given format.

Leon ALBERTI - Da pictura - 1435

It is a proven fact that the harmonic grids were deliberately used

by painters for their compositions.

The controlled use of these grids is one of the first gestures of composition within a format

as the painter and writer Leon ALBERTI said.


These grids would be nine in number according to my research. I detail the list and the use that spread from the Middle Ages to the period of Cubism. It must be borne in mind that these grids are articulated with the 1st rule of painters

That is to say that they serve as a support to place the 12 reference points: an eye, thumb, index, heel etc.

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Medians                            diagonals                    ½ diago horizo            ½   diago vertic              ½ medians                    Thirds

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  Heaven-Earth               Squares Charles VII           Square Golden Grid Phi

Delatour, le tricheur, composition sur une diagonale

A harmonic grid is used to position the reference points of the characters, here the two female hands on a diagonal

When a painter started a new work, he started with drawings of character studies, draperies, faces, or landscapes or decorations on a given theme. But then, he must organize all his sketches within a format to give them consistency, a life. This is where the composition grids come into play to organize, give meaning, tell, while being pleasing to the eye. The painter was therefore beginning to arrange his sketches inside the format of the table thanks to the technique of harmonic grids, the first step in what I call POETIC GEOMETRY.

Batista ALBERTI specifies it in his book "Da Pictura" in 1435:

The first means of composition is that inside a given format.

When Alberti talks about the interior of a given format; rectangular or square (more rarely a round) it certainly suggests without detailing all of the grids which cut the format by means of two very simple operations.

It is the painter Cenino CENINNI who gives the detail, in 1437, in his broad treatise on the painting " Il Libro Dell'Arte ", page 254:

Take all the measures, beating with a wire to divide the spaces and take the midpoints.


Here is described one of the strings of the art of composition, and it is the case to say it! Because beating the wire is the operation which consists in beating a taut wire dipped in chalk to mark a surface with a straight line. What some masons still do today for their layouts.
There is therefore, in all and for all, only one sentence to describe several cutouts of the format of a table with only one tool, a single thread ... Ceninni does not say how many measures there would be take, nor how to divide spaces or take the mediums. Ceninni and Alberti, like the other writers, are very vague about the composition of a painting! We can ask the question of why?

As I am curious and pragmatic, I practiced the method of experimental archeology concerning these harmonic grids.

I experimented on a frame with a simple string that it is possible to draw the continuation of the grids of decomposition of the format with the two operations of CENINNI: dividing the spaces and taking the mediums. So to start, what could be simpler than starting from the opposite corners of the format to join them with a taut string?

Grid 1 - Diagonal

1ère Grille de composition picturale : les diagonales

First gesture of dividing the format: stretch a wire dipped in red chalk from the opposite corners, then beat the wire to mark the surface of the painting. Here is the grid of diagonals.

DELATOUR analysis - The cheat - grid of diagonals

De LaTour composed his "cheat" by placing the fingers of women on a diagonal which separates men.

Grid 2 - Median


Second gesture of composition: use a plumb bob dipped in chalk by passing it through the center of the diagonals. Then flip the table over to do the same. For large formats, it will be necessary to draw two arcs of a circle on the vertical to obtain the horizontal diagonal . Here is the grid of medians.

Pompeii fresco composition with grid of medias

This Pompeii fresco is conditioned by the grid of medians on the fingers of the two characters.

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Vincent Van Gogh avait fabriqué un cadre de bois avec des ficelles qui indiquaient les diagonales et les médianes afin de s'en aider pour trouver la bonne composition de ses toiles.

Il en a fait un croquis dans une lettre qu'il avait adressé à son frère Théo.

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Grid 3 - ½ Vertical diagonal


Third gesture of composition: with the wire dipped in red chalk from the corner of the format and the median, beat the wire 4 times to divide the spaces. Here is the grid of vertical diagonals.

Grid 4 - ½ Horizontal Diagonal

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Fourth gesture of composition: with the red thread from the corner of the format and the median beat the thread 4 times to divide the spaces. Here is the grid of horizontal diagonals.

Rembrandt, Besthsabée and the letter of David - Analysis of composition, grid of 1/2 medians.

Rembrandt used several grids for his Bathsheba, the ½ medians conditioning the faces, the eyes, and the thumb.

Cranach - the 3 graces - composition analysis, grids of the 1/2 medians

Cranach - the three graces - 6 points from the first rule are on this grid.

Grille 5 - ½ Médianes

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Delacroix - Freedom - 7 points placed on the grid of the half-medians.

Fifth gesture of composition: with the red thread from the crosses of ½ diagonals

beat the wire 4 times to divide the spaces. Here is the grid of medians.

Delacroix - 7 points placed on this grid bring together all the ingredients of the theme of Liberty guiding the people.

Grille 6 - Grille des tiers

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Sixième geste de composition : avec le fil rouge à partir des autres croisement des ½ diagonales battre 4 fois le fil pour diviser les espaces. Voici la grille des tiers.

Rembrandt, Bethsabée - Analyse avec la grille des tiers

Rembrandt, Bethsabée avec 4 points plus le coin de la lettre sur la grille des tiers

Grid 7 - Grid of the sky and earth squares

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Another gesture of composition for rectangular formats: with the red thread transfer the small side to the large side then form a square with its diagonals. Then start again with the small opposite side. A sky square and an earth square are thus formed with a symbolic scope very much in vogue during the Renaissance.

BOLTRAFIO - Analysis of the Casio Altarpiece with the earth and sky squares.

Boltrafio tilted Jesus' eyes to the sky and earth squares, which gives him this astonishing look if we do not know the composition of this Casio altarpiece.

Rapahël - The beautiful gardener, analysis of the composition of the sky and earth squares.

Raphaël uses the earth square to position the two children. On the other hand, the sky square is used to wedge spiritual symbols: the axis of the halo of Jesus and the axis of the bible (in purple) on the edge of the format.

Grid 8 - Charles VII square grid

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This composition grid seems to have been invented in the 15th century : starting from the intersection of the sky and earth squares, beating the wire 4 times to divide the spaces. Here is the grid of Charles VII.

Cranach - Analysis of the 3 graces with the Carles VII grid

Cranach often uses several grids for a single composition, here the Charles VII square.

Grid 9 - Golden grid (Phi)


Ce rectangle doré a été obtenu en rabattant la demi-diagonale du carré sur un de ses côté. Puis il suffit de tracé le rectangle aux proportions dorées.

De nombreux sites expliquent comment construire concrètement ce nombre d'or qui est en fait un rapport idéal entre deux mesures, deux surfaces.


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This golden grid is drawn with the golden ratio (Phi). for this you must have a compass, or a knotted cord, or use a harmony compass.

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BELLINI - Jésus au temple - 1469 - Venise - La grille dorée de composition a permis de mettre en place l'œil du prêtre ainsi que les nez de Jésus et de trois personnages, le nez étant un symbole religieux de premier plan dans l'iconographie chrétienne.

photo et dessin G.M.

Other Grids

To complete this beginning of the inventory of harmonic composition grids, it would be necessary to locate the circles inscribed inside a format, whether it be a parallelepiped or a circle. But this possibility of grid with circles being very vast, I have not yet been able to draw a general rule applicable to a large number of works.

Harmonic grids or "Frameworks" for Jacques Villon

L'usage des grilles harmoniques de composition est bien souvent contesté, voir nié dans le monde de l'art. Pourtant leur usage régulier et assidu ne fait aucun doute chez les peintres anciens. Les tracés reconstitués les montrent, quelques textes en parlent, quelques dessins les prouvent (voir la page des preuves)

Jacques Villon nous rappelle ce fait :

"Dans le chaos pictural de ces dernières années, où la libération exacerbée de l'instinct individuel atteint la frénésie, vouloir reconnaître les disciplines harmoniques qui, à toutes époques, ont servi secrètement de bases à la peinture pourrait sembler une folie.

Mais cette folie est une sagesse. Un savoir nécessaire pour qui veut peindre. et nécessaire pour qui veut regarder. La charpente d'une œuvre, c'est aussi sa poésie la plus secrète - et la plus profonde."


N'hésitez pas à laisser votre commentaire, vos questions en pied de page, mon plaisir est de pouvoir échanger sur la composition picturale. Merci.


Travail protégé par un copyright ©guymauchamp U79J1B9 et un dépôt Légal à la SGDL Paris.

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