The golden reports of painters

After the lines and the angles, the question arises of the measurement of the elements painted in a pictorial composition.

I'm talking about golden measures here rather than golden ratio which is a contemporary term. The renaissance often preferred the names of "Divine proportion" or "golden ratio". It is certainly the most controversial part in the world of art commentators today because many people deny the use of these golden measures without providing any basis other than their personal rejection.

Yet the notion of measurement is as essential in a pictorial work as that of directions and values because

measure is as important as rhythm is in music,

or that the feet are in the verses of poetry.


In terms of measure, we should rather speak in the graphic field of relationships, because what generates an aesthetic is the relationship between two measures, or two beats in music.

The quality of a measurement report means that it installs a graphic aesthetic at work.


Likewise in music, if the composer does not respect a certain rhythm, his work risks becoming chaotic. In the pictorial domain, as in the architectural domain, there is a natural relation which holds the attention see the admiration of the philosophers since the highest antiquity, it is about the DORE REPORT. This relationship, first observed in the functioning of the living world, was chosen for its ability to organize the graphic compositions in such a way that they are harmonious for the eye, this in the image of the harmony visible in the cosmos. .


Why would this report be golden and where does this name come from?

Quite simply because the golden ratio is governed by what is called the golden ratio, otherwise named by the Greek letter PHI and whose value is 1.618 ... You still do not see gold in all this! Indeed, this appellation is a tribute to the Greek sculptor and architect PHIDIAS who had widely used this report in the decoration and sculptures of the Parthenon in the 5th century BC. He would have carved this report in gold letters on a pediment. So much for the presentations!

etoile david et Phi.png

For its definition, it was Euclid who first mentioned it in the 3rd century BC in his Book VI of the Elements:


A straight line is said to be cut in extreme and medium reason, when it is entirely

relative to the largest segment, as well as the largest is relatively to the smallest.

More pragmatically, the golden ratio has been detected from the earliest antiquity by observing the spirals of flowers or those of shells, or by calculating the ratio of lunar months with the solar rhythm.

Capture d’écran 2013-08-26 à

I remain convinced that the majority of painters including mathematical scholars as well as painter-architects were looking for simple and practical solutions for composing their paintings, especially with regard to dimensions. I can hardly see them doing endless calculations on a slate to find the angle of a sword or the length of a hat according to this golden report. This is why it seems to me that the painters would have used simple tools to assist them in their aesthetic research. Handy, transportable, and above all, easy-to-use tools like the knot rope of temple builders, and also the four-point compass.

Compas Harmonie du 16ème siècle

Four-point compass called "Harmony compass" 16th century

This compass allows by virtue of Thalles' theorem to obtain the golden ratio at each opening of its branches. As the articulation of the branches is established according to the golden ratio, the spacing between the branches always gives two values ​​of the golden ratio, this without making any calculation.

With this specific compass, it was customary for painters to follow the instructions of PLATO using a series of five consecutive golden bars called "fifth". And as it would be very tiresome and limited to have only 5 bars at its disposal, the tradition consisted in adding a second fifth made of 5 different bars from the first.

Compas d'harmonie montrant deux quintes dorées

In orange the first fifth of golden bars

In yellow a second fifth given by a different opening of the compass.

Thus a large part of the lengths, but also of the spaces drawn in a table are managed by these golden reports. This laborious work responded to a whole philosophy respectful of order and harmony born of divine creation.

On this LIPPI, the spacing of Jesus' fingers is raised by a first opening of the compass,
then turning the compass over, the opening on the thumb is that of the golden ratio.
The right hand of Jesus is thus conditioned by the golden measures of a first fifth.

LIPPI, présence du rapport doré

Lippi - Madonna and Child and Two Angels - 1450 - Jesus' left hand is mainly determined by the fifth in yellow. Photo Guy Mauchamp

LIPPI, présence du rapport doré avec deux quintes

Above I figured the main dimensions managed by the two fifths of golden reports.



The landscapes also responded to the same concern for the balance of dimensions and spaces. With this drawing of DURER I only mentioned two golden measures twice so as not to clutter the vision of this work too much. To appreciate it, it is best to click on the image to enlarge it.

DURER, paysage, présence du rapport doré

DURER - Johannisfriedhof landscape (detail) © GM - the two golden fifths are represented in yellow and orange in the sky.

How to detect the presence of golden reports?


First, there is a diffuse feeling of peaceful harmony that one feels in front of a work managed by golden ratios. But it is obviously through manual research that we can highlight a possible use of golden reports. It is therefore provided with a compass with four points that one sets off in search of the treasure.

There is a track that inevitably works when characters are represented in the painting: the spacing of the eyes, from the center of a pupil to the other often corresponds to one of the five measures of the fifth of Plato. It is therefore sufficient to walk the two spacing of the compass over the significant dimensions to observe their use or not.

Then the same operation can be repeated with the size of the mouth.

With "the death of Marat" by DAVID, you can raise the spacing of Marat's eyes (in yellow) on the edge of a sheet of paper and note other significant dimensions which correspond to it.

J-L DAVID, La mort de Marat, présence du rapport doré, photo gm

Painters install a close relationship between the 1st rule and the 2nd rule because the extended angles most often point to one of the 12 points of interest in the first rule. This relationship is logically found with the golden measures which also works with the first rule.

Examples of golden measurements with Girodet and Vecellio

With GIRODET and his self-portrait with a harmony compass, the golden relationships appear clearly.

Click on the image to see the commented detail.

GIRODET usage du rapport doré indiqué par son compas d'harmonie tenu en main

With Cesare VECELLIO, the golden relationship is read between the angel Gabriel and the soul of Mary. Click on the image.

VECELLIO, présence du rapport doré entre Gabriel et Marie

Do not hesitate to leave your comment, your questions at the bottom of the page, my pleasure is to be able to discuss the pictorial composition. Thank you.


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