There are no rules in art.
But, there are suggestions, some of them quite strong.
One of these is that paintings should not be completely symmetrical. Although a design with a strong central feature can be very stable, too much symmetry is usually felt to be undesirable – the risk is that it can lead to a static painting that does not propel the eye to move through the canvas in a meaningful way.
Even those compositions that have a strong central feature will usually have some asymmetry around the sides. A classic example is Rafael’s Sistine Madonna, below.
The Madonna and the two flanking figures form a clear pyramid. Like it’s architectural cousin, pyramids in paintings lend rock-solid stability. However, this painting is not exactly symmetrical. Within the confines of this pyramidal composition, Rafael has introduced many uneven and unmatched elements. For instance, compare the green drapery in each upper corner, the differences in the figures flanking the Madonna, and even Mary’s posture. These differences create exciting variations within the solid pyramid, and help to move the eye on a dynamic journey throughout the canvas.
One could draw an imaginary line down the center of this painting and reverse one side of it, forming an exact mirror image.
Incredibly, it still works as a painting – even with the duplication of Mary’s head. The power of the pyramidal design is clear, and in fact even this version does lead the eye through a circular path through the canvas. But… it doesn’t do it in such an dynamic way. Rafael’s original design offers just enough variation that the eye is propelled through the journey, not just guided. It’s a masterful blending of balance and movement.
The “suggestion” of avoiding perfectly symmetrical designs is generally a good one, and Rafael’s masterpiece demonstrates why.
The intent behind this week’s painting, therefore, was to set aside that suggestion and create a painting that is almost completely symmetrical. Rafael’s purpose was to create a thrilling and energetic visual experience, but the goal here is to create a calm and meditative one, and a fully symmetrical pyramid is a tremendous help towards that end.
This composition relies heavily on the pattern of the carpet to help move the eye around the canvas.
It does this in a way that draws a circle around the Japanese teacup, furthering the notion of guardianship. The only asymmetries in this painting arise from variations in the patterns of stars in the teapot and those in the rug. As hand-made objects, one would expect – and even desire – those irregularities. They create a subtle visual interest that one experiences only with close observation of the painting – a different kind of experience from the one Rafael has crafted.
The Technical Side
“Guardian” was done entirely from life (without use of photography). It is painted with oil on linen, which is mounted to a hardboard panel. The dimensions are 14×11 inches (36×28 cm). It began with a straight-forward grisaille (black and white) underpainting. This was followed by a mixture of opaque paints and glazes on top of the underpainting.
If you’re interested in adding “Guardian” to your collection, send a message using the “Connect with Me” section on the sidebar to the right. Please bookmark this blog and watch for posts about this coming week’s painting.