The Simplicity & Beauty of Dynamic Symmetry – Visual Glossary
“Instinctive art without mental control is bound to fail” Jay Hambidge.
What is Dynamic Symmetry? It is an easy way to compose and organize your art with unity, movement, rhythm, strength and dominant diagonals. It’s a subject covered extensively throughout this site (see All Articles, Grids, Book and More Info), but before we go any further, I think we should cover where we are getting the term dynamic symmetry and how the armature of our rectangle was built.
I would call Jay Hambidge the grandfather of dynamic symmetry. He writes a book that covers it in great detail…though he doesn’t show how it relates to art. That’s where the Canon of Design comes into play.
With just the basic armature, we can see how Jay Hambidge is lining up his subjects with the major diagonals, and using his gamut to echo them.
Below I’ll introduce you to a handful of rectangles which you can use to design your art within. Knowing how to build each will help you decide which one you will need in the future. because your rectangle’s armature and shape should compliment your subjects structure. Have a good idea of what your subject is, then choose a dynamic rectangle to fit it in…not the other way around.
Dynamic Symmetry Root Rectangles
Here is a simple diagram of how to build each root rectangle. It all begins with a square. Swing the diagonal of the square down to make a root 2. Swing the diagonal of the root 2 down to make a root 3….and so on. Easy right?
After a root 5, things start getting rather long, and difficult to apply…but if you need to compose a long panorama shot, you could construct a root 6 or 7 using the same method.
Watch the three-part video series that helps you understand how to build the dynamic symmetry grids in Photoshop.
What are the Ratios Used for?
Below you’ll see ratios next to the root rectangles. Don’t let this freak you out! You won’t even really need these numbers unless you want to make a canvas or image a specific size. For instance, if you have a 24×36 that you bought at the art store and you want to cut it down to a root 3 rectangle. You like the length of 36 inches, so all you need to do is cut it down according to the root 3 ratio, 1.732.
36in / 1.732 = 20.78 inches
The same works for centimeters if it’s easier for you to measure.
Your final canvas size will be 20.78in x 36in which will equal your root 3 rectangle. What does that mean? Well if you want to shoot for a specific frame size, you will know which rectangle to use with the minimal amount of cropping.
More Info on Root Rectangles
Root 2 Rectangle= 1.414, very close to 5×7
We can easily break down the Root 2 rectangle on the theme of two or three. Theme, meaning divide it in half or in thirds. But remember, we are still going to build the basic armature within each rectangle.
Root 3 Rectangle = 1.732 very close to the 16:9 cinema screen
Remember when you created one of these Root 3 rectangles from a dot to dot (see Day 6)? Did you have flashbacks of elementary school? Anyway, all of these Root rectangles can be broken down into the same exact number of root rectangles. Root three can equally fit three root rectangles inside the mother rectangle, the Root 2 can fit two root rectangles, etc. We can see this in the example below.
To complete the armature, we can run a vertical and horizontal line through the “eyes” of the intersection points, or polar points (see Day 5). This is my preference for photography, and to analyze paintings.
NOTE: The vertical lines in the armature above can be used as well. The dynamic symmetry is not affected in these two examples because we are using the eyes to create the lines…when we use the eyes, we are still keeping the integrity of dynamic symmetry.
Just in case you forgot how to create the eyes in the diagram above, I’ve included this refresher. We run a line from each corner of the rectangle, then intersect the major diagonals (baroque and sinister) at 90 degrees…that’s it!
And we know that if the rectangle shares the same diagonal, then it is the same proportions as the mother. When we look at our basic armature from the previous diagram, we can see that we already have five Root 3 rectangles hiding within it. Isn’t this fun?!
Root 4 Rectangle = 2
The root 4, 9, 16, and 25 are all rectangles with a rational number (equal number of squares), but only the root 4 and 9 are commonly used today.
Root 5 Rectangle = 2.236 very close to the 21:9 ultra wide cinema screen
Phi Rectangle- 1.618 This is the rectangle of the whirling squares. The ratio that is found in the human body and nature. This is close to the 1.5 ratio rectangle, so if you had to, you could use the frame sizes for that and not crop anything. (I always like to make it the size of the rectangle I chose to shoot because the dynamic symmetry is specific to the rectangle. Cropping your image differently than the rectangle you composed with will violate the integrity of the dynamic symmetry…but if you are trying to match a certain frame you will have to something custom to fit, or make a compromise.)
Root Phi Rectangle- 1.2720 Take the length of the PHI rectangle, swing it up from the bottom and this will give you the Root PHI. It’ is the smallest of all of them, and it is almost exactly the same ratio as the standard 11×14 frame size, and very close to 8.5×11, 14×18 and 28×22.
1.5 Rectangle – a square and a half. Equal to 4×6, 8×12 or 24×36 frame size
As we covered in the Canon of Design Essentials (see Day 7), the basic armature of a rectangle consists of two diagonals, and four reciprocals. Then you can add horizontals and verticals through the eyes of each intersection. That’s it. Easy!
When you are building your composition, say a large painting, or a well laid out photograph with set design, you can break it down even further using major area divisions (MAD). Just use the same basic armature of the original rectangle, and shrink it down to make 4 more.
Here is the basic armature (dark) with the underlying MAD (lighter). This is the technique you can use for composing your work as well as analyzing other works of art.
You can use this basic armature build up with all of the rectangles (even arbitrary rectangles if you really must).
The gauge below can be used on unknown rectangles to find the diagonal easily, then you’ll know exactly which one was being used.
Below is an example of how Dot Bunn, a student of Myron Barnstone, uses dynamic symmetry to create the basic armature of her rectangle and design her composition. This is a rare occurrence because we don’t usually get to see the under structure of paintings. I still haven’t found any of the masters. Remember, they wanted this to be a secret. Dot Bunn has more examples of her designs on her site.
Cropping your image differently than the rectangle you composed with will violate the integrity of the dynamic symmetry.
The Rule of thirds won’t give us variety, unity, and order like dynamic symmetry and design will.
“Design created within rectangles which do not possess dynamic symmetry, the qualities of life and growth, are always flat and dead.” Jay Hambidge
DYNAMIC SYMMETRY GRID DOWNLOAD
*available on the Resources page (members only freebies)
If you don’t have time to construct the rectangles and use them in your photos or other design, feel free to download the grids I use to analyze art and crop to size. Meaning design the photo first, on location, then use these in post to help with cropping size. Don’t go shooting, then come back to Photoshop and try to line things up to the grid…you’ll be doing it backwards.
Each root rectangle has it’s own harmony, so to design your photo on location to a Root 4, then come back and crop it to the size of a Root Phi will be killing all of the harmony you’ve created with the specific diagonals and reciprocals of the rectangle.