The Picture Plane
The picture plane is the flat surface on which an artist works — the sheet of paper, stretched canvas, wooden panel, copper sheet, wall, ceiling, computer screen, etc. For images that convey the illusion of depth, the picture plane is like the window onto an imagined world.
Picture frame ~ in design, the outermost boundaries of the picture plane. The term also refers to the frame in which a picture is mounted.
Format ~ the shape or proportions of a picture plane. Common format shapes are the rectangle, square, circle and oval, but great art has been done on oddly shaped formats as well.
Rectangular format
The rectangular format is called the quadro — an Italian word that means "painting", "picture" or "image". Rectangular formats are relatively easy to construct, frame and display, and they work well for most subject matter. Consequently, they're the most common.
Orientation ~ a format's major axis (assuming it has one). Rectangles have two axes of symmetry, the vertical and the horizontal. The longer of the two is the major axis.
  • A rectangular format in which the horizontal is the major axis has a horizontal orientation. This is the standard format for landscapes.
  • A rectangular format in which the vertical is the major axis has a vertical orientation. This is the standard format for portraits.
Orientation affects how a subject is perceived. A vertical subject such as a standing figure, a tree or the mast of a ship appears taller in an upright format. Similarly, the horizon line of a landscape is accentuated by a horizontal format.
The orientation of the picture plane strengthens those elements in a composition that have the same orientation. Elements with the opposite orientation serve as counterpoints.
Rectangular formats in opposite orientations. Top: Rembrandt's mill, an etching by Rembrandt van Rijn (6 x 8, 1641). Bottom: Hendrickje sleeping, also by Rembrandt (brush with brown ink, 10 x 8, c. 1655).
Two Florida scenes by German-born American landscape painter Hermann Herzog. Left: Figure in a river landscape (oil, 16 x 20, c. 1910, Cummer Museum, Jacksonville, Florida). Right: Florida marsh scene (oil, 13 x 16, c. 1888-1910, Harn Museum, Gainesville, Florida).
In the landscape on the left, the horizontal planes of the river, the brushy bank and the boat are emphasized by the painting's horizontal orientation. The tall trees provide contrast. In the vertical format on the right, the trees are the strongest element.
Sunsets by American impressionist George Inness. Above: Sunset on a meadow (oil, 16 x 24, 1878). Below: Afterglow (oil, 14 x 12).
Two portraits by Swedish artist Anders Zorn, one in a vertical format, the other in a horizontal format. Left: Martha Dana (oil, 27 x 20, c. 1899, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Right: Mrs. Lucy Turner Joy (oil, 24 x 30, 1897, Saint Louis Art Museum).
Height-to-width ratio ~ the height of a format divided by its width. A painting that's 6 feet high and 4 feet wide has a height-to-width ratio of 6:4 (pronounced "six-to-four") = 3:2 (because both 6 and 4 are divisible by 2) = 1.5:1 (3 divided by 2 is 1.5). What that means in practical terms is that the paintings's height is 1.5 times greater than its width.
A study of museum frames in the 19th century showed that the average height-to-width ratio for the vertical format was 5:4 (1.25:1). For the horizontal format it was about 4:3 (1.33:1). In other words, the horizontally oriented paintings in museums were a little wider than the vertically oriented paintings were tall. The paintings in both orientations were fairly compact ~ not very wide or very tall.
Even so, paintings that are twice as wide as they are tall, and twice as tall as they are wide, do exist. In the latter half of the 19th century, these formats were fairly popular.
Two paintings by George Inness with average height-to-width ratios (5:4 for the vertical and 4:3 for the horizontal). Left: Midsummer (oil, 42 x 34, 1875). Right: Evening landscape (oil, 48 x 66, 1863).
The height-to-width ratio of the top painting is 0.5:1, which means that it's width is 2 times its length. The painting in the middle is slightly more elongated, with a ratio closer to 0.4:1. With a ratio of 0.25:1, the bottom painting is the most extreme — it's 4 times as wide as it is high. Top: Haystacks at Chailly at sunrise by Claude Monet (oil, 12 x 24, 1865, San Diego Museum of Art). Middle: King Lear, Act I, Scene I by Edwin Austin Abbey (oil, 55 x 127, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.). Bottom: A world of their own by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (oil, 5 x 20, 1897, Taft Museum, Cincinnati).
The top two paintings have formats similar to wide-screen films. (Panavision's height-to-width ratio is the same as Abbey's King Lear, in the middle.) Clearly, the wide format lends itself to panoramic landscapes and staged portrayals of events, historic as well as fictional.
In The Power of the Center, perceptual psychologist and art theorist Rudolf Arnheim describes how various formats affect the way viewers look at a composition. His basic point: A composition's pictorial elements lose importance as they move away from the format's center. When the format is extremely wide, as it is in these paintings, most of the compositional action needs to take place in or around the center in order to compensate for this human perceptual characteristic.
In fact, all three paintings have strong centers. In the Monet, the focal area is defined by the objects that penetrate the sky — the large haystack and the distant bell tower. In the Abbey painting the main pictorial elements occupy a wide space delimited by the two supporting players; the center holds because Cordelia, the central figure, stands out like a beacon of light. In the bottom painting Alma-Tadema, who experimented with composition, pushed the format about as far as it can go.
A tall format is appropriate for a single standing figure. (These paintings caused a scandal when they were exhibited together at the Paris Salon in 1884 ~ Dr. Pozzi, portrayed here in his dressing gown, was Madame X's [Amelie Gautreau's] lover.) Left: Madame X (oil, 82 x 43, 1883-84, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Right: Dr. Pozzi at home (oil, 80 x 40, 1881, Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles).
Cecilia Beaux could have chosen a more compact format for little James. By placing him at the bottom of a canvas that's twice as tall as it is wide, she has captured his smallness. Whistler has done the opposite. By positioning the girl in white at the top of the picture plane, he has given us an exalted view of virginal young womanhood. Left: James Murdock Clark, Jr., by Cecilia Beaux (oil, private collection). Right: Symphony in white No. 1, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (oil, 84 x 43, 1862, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
The square
The square is a rectangular format with special properties. First, the height equals the width (the ratio is 1:1.) Second, it has four axes of symmetry — the vertical, the horizontal, and the two diagonals. (As noted above, all other rectangles have only two axes: the vertical and the horizontal.) Because of these characteristics, the square is treated as a separate topic.
The format lends itself to symmetrical compositions of two types. In the first, pictorial elements are aligned with the vertical, horizontal and/or diagonal axes. In the second, they rotate around the square's center.
Click on the square to see its axes of symmetry.
Left: Blessing by Abdul Mati Klarwein, 1965. Klarwein found many ways to elaborate on the square's geometry. To see more of his work, visit Klarwein's website. Right: Flowers by pop artist Andy Warhol (offset lithograph on paper, 23 x 23, 1964). Warhol also liked the square format. Here, he makes use of the circle implied by the square's symmetry and its imaginary rotation around the center.
According to perceptual psychologist and art theorist Rudolf Arnheim, diagonals add stability to the square and draw attention to its center. Klarwein's Private property, 1977.
The center of a square exerts an almost gravitational pull on the pictorial elements around it. Nativity, by Piero della Francesca, an artist, mathematician and geometer of the early Italian Renaissance (panel, 49 x 48), 1470, National Gallery, London).
In Arnheim's view, the square format provides a sense of stillness and serenity, calm and dignity. "By excluding the dominance of either direction the square arrests the terrestrial scene and makes it dwell in timelessness. It is a format, therefore, congenial to artists who aim at presenting a stable world." (The Power of the Center, p. 140.)
Round format
Because it has no beginning or end, the circle is a universal symbol for infinity and completeness. As a result, the round format (called a tondo) is perfectly suited for representations of the ideal and everlasting.
Perceptually, the format has the characteristic of seeming to separate and insulate a scene from its surroundings, placing it in a world of its own. This quality of detachment is another reason the tondo has been the preferred format for portraying the divine, and especially for portraits of the Madonna.
Geometrically, the circle has two unique properties. First, every point on it is equidistant from the center. Second, it has an infinite number of axes of symmetry: No matter where you draw a line through the center, the two semi-circles that result are mirror images of one another. In a round painting, the center is of maximal importance.
The round format lends itself to circular designs. "The circular contour stresses the roundness of curves in the composition and gives them special prominence." (The Power of the Center, p. 130.)
Gage Taylor's Holy grove (oil, 42 diameter round, 1977).
Left: The Alba Madonna by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance (oil, 37 diameter round, c.1510, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Right: Raphael's Madonna of the Chair, also called "the seated Madonna" (oil on panel, 28 diameter round, 1514-15, Pitti Gallery, Florence, Italy).
Even when a young woman is portrayed realistically, the round format imparts a sense of timeless perfection. Sheila, by Bill Martin (oil, 16 diameter round, 1971).
Because the geometry of the circle always leads us back to the center, anything placed there will take on a significance that it wouldn't have in another location.
Oval format
During the Renaissance the circle was considered the shape of divine perfection. In the periods that followed, artists favored the ellipse.
The ellipse has characteristics of both the circle and the rectangle. The more compact it becomes, the closer it gets to being a circle. The longer it is, the more it resembles a rounded rectangle.
Upright, the oval format suggests two compositional schemes that make use of the top and bottom curves. In the first scheme, the upper curve is used to frame a head. In the second, the lower curve frames a group of figures. In the latter scheme the ellipse's upper portion is often filled with foliage or clouds.
Two oval paintings in the French Rococo style. Left: Madame Grand (Catherine Noele Worlee), by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (oil, 36 x 29 oval, 1783, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Right: Jupiter and Callisto by Francois Boucher (63 x 51 oval, 1769, Wallace Collection, London).
Here, the arrangement of flowers echoes the curves of the picture frame. A Still life of roses, irises, tulips, narcissi and other flowers, by Balthasar van der Ast (oil on copper, 12 x 9 oval, 1624). Van der Ast was a Dutch still life painter during the Baroque period. (Rembrandt and Rubens are two of his better-known contemporaries.)
In the horizontal orientation, the oval format tends to lead the eye along an elliptical path around the composition.
Hagar in the wilderness by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (fresco, 1726-29, Palazzo Patriarcale, Udine). Tiepolo was a Venetian artist and printmaker of the Rococo period.
Which scene by Thomas Gainsborough is more likely to promote an elliptical eye path? Top: River landscape with rustic lovers (oil, 48 x 64 oval, 1781). Bottom: Farmyard with milkmaid, cows, donkeys (oil, 37 x 49, c. 1755, Norwich Castle Museum and Gallery, England).
"The oval format permits, encourages, and indeed inspires a play of curves and counter-curves within the ellipse of the canvas . . ." (Rudolf Arnheim quoting Jean Cailleux, The Power of the Center, p. 137.) James Sant's portrait of his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Mary Edith (oil, 30 x 25). Sant was Queen Victoria's official portraitist.
The oval shape of a head is repeated by an oval picture frame. Portrait of a girl by Ivan Makarov, 1890's.
An example of vignetting. Portrait of a girl by Alphonse Maria Mucha (drawing, 1913).
Vignetting ~ in art, confining the visible portion of a subject to an oval or round area within a rectangular picture plane. The cropped area (often the shoulders and chest) simply fades into the background. Vignetting recreates one of the characteristics of round and oval formats: It isolates the subject from its surroundings and focuses our full attention on it. ("Vignetting" is pronounced "veen-YET-ing".)
Composite format
A composite format results when two shapes are joined to make a third, more complex shape. Nested shapes are another type of composite format.
Some of the world's greatest masterpieces have been painted on composite formats. Of particular significance is the format in which the lower portion is a rectangle and the upper portion a circle or ellipse — because this combination of shapes has represented the relationship between heaven and earth at least since ancient Rome. (The square symbolizes the earth and the circle represents heaven; "squaring the circle" means reconciling the two.)
A composite format offers an artist some of the characteristics of the shapes that comprise it as well as the interfaces between them. Here, Rubens has placed Mary outside of the square (the earth plane), and arranged the gathering below under the arc of the circle (heaven). Assumption of the virgin, by Peter Paul Rubens (oil, 180 x 117, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium, c. 1620).
Rembrandt's Deposition from the cross (oil on panel, 35 x 26, 1633, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Here, only the circle is illuminated.
Half of Jesus is in the rectangle and the other half only in the ellipse — a reference to Christ's dual nature as partly human and partly divine. The adoration of the trinity, by Albrecht Durer (oil on panel, 53 x 49, 1511, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.) Durer was a German artist, printmaker and mathematician during the Renaissance.
Placing this composite format inside a rectangle creates a niche for a still life or a frame for a head.
The painting on the left is an example of trompe l'oeil (pronounced "trompe-loy"), which means "trick the eye" in French. Trompe l'oeil is a style of art in which the picture plane isn't just a window onto an artist's representation of reality — the artist tries to trick you into believing that it is reality. Left: Bouquet of flowers in a niche, by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (oil on panel, 14 x 9, Liechtenstein Museum). Right: Flower, by Alphonse Maria Mucha (lithograph, 26 x 17, 1897).
Madonna and child by Fra Filippo Lippi(tempera on panel, 31 x 20, c. 1440, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.).
Rubens' Madonna in a garland of flowers (oil, 74 x 83, 1616-17, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The flowers were painted by Rubens' friend, Jan Bruegel the Elder.
Other formats
Two other formats will be mentioned here: triptychs and altarpieces, and oddly shaped sections of walls and ceilings. Incredibly beautiful art has been done on both of these formats.
Triptychs and altarpieces ~ panels of artwork that are hinged together so they can be folded. A triptych has three panels. Altarpieces may have two panels or multiple panels and were displayed behind an altar.
The three panels that comprise a triptych can be parts of a single scene or have a conceptual relationship. Both types of associations are occurring here: In the central panel, the resurrected Jesus and his disciple Thomas are interacting in the 1st century, while the two people in the wings (the man who commissioned the triptych and his wife) appear to be looking on from the 17th century. Doubting Thomas, by Peter Paul Rubens (oil on panel, 57 x 92, 1613-15, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium).
Modern triptychs usually consist of three paintings that are hung together.
The Stefaneschi triptych, by Giotto di Bondone and assistants (tempera on wood, c. 1320, the Vatican).
The Ghent altarpiece by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, completed 1432 (Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium). The altarpiece closes to reveal another set of paintings.
On the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel is an astounding set of paintings by Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, engineer and poet Michelangelo Buonarroti. He painted some of these masterpieces on oddly shaped sections of the ceiling's architecture.
Michelangelo's Libyan sibyl (fresco, 1508-12, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican.) The Libyan sibyl, one of the prophetesses of classical mythology, foretold the "coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed".
The Sistine Chapel ceiling. The white circle shows the location of the Libyan sibyl.
Tiepolo's Apotheosis (glory) of the Pisani family, a ceiling fresco in the Villa Pisani at Stra in northern Italy (925 x 531, 1761-1762). The ceiling's architecture has been incorporated into the painting's design.
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