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Dynamic Symmetry Explained: The Key to Great Composition

Updated: Apr 28

What Is The Key To Great Composition In Classical Oil Painting?

Dynamic Symmetry!

What is Dynamic Symmetry?

1. A Simple Tool

Dynamic symmetry is a powerful tool for creating compelling compositions that capture the viewer's attention. It's a grid-based approach that helps to arrange the key elements of a composition in a harmonious and balanced way. The idea is to use the grid to establish a sense of rhythm and movement throughout the composition, so that the eye is guided smoothly from one element to the next.

A painting by Caravaggio with and without the dynamic symmetry gridlines drawn over it that demonstrates his use of this compositional strategy.

Painting by Caravaggio with and without dynamic symmetry lines drawn - The lines of the grid help to determine where to place the various elements and how to direct movement. It is not a rigid structure, but instead a tool that you can use to improve your compositions.

2. Mathematical

At its core, dynamic symmetry is about using math to create compositions that will please the eye. By breaking down the composition into a grid, you can make more precise decisions about where to place different elements. This might include the focal point of the piece, as well as other key figures, objects, and lines that help to create a sense of movement and flow.

A painting by Caravaggio with grid lines drawn over it demonstrating his use of dynamic symmetry

Painting by Caravaggio - As long as the composition is rectangular, the grid can still be applied regardless of the dimensions.

3. Time Honored

This method has been used for centuries and can be observed in the works of some of the greatest renaissance masters. By adhering to these ratios, you can create a sense of harmony and balance that is both pleasing to the eye and emotionally engaging. This is especially useful if you want to create work with a lot of movement or energy, since the structure helps to organize these elements in a way that is visually compelling and harmonious.

Nymph and Shepherd by Titian demonstrating the use of dynamic symmetry with grid lines drawn overtop

Titian's Nymph and Shepherd

A painting by Rembrandt with gridlines drawn overtop that reveals his use of dynamic symmetry in composition.

Belshazzar's Feast By Rembrandt

A painting by El Greco with grid lines drawn over top that demonstrate his use of dynamic symmetry in his composition

Painting by El Greco

How To Create The Dynamic Symmetry Grid

The grid overlay is made by starting from a corner and drawing a line to the halfway point of the opposite side.

A line from the bottom left corner drawn to the halfway point on the upper side to show how to draw the grid

This should be done for every corner to each opposing side, making a total of 8 lines.

A line from the bottom left corner drawn to the halfway point on the upper side to show how to draw the grid

A line drawn to show how to draw the grid

Another line drawn to show how to draw the grid

Another line drawn to show how to draw the grid

Another line drawn to show how to draw the grid

Another line drawn to show how to draw the grid

Another line drawn to show how to draw the grid

Another line drawn to show how to draw the grid

Know The Purpose


It is not always necessary to be exact with these lines, and the precision necessary will depend on what their purpose is. While sketching I will usually draw these lines without any kind of measurement so that I can place them quickly and focus on the general movements. So in that case it’s not necessary to be extremely precise.

Paintings & Drawings

While making a painting or drawing, or any work that will require more time, I will be exact with the measurements. All you need to pay attention to in that case is the halfway mark of each side. You should make a clear mark at every halfway point and then use a straightedge to draw a straight line from each corner to the corresponding halfway point.

Study The Masters

To take advantage of this grid I would recommend that you study old master compositions that utilize it. There are endless examples from the renaissance. Caravaggio used this structure in almost every composition he made. Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco and countless others from the renaissance and baroque periods are great references as well.

Titian's Pieta with lines drawn overtop to show how he used the dynamic symmetry to develop his composition

The Compositional Structure of Titian's Pieta

Studying the masters will give you a more clear idea about how to use the grid, what parts of the composition can lend well to creating ‘lines’, and how the masters utilize dynamic symmetry to enhance their storytelling.

A painting by Caravaggio with grid lines drawn over top to show how he used dynamic symmetry

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

The key components of your composition should follow the central lines that are indicated on the grid. This will help to give a circular rhythm to your work. It is entirely dependent on the proportions of the canvas that you choose, so it will work the same for any size composition.

What To Look For

What you should look for after placing your lines, is how your figures can fit in the same directions as the lines. The crucial shapes and movements in the composition should follow the grid.

The elements that are most useful for creating lines and movement are: torsos, arms, legs, empty space, trees, sticks, and clothing.

Titian's Flaying of Mars's with grid lines drawn over top to show how he used dynamic symmetry to place important elements

Flaying of Mars's by Titian

Especially Important

Pay attention in particular to heads, hands, and feet. We have a special attraction to these features so they are even more important to position strategically.

Dividing the canvas using this grid will also automatically give you the division of thirds as well. So when placing faces you can also consider the rule of thirds to give the most drama and focus to important figures.

A grid drawn over top of Titian's Nymph and Shepherd to show how he used the rule of thirds together with dynamic symmetry in his masterful composition

Titian's Nymph and Shepherd demonstrates the rule of thirds

The focus of the painting can be placed near where the vertical and horizontal ⅓ lines intersect with each other, for example.

Why Use Dynamic Symmetry?

Harmony & Movement

Dynamic symmetry is the key to great composition. It is a powerful tool for creating visually pleasing compositions that are harmonious and balanced. It is based on a grid system that allows you to structure your composition in a way that takes advantage of the way our eyes naturally move and focus. The purpose of using dynamic symmetry is to create a sense of movement that feels natural to the viewer and keeps them engaged with the painting. By placing key elements of the composition on the grid, you can create a sense of balance and harmony that will draw the eye around the painting.

A painting by Leonardo da Vinci with grid lines drawn over top that shows how he used dynamic

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne by Leonardo da Vinci

Strong Focus

One of the main benefits of dynamic symmetry is that it helps you create a strong focal point for your painting. By using the grid to place key elements, you can draw the viewer's eye to a specific part of the painting and create a sense of tension or drama. However, it's important to remember that dynamic symmetry is not a one-size-fits-all solution to compositional problems. It should be used as a tool to guide your composition and create movement, but not as a rigid formula.

Remember To Study

To use dynamic symmetry effectively, it's important to study nature and the compositions of master painters. Look for patterns and structures that are present in the natural world, and try to incorporate them into your compositions. Remember that the goal is to create a sense of movement and balance that feels natural to the viewer. With practice and experimentation, dynamic symmetry can help you create compositions that are visually striking and engaging.

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