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Science
ALL IN THE MIND
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The Golden Ratio
Wednesday 5 March 2003 4.00-4.30pm

The Golden ratio or golden section is famous in art for making paintings aesthetically pleasing.  It not only helps with the perfect composition, but the size of the painting itself can be in golden section proportions. If you imagine a rectangle where the long side is just over one and half times the other, that’s known as the golden rectangle.



See the results of our online vote below.

For some reason we seem to like rectangles which have these proportions – somehow they just look right.  This ratio also turns up in nature – it helps seeds to pack efficiently into a sunflower.  But does our brain really like looking at things which have this ratio?  In the programme Claudia Hammond went to the National Gallery’s permanent collection in London along with John Sharp who teaches geometry and art to adults and Chris McManus, Professor of Psychology at University College London.

Here are the pictures they looked at:
"An Allegorical Figure" by Cosimo Tura, probably painted between<br />1455 and 1460. ©The National Gallery
"An Allegorical Figure" by Cosimo Tura, probably painted between
1455 and 1460. ©The National Gallery

The canvas of this painting is a golden rectangle. The long side is approximately 1.61 times the length of the short side.

John Sharp has added lines to this to show how the golden section can be used to explain geometric composition. The lines cross at important parts of the painting, such as the eyes. But this could just be a coincidence - we can’t assume that these lines were deliberately used by the artist because no documentary evidence exists.

Hans Holbein the Younger "The Ambassadors", painted in 1533<br />©The National Gallery
Hans Holbein the Younger "The Ambassadors", painted in 1533
©The National Gallery

Here John Sharp has outlined the gap under the table, which is very suggestive of a golden section rectangle.

Some experiments have found that if you give people a series of rectangles to look at they often like the one with golden section proportions the best.

The results of our online vote are shown below - and by a clear majority you did indeed prefer the golden rectangle, number 3:

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<<< Back to All In the Mind: 5 March 2003 <<<

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