Composing Art Using Harmonic Symmetry

Why I use harmonic symmetry

My painting compositions are often based on the principles of harmonic symmetry. So, I often use a harmonic symmetry armature to check and refine my compositions, and as a guide for drawing my composition onto canvas.

I like the flexibility of the harmonic armature. It can be easily drawn on rectangles of any proportion without weakening its usefulness and power.

What is a Harmonic Armature?

Based on the rules of harmonic symmetry, the intersections of the harmonic armature form a pattern of intersecting lines that divide the composition into one third, one quarter, and one half. The intersecting lines also create a pattern of structural diagonal lines. All these lines can be used to guide the placement of elements within your composition to give it greater power and interest.

Checking my composition with a harmonic armature

Watch as I explain what I am looking for when analyzing the composition for my painting Tangerine On Old Books. (This is a excerpt from a instructional video about luminous still life painting, Tangerine On Old Books – Part 1, you can watch on my YouTube Channel.

Harmonic Armature as a Drawing Guide

In addition to using the harmonic armature as a composition tool, it’s my favorite drawing guide to transfer my composition to canvas. A major benefit for me is it keeps my mind on the compositional structure as I draw.

Before you draw the armature, you need to be sure the canvas and the composition have the same proportions. I do this by selecting the canvas size in advance, then in Photoshop I size the composition image to match the canvas dimensions. I then overlay a harmonic armature over the image to use as a drawing guide. This video explains how to do this in Photoshop.

Free Harmonic Armature Download

I encourage you to download the free Harmonic Armature Set to use with your own projects. The set includes three harmonic armatures; white, gray and black.

Harmonic Armature set download

No Photoshop, No Problem

You can use the harmonic armature without Photoshop. You will need to draw the armature onto both the source image (photograph or drawing) and the surface you are painting on. Be sure that the source and surface’s aspect ratio (the relationship of height and width) are the same. You can calculate the aspect ratio by measuring the height and width of your composition, and divide the longest side by the short side.

For example: If your composition’s long side is 10” and the short side is 8” your formula is 10 ÷ 8=1.25. The aspect ratio is 1:1.125 (referred to as 1.125). Two standard-sized canvases with an aspect ratio of 1.25 are 16×20, 24×30.

Drawing the Armature

All you need is primed canvas or panel, a pencil, and ruler. Maybe an eraser, just in case you mess up. Simply draw armature lines in this order:

  1. Draw diagonal lines connecting all four corners. The lines will cross in the center.
  2. Measure the distances from edge to the center.
  3. Use those measurements to mark the center of the top, bottom, and side edges.
  4. Draw vertical and horizontal lines connecting those center marks dividing your canvas into quarters.
  5. Finally, draw lines connecting all the corners and center marks.
  6. OPTIONAL: Draw vertical and horizontal lines that connect some of the intersections of the diagonals.

You’re ready to draw

Intersection of your source image and the armature give you clear markers to guide your drawing. After the drawing’s done, erase most of  the armature lines to make the drawing more clear. Then apply a light coat of workable fix to hold the drawing in place. Now you’re ready to begin painting.


Learn more about harmonic symmetry and composition for artists.


The Art of Composition
James Cowman’s comprehensive composition website. Cowman teaches both harmonic and dynamic symmetry for artists and photographers. Several valuable, FREE resources can be downloaded from The Art of Composition.

(affiliate links)

Lessons in Classical Painting: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier by Juliette Aristides
Lessons in Classical Painting presents aspiring artists with the fundamental skills and tools needed to master painting in the atelier style. With more than 25 years of experience in ateliers and as an art instructor, Aristides pairs personal examples and insights with theory, assignments and demonstrations for readers, discussions of technical issues, and inspirational quotes.


Art and Visual Perception by Rudolf Arnhiem
Since its publication fifty years ago, this work has established itself as a classic. It casts the visual process in psychological terms and describes the creative way one’s eye organizes visual material according to specific psychological premises. In 1974 this book was revised and expanded, and since then it has continued to burnish Rudolf Arnheim’s reputation as a groundbreaking theoretician in the fields of art and psychology..



The Painter’s Secret Geometry by Charles Boulea
This richly illustrated examination of visual arts in the European tradition shows how the great masters employed the “golden mean” and other geometrical patterns to compose their paintings. Author Charles Boulea’s original, informative, and stimulating, The Painter’s Secret Geometry reveals the framework of art as well as its most profound and secret poetry.



The Art of Still Life by Todd M. Casey
The Art of Still Life offers a comprehensive, contemporary approach to the subject that instructs artists on the foundation basics and advanced techniques they need for successful drawing and painting. In addition to Casey’s stunning paintings, the work of over fifty past and present masters is included, so that the book is both a hardworking how-to manual and a visual treasure trove of some of the finest still life art throughout history and today.



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