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Monday, March 21, 2016

Dynamic Symmetry and Jay Hambidge

Man, this article just keeps getting the traffic. Is it all just one of you true believers checking back to see if I've issued a retraction and acknowledged my wicked ways, or is this thing turning up in web searches, or what? - Andrew 5/24/17

I've been reading more about this to see what the heck it's all about, and I have to say to a mathematician with pretensions of understanding a little about Art, it's comedy gold. This is a guy who either started, or was deeply embroiled, in the early 20th century fad of "explaining" Art with simple geometry. He's all over the Golden Mean, and he's got this glorious system of drawing lines all over the place. He also gets in to spirals, but I couldn't face reading any more by the time I got there.

Mr. Hambidge began his career attempting to explain the beauty of the greek vase, and wound up unlocking the Lost Secret of the Greeks. My father was a classicist, and I can assure you that the ancient greeks were literate and had, indeed, a complete system of writing. The fact that Hambidge cannot refer to a single line written by an actual Greek on this subject, and has to resort to a single line of rather vague allusion written by a Roman which he himself allows is pretty suspect renders the whole Rediscovered Secret business ridiculous. While it's possible that we have, somehow, lost every relevant text, while it's possible that the secrets of Dynamic Symmetry were held closely and never written down, Occam's Razor dictates clearly that this is not the hypothesis we ought to be working with.

In actual historical work, Lost Secrets are generally either Not Lost, Not Secret, or Not Real. Sometimes all three. This one falls clearly into the Not Real category.

But let's look at Dynamic Symmetry itself. Mr. Hambidge is remarkably obscure on what it actually is, but it seems to come down to using proportions which include square roots. Rather than boring Static symmetry based on ratios like 1:2 or 2:3, we go for the more exciting of 1 to the square root of various things. Sadly, any irrational number can be approximated as closely as you like by a rational one (that is, a ratio of whole numbers), so the whole premise falls apart instantly. If you're willing to fudge a little, and Mr. Hambidge is, then the difference between his "root-two-rectangle" (sides in the ratio of 1:1.41421356...) and a 2:3 rectangle becomes negligible.

Mr. Hambidge has this lovely system involving a variety of rectangles, which he then adorns with various diagonals:

First draw the diagonals (orange) and then you drop perpendiculars to those diagonals to the opposite corners (green and blue). The rectangle with ratio of 1 to the square root of two has the pleasing property that the blue perpendiculars and the green perpendiculars land in exactly the same place on the long side (please forgive my shabby drawing, the circled area shows where the two lines ought to meet exactly on the side). It's a perfectly pleasing shape. Here's the same deal on the 2:3 rectangle that was standardized by the 35mm frame:

As you can see it is totally different from the Dynamic root-two rectangle, being only boring old Static symmetry. Or, no, wait. That's insane. They're actually pretty close, and if we're slopping things into a frame with a paintbrush or a camera, they're going to come out indistinguishable. If we refer to Mr. Hambidge's explanations of How This Explains Everything, we find him introducing at least this much slop in order to force pictures to fit his model. If you're willing to go as far as 7:5 (boring, Static), the difference becomes virtually invisible. On, say, a 20 by 28 inch canvas, you can draw that same mesh of lines to be, on average, 0.14 inches off of the "perfect" ones from the root-two rectangle.

Notice that the perpendiculars are starting to land on that long side with a little gap, which gets larger as the rectangles get longer and skinnier. Don't worry, Mr. Hambidge has a solution, which is to shove in some more lines:

This isn't even a complete set. I am moderately certain that at least some statements of Dynamic Symmetry allow you to draw in a lot more diagonals, but let us take this as the basic set. As if this was not enough, you can chop his rectangles in to smaller ones, and draw the lines in those instead. Imagine, if you will, 5 copies of the rectangle above stacked on top of one another. The result is a rectangle with the same ratio of sides, but instead of merely 12 diagonal lines, you have 60 of them to play with. If that doesn't work, you can rotate the whole mess 90 degrees. Since most of his rectangles are too skinny to actually describe much actual Art, Mr. Hambidge also introduced a system by which you can shove his magic rectangles into other shaped pictures by padding them with squares and rectangles. This allows you to shovel his bewildering nets of lines around almost arbitrarily in the frame.

Now, it is worth noting that the square root rectangles are exactly the ones where this business of drawing that perpendicular to the diagonal will land on the long side in a good place. In general, a 1 to square root of N rectangle can be divided up in to N equal rectangles, like a loaf of bread. Each of those N rectangles will have the same proportions, and that perpendicular thing will land as the diagonal of the new, smaller, rectangles. Each of the five rectangles in the thing above is similar in the strict geometrical sense to the surrounding one.

Which is neat, but seems to be apropos of absolutely nothing. Who cares, ultimately?

The general method for Explaining Art a la Jay Hambidge is to locate any sort of diagonal things in the frame. These can be actual diagonal elements (the girl's arm, the pier, the fence) or you can just look for single objects (the face, the urn, the flower). Then you sift through the family of magic rectangles seeing which one gives you the most near-coincidences when you slide it around to best-fit. Then you pad it into place according to his remarkably flexible system of compound rectangles and if that doesn't quite work, you crop the original a little to get things to line up a bit better.

In a pinch you can just give up padding entirely and shove the magic rectangle of choice into the frame in the right spot, and hope nobody notices.

See, for instance, Bellows' painting of Dempsey and Firpo, which places various legs and things per the "root 5 rectangle". This painting was allegedly designed by the painter to fit, and it sort of does. But the magic rectangle in question has to be placed just-so in the frame, and even then the alignments are somewhat vague. It's certainly credible in this case that it was deliberate, since we (apparently) have the painter's affidavit as it were, but that doesn't make the alignments any more precise.

This is, essentially, a variation on the same game whereby the golden ratio is found everywhere, but being much more complicated, it really feels like you're uncovering something.

In short, Hambidge was a complete humbug. I suspect that he believed his own nonsense, but only because he lacked any of the right sort of precise critical thinking. He was clearly in love with simple geometrical constructions, and also want to Find The Secret behind making things look good (there is no secret, it's just good taste and practice).

As noted, this particular flavor of quackery was quite popular in the first half of the 20th century. Mathematics and Science were going to explain everything. Photographers, gravitating naturally to methods, systems, procedures, adopted this sort of thing with a glad cry, and continue to do so. Note, for instance, this fellow who appears to be trying to make a business out of selling, at a rather handsome price, a system invented by other people (he's also buying amazon reviews, oops, but don't worry I turned him in already). Tavis doesn't seem to be buying reviews any more, good for you, Tavis!

This doesn't seem to be a terrible system for organizing things, if you're trying to make Art. There's some pretty nice looking diagonals going on there, which you could choose to use. Myron Barnstone has a whole system of drawing that's probably less crazy than Hambidge's full system, and he can draw just fine. I dare say some of his students can as well (incidently, what Tavis Glover, the chappie buying amazon reviews, seems to be selling is pretty much a retelling of Barnstone's system, which begs the question of "why not buy Barnstone's?")

I would ditch the square root business, though, that's just silly.

Still, there ain't no substitute for taste.


  1. Is he 'Hambidge' or 'Hambridge'? You seem unsure.

  2. Hambidge! I tried to get it right, but I see at least a couple slipped through. There's no 'r', and I will go fix the ones I can find, now! Thanks!

  3. You have to feel sorry for people (men, I suspect) who can't sleep at night until they've "explained" something that bothers them with a reductive formula. So that's why I get that funny feeling whenever I see [insert object of desire]!

    But the ones who go the extra step and decide to teach (or, worse, sell) the Magic Formula are, I think we can agree, simply learned fools... As Wordsworth wrote, "We murder to dissect"...


  4. My eyelashes hurt.

    With best regards.


  5. Sounds like this guy:


    This is a mildly amusing video titled: "Ten Myths About the Rule of Thirds." Although I agree with his basic premise, he goes on about similar diagrams with lots of diagonals.

    Ken (KenC on TPF)

    1. Yeah, that's Tavis Glover, one of the more visible of the acolytes of this business. Tavis, I suspect, got most of his stuff from Adam Marelli, who's also a bit of an acolyte despite being really very good.

  6. Andrew, you are, without a doubt, the most ignorant person I have ever come across on the internet. Your constant bashing of design, and your complete absence of any skills blows my mind. I have no idea how you have the nerve to post such garbage other then your own insecurities about who you are as an artist or a person. Were you an abused child? Are you in a bad relationship? What gives with you? Do you honestly think Tavis gives a shit about anything you have to say? Or anyone else for that matter? I've seen your photographs on PetaPixel, and sir, you have no talent and clearly you are not trained in any aspect of art.

    1. Obviously you care, Tavis. Thanks for your input!

      Perhaps next time you could actually point out, you know, an actual error rather than ranting on about my ignorance and probable family history.

      You get this one shot free. Further comments that are purely insults will be simply dumped. See my commenting policy.

  7. Ahhhh....it's so easy to push aside something that you can't understand. Andrew, you have gone out of your way to prove that you don't understand anything about Dynamic Symmetry. Of course the 1.5 rectangle is different than a root 2 rectangle. A root 2 rectangle is different than any other root rectangles. I fail to see your point other than you seem really lost about all of this. This article is the equivalent to a butcher claiming to be a heart surgeon. I'm not exactly sure why you put so much effort into to proving that this has no validity. Let's put aside your obsession with Tavis for the moment and really look at what you have written above. It makes no sense. Saying that one rectangle is almost as close as another is like saying 1+1 can equal 2 or can equal 3. If you understood design you would realize that designers use overlapped root 4 rectangles to design in a 1.5. But, unfortunately, you have taken one book and spun it around to fit your lack of understanding about design. If you want to just wing it, by all means do so. But you have spent so much time ranting about all of this that it makes me wonder what your real goal is. Please, for your sake find something else to write about. Maybe an article on why Steve Jobs had no idea what he was doing when he created Apple. This is the weirdest website on photography I have ever seen.

    1. Nope, it's you again. You know how I can tell? Because you keep going on and on about "design" it's like your special thing.

      What I've written above makes perfect sense in the real world. If one rectangle is the same as another to within the width of a pencil line, then -- while they are different rectangles -- it doesn't matter which one you use. One might as well be the other, in practical terms.

      It's inconceivably that you cannot understand this, since you're an expert on design, so why you persist in not admitting it I cannot imagine. Presumably because you're obsessed with trying to make me look "wrong" when I am not.

      Good luck with that and, as always, your comments are welcome!

  8. My great grandfather - Jay Hambidge - spent almost 27 years of his life developing and teaching his art design theory "Dynamic Symmetry", and yet you pass him off as a hack and a humbug? You may not agree with dynamic symmetry, but it looks as though you also don't have a full understanding of it? Both Jay's daughter and grand-daughter were practicing artists but never once used the principles of dynamic symmetry - so it's not for everyone certainly, but there were and still are plenty of artists in various fields that have found dynamic symmetry useful. Allow me to suggest a book that will deepen your perspective on DS: "Denman Ross and American Design Theory" by Marie Frank (2011) specifically chapter 4 on dynamic symmetry. Read it please and be the wiser for it! Then perhaps you might correct your blog.

    1. Yes, I do. That's how it goes.

      Look, it's a very common intellectual error. Committing it does not make a fellow stupid or evil, just wrong. Humans are pattern-seekers, we see patterns in things where they do not exist, constantly. It seems to be very very basic to us.

      There are two things you can do with Dynamic Symmetry:

      1) You can make art using its design ideas. There's nothing wrong with this. Most artists have some sort of system, and this one seems more flexible than most. Some of the results from DS are pretty iffy, but so with all the other systems, eh?

      2) You can attempt to Explain The Ancients. This is where the wheels definitively fall off completely. The ancients, often enough, explained themselves just fine thank you. Usually people with some sort of system for explaining the ancients, by it Dynamic Symmetry explaining Art, or von Däniken explaining egyptian pyramids, are simply wrong. Occam's razor dictates, for excellent reasons, that we should accept da Vinci's explanations over Hambidge's. Usually these people have to explain away the fact that there is no written record -- whatsoever -- supporting their ideas with some sort of Secret Society nonsense, and now we're just in to fringe conspiracy theory stuff. I forget if Hambidge fell that far or not, to be honest, it's been many months and I have read much since then.

      And, while I thank you for your citation, I have no interest in reading further about Dynamic Symmetry, and I see no need to "correct" my blog.