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Your canvas format and the universe

Your artwork begins in the very moment you select your format. The canvas format  will be the first decision you will be confronted with as of how the content is going to be communicated. Your format determines much more than the position of your subject. First of all, your format determines 2 regions in the universe:

Universe = your painting + outside world

format and the universe

This relation between the canvas format an the universe is really what determines the spirit of it. The simple concept of an exactly reciprocal frame for the outside world is most suggestive.

Classical composition rules herald horizontal formats for landscape painting and vertical for portrait painting.These formats respond differently to the human eye field of view.

how formats are perceived

The human binocular eye field of view extends approximately 120º horizontally, 90º vertically. Within the field defined by these two angles we can perceive colors, shapes and depth but the highest resolution where images are sharp, depth is accurate and color discrimination is possible occurs only in a narrower cone (55º in both directions), Outside this cone our view has lower resolution yes, but is essential for an accurate detection of motion.

Horizontal formats  make us a “viewer”  in the same manner as when we look at the real world.To perceive full details of an horizontal format , we visually “sweep” the painting horizontaly to cover the whole lenth of the format, our relation to where we stand experiment no change in our perception of external space. This makes of the horizontal format a tool that expresses stability and depth.

Human field of view’s middle point is normally not set on the horizon line but 10 to15º rotated downwards, this probably to have better perception of any possible irregularity on the floor. What does it mean? considering human eyes set at a 150 cms hight, human vertical-down view allows an eye field starting at say 1 meter from the tip of the shoes but with full resolution somewhere between 2 meters an 5,5m distance.

This means that when we look at a vertical format hanged at a room distance of 3 meters for instance, and we set our middle point horizontaly, we lose sight of the floor, tending to sweep the total hight of the painting in vertical eye movements.  Loosing the sight of the floor, we feel  an unstable  space around us. When we look at a person or a near object we lose the sense of space around them. creating a forward and backward thrust.The vertical format therefore isolates the subject from the outside world,fostering interaction, personal dialog no matter what the subject of the painting might be, when we watch it we develop a subjective relationship with it.

What happens  when the format is square? square formats force the eye to move in all directions since it does not have an horizontal line in which to have a rest. It is a very active format, triggers movement and tension, expressing centrifugal / centripetal forces. They have always been used but became more popular in modern and abstract painting . Modern studies assure that looking at a square formats the eye moves in circles until it stops somewhere in the left down corner. It is not a format to tell a story (Horizontal) or to create a personal relationship (vertical) but to give a concise explanation like you would do with a Post-it or give a detail with Polaroid instant camera.


To illustrate this post I selected a special painting from Salvador Dalí, in which he choose a vertical canvas format for an horizontal subject  I think this painting illustrates very well that the format has more to do with how you want to communicate that with the subject of the painting.

So once you have decided which format to use you are confronts with the proportion and size of the rectangle. French standard measures distinguish between subjects, see table, and metric formats (Spain, Germany,, Belgian) establish just a set of measures.

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That none of them fits within the golden proportion is interesting… but I will write about it sometime in the future

It’s important to experiment with formats to gain insight as to how they can be utilized to strengthen your artistic statement.

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This post is also available in: Spanish