Discover why composition matters. The algorithm of harmony

The algorithm of harmony and the perception of beauty
in the surrounding world


There are many reasons why we might like something. One of them seems common to a great many people. I will try to answer why for most of us some sights, such as landscapes, interiors, scenes, items, are more pleasing than others.

But first, let us see some of those sights. I arranged them in thematically related pairs. Let us try to treat those images just as parts of the real world, not as artistic achievements, even though some of them would doubtless fit in the latter category as well.

On the left (or above, if you are reading this on your phone), I placed sights typically perceived as much more pleasing than those placed on the right (on phones: below).

If we agree on most of the above pairs, let us consider what all of the images on the left have in common, and thus what distinguishes them from those on the right.

Each one consists of a huge number of elements, groups of uncountable details interlaced in various parts of those diverse sights. Some might be called highly contrasting, others are toned down. Let us forget about our emotional attitudes towards the represented places or objects and focus on the compositional aspect alone. We will then see that the elements and groups of elements which constitute the images on the left, are less internally diverse than those which constitute the images on the right. Regardless whether the elements are more contrasted by their colours, shapes, sizes or textures, on the left these internal contrast levels are more limited – or in other words, more evenly distributed. Even the image of the Hindu crowd celebrating Holi, although at first it might seem more internally diverse than the image of the crowd to the right, on closer inspection turns out to be composed of forms which are much more similar to one another. The crowd on the right picture consists of uncountable structures of varying kinds, the colour and light contrasts are thicker in some parts and thinner in others. Cut through by diagonal elements, it is divided in two with the top side dominated by a square screen. These contrasts do not increase the expressive power of the neighbouring parts of the image, instead weakening it through their randomness, leading to chaos. Chaos, or irregularly distributed contrasts between elements. A similar effect can be observed on the images of the nightclub. The old English jack-plane looks pleasing not only because it looks like a wizard’s tool, but also because the dozen or so metal cranks and holds all differ from each other in such a way that none of them draws our attention away from the others by excessively standing out. Yet this is what happens with the jack-plane on the other image. The rice fields are perhaps best at illustrating this phenomenon.

An interesting question arises: if all of the rice terraces became even more similar to each other, would this sight be even more pleasing to us? I could not find such an image, but this could lead in the following direction:

And should the elements become even more similar to one another, we would reach this:

So where is the boundary at which the level of internal diversity of elements turns a monotonous image into diversity which is so pleasing to the eye, and what can happen further?

Please look at those 14 images and check:


In our research we found that most people move away from the monotony of the repeating elements to reach image 14, and then return to 11 taking it to be the most pleasing. I assume that your preferred image was also somewhere around 11. Visibly repetitive elements end on image 8. From 9 on things become more interesting. 11 offers a perfect equilibrium between maximum differences, or harmony. The left side of 12 loses the contrasts which draw the eye. In 13 the dynamic diversity in the right side of the image is so disruptive that one might have the urge to move the frame to the right to lose the left side which in comparison is boring and flat. The red form in 14 blinds us, so different that it draws all the attention and makes the remaining contrasts almost invisible. This shows how the line might be crossed in the other direction, towards increasing irregularity in the distribution of diversity. It does not seem hard to sense the boundaries between harmony and, on the one side, regularly distributed elements which are overly similar to one another, and on the other, irregularly distributed elements which are overly different from one another. In the middle, within those boundaries is where internal diversity is getting close to being perfectly balanced – and this is perceived by many as beauty. But naturally, this does not mean that one cannot enjoy some images which fall outside of those boundaries.

Iwo Zaniewski

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