A Question of Shape

More on proportions

I have a small, rotating bookshelf in my office. On top of this bookshelf sits my recently turned item. Often I find myself sitting and staring at these, absorbing the various shapes.

Why does this little box elder vessel give me a sense of harmony and completeness while this juniper pot doesn’t. The juniper has some nice grain patterns that grab the eye, but the shape doesn’t suit me. Why?

Box Elder Vessel

Small Juniper Vessel

Last post, A Question of Proportion, I talked about the way great art seems to conform to a certain proportion known as the golden section or golden rectangle. That designation is easy to apply when dealing with things with square corners and rectilinear shape. But how does one make allowances for the varied dimensions of a hollow vessel?

After making several measurements I discovered that the box elder vessel comes close to the proportions of the golden rectangle; the juniper doesn’t. The box elder vessel has a visual break at the black line near the top. The height of the vessel up to the black line divided by the greatest width gives a ratio of 0.69. (The ratio of the golden rectangle is 0.62.) It is this relationship that catches the eye. If one measures the full height and compares that to the greatest width, the ratio is 0.76; too tall.

My next comparison is between these two taller juniper vessels. Again one pleases me, the other is not as good. Neither of these form a golden-rectangle relationship between greatest width and height. But when I average the greatest width with the width of the base, the first vessel has a ratio of “average” width to height equal to 0.664. The other vessel looks too fat, and indeed it has a ratio of 0.705; confirming my sense that it needs to diet.

First Juniper Vessel

Second Juniper Vessel

After thinking about all this, I have come to the following conclusions.

  • When confronted with a shape of varying dimensions, your eye doesn’t just deal with greatest diameter in determining harmony of proportion. Somehow, the whole aggregate is taken into account in a way that I don’t know how to quantify. We have to trust our intuitive sense of the fit of the proportions.
  • I was taught that good design means that heavy-appearing portions need to be on the bottom. All these shapes, except the small juniper vessel, violate that rule. Again the heavy-near-the-top box elder and two juniper vessels sit lightly on our sense of right in a way I can’t explain.

First Juniper Vessel

Small Juniper Vessel

“So,” we may ask, “What are the rules here?”

The only rule I can deduce is that your brain has a good grasp on what works and what doesn’t. Your job and my job is to train our eye to guide us in determining pleasing shapes and to practice until we have those shapes under our fingers.

Ellis Hein

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About Ellis Hein

I am a woodturner and the author of The Woodturner's Project Book. I have a life-long interest in the gospel preached by George Fox and the early Quakers. You can see some of my material on that subject at http://nffquaker.org/profiles/blog/list?user=1zw2th7nj9p89.
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