For centuries artists and designers have used a sum – the golden ratio – to achieve proportion. Here’s how to make it work for you.

The golden ratio is about as close as many artists and designers get to appreciating hardcore mathematics: it’s a ratio – roughly 1:1.6180339887, if you’re curious – that is widely regarded to give balanced, harmonious proportions.

Since it was first calculated with any degree of precision in Greek times, the ratio has been applied over the centuries by creatives ranging from architects to bookbinders.

Even if you’re not a maths boffin, the basics of the golden ratio are easy to understand: a perfectly symmetrical composition is less satisfying and aesthetically pleasing than one in which the proportions are slightly asymmetrical.

People studying the golden ratio have found it everywhere from the Pyramids to the Mona Lisa – and even in nature, for example in the veins of leaves. In this tutorial, Roberto Marras shows how to use the golden section in your artwork, to create pieces that work proportionally.


01. Let’s use the golden rectangle (a rectangle shaped according to the golden ratio) as our canvas. Start by defining a width, then divide this width by the golden ratio, so if your canvas is 20cm wide, use the sum 20 ÷ 1.6180339887. Round the result to the nearest two decimal places, and that’s the height of your canvas.


02. In Photoshop, open up a new document. Then select Image > Canvas Size and enter the dimensions you’ve just calculated. Photoshop will tell you some clipping is required; since the canvas is currently blank, this is fine.


03. To define the shape of our image, we’re going to draw a golden spiral. First, divide the width of the canvas by the golden ratio, to find the ‘golden section’. Draw a vertical line from this point and draw a quartercircle in the larger of the two portions of the screen.


04. Now divide the height of the canvas by the golden ratio to find the golden section. Draw a horizontal line from this point to the vertical line, and draw a quarter-circle in the larger of the two portions.


05. Take the smaller of these portions and find its golden section (as before). Draw a quarter-circle in this. Repeat three or four more times.


06. In theory, this spiral could go on infinitely, and we could zoom in on it forever. We’re going to take the centre of this spiral as the focal point for the composition.


07. We’re going to be using engine parts for this composition, so assemble a selection of images of engine parts and other machinery, and prepare them for inclusion in your image. Alternatively, download engine_collage.psd here.


08. On a new layer, compose a sort of engine by making a collage from your machinery images, following the spiral. Use more fantastical elements, such as swirls of colour, to jazz things up a little.

If you’ve used the files from the Web site, select all (Cmd/Ctrl + A), copy (Cmd/Ctrl + C) and paste (Cmd/Ctrl + V) it into your document so that it fits the contour of the golden spiral. You may have to scale it up or down to fit your own golden rectangle.


09. On a new layer, create a mottled, interesting background, using a combination of gradients, blurs, and textures that you’ve found, scanned in and manipulated (see Masterclass, page 44 in the magazine for tips on creating textures). Alternatively, download background.psd and copy and paste it into a layer beneath your other layers.


10. Next, we’re going to emphasize our force point, by adding another composition in the centre of the spiral. I’ve used a collage of flowers to create an explosion, setting the layer on quite a low level of opacity; if you’d like to use my pre-prepared image, download flower_explosion1.psd and copy and paste it into your image.


11. At this point, the composition is almost complete; I feel it needs a bit more push at the point of force and around it, and I want to brighten up where the lightings and shadows are coming from, so I’ve extended the flower collage – if you’d rather use a ready-made one, download flower_explosion1.psd, and position it beneath the machine images in your image.


12. Do one final sort through your layers to make sure that everything is arranged properly. Make the golden spiral layer invisible, and notice how the image’s proportions reflect those of the golden ratio. This is just a very simple example of how the golden ratio can be used; have fun using it in your artwork!


Who Art director and graphic artist Roberto Marras is originally from Sardinia, but moved to London to study, and still lives there. He works as an art director for marketing agency MRM Worldwide, whose clients include Sky, L’Óreal and Intel, and creates Photoshop compositions in his free time. Contact robertomarras.com
Software Adobe Photoshop
Time to complete One hour if using my images, three hours if constructing it yourself.
On the web Files for this tutorial can be downloaded from the links in the relevant steps: