Master paintings

Why do we love the Golden Spiral?


Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print ‘the Great Wave’ is so popular it has its own emoticon! Why do we love this print? 

The ‘Great Wave of Kanagawa’ by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai has been famous since collectors brought it from Japan to Europe. Recently, it was part of museum expositions in Berlin, Paris, New York, and Boston. Why is it so popular?

Golden Ratio, Phi and Fibonacci Spiral

The answer might lie in the wave’s curl. It is a perfect spiral, shaped according to the ‘divine proportion’ or ‘golden ratio’. How do you create this proportion? When designing an object or image, make sure that the ratio of the bigger element and smaller element of the object equals the ratio of the larger element and the sum of the elements (ab:bc = ab:ac).

The perfect spiral starts curving from a certain point at an exponential rate: 1.6180339887498948420.. (or the number Phi). When repeated, it results in a perfect spiral. Exactly this spiral we can find in nature’s design: from sunflowers to shells, it is even found in hurricanes. That is why the number Phi is called the golden number, and this ratio is known as the ‘divine proportion’.

But..why do we love the Golden Spiral?

Professor Adrian Bejan from Duke University, North Carolina, argues that human eyes are better capable of interpreting an image featuring the golden ratio than images that lack this proportion. So, we feel good about this shape, because our brains can easily process it. Duke University. “Mystery of golden ratio explained.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 December 2009.

Best practice

Many photographers play with the golden ratio or golden spiral, for example, famous photographer Henry Cartier-Bresson and photographers Buster Brown and Giorgio Luciani.

Katsushika Hokusai
The great wave off Kanagawa,
1829 – 1832
woodblock print in color
10.1 in × 14.9 in
several collections: MoMa, NYC, British Museum, London

This post was originally published on my blog about old master paintings and design: