When I first began tablescaping, a problem I came across was that my tables often looked disorganized, messy, and unfinished. No matter what I placed on my table—say, a matching set of 3 plates—, my scapes never ended up with the polish that I saw in more professional looking tablescapes. It was only until I thought of my table as a blank canvas that I started seeing the results that I wanted, and by that I mean that my tables started having some semblance of cohesiveness and flow.
Just like in nature, people naturally gravitate towards aesthetically pleasing works of art, and that doesn’t just mean having nice pieces on your table! Sure, I may have the best sets of tableware around, but if I don’t know how to position each piece on my tablescape just so, then the resulting scape will look chaotic and not very pleasing to the eye. In other words, good art is more than just a mass of elements haphazardly put together, but rather it’s the way the elements are placed that give the best results.
So let’s get back to the basics and study the composition of space. Visual composition is practically the root of every great artwork known to man, and without composition, an artwork looks messy, disjointed, and overall not aesthetic. Western Renaissance artists were famous for their brilliant use of composition, and although tablescapes are by no means a traditional form of art, I believe that having a basic understanding of visual composition will help improve your designs tenfold.
A great artist uses visual composition to help direct the viewer’s attention to specific things, and to evoke a certain response and emotion in the audience. By focusing on layouts, symmetry, and sometimes asymmetry, one can draw the attention to certain aspects of their artwork, while leading the viewer visually around the piece as they see fit.
In the painting above by Piero della Francesca, we can see that the painter used overwhelming symmetry to give a sense of calmness and harmony to the painting. The figure of Christ is also placed at the extreme center of the canvas to provide the focus of the work.
The artist also used the Golden Ratio on both the vertical and horizontal axes. Simply put, the Golden Ratio is the symmetrical relationship between two proportions (rounded up to 1.618), as well as a common ratio found in nature that’s used to provide organic-looking composition to your pieces. If this is too much math for you, here is a great video demonstrating the use of the Golden Ratio in design.
The use of the Golden Ratio in design has been around for over thousands of years, and can be seen not only in numerous paintings but also in music and architecture as well. The Ancient Greeks used the Golden Ratio to give an overwhelming sense of proportion to many of their buildings—the Parthenon is the most famous of these, although the use of the Golden Ratio in the construction of the Parthenon is still disputed.
In Renaissance art, I would argue that the most famous proponent of the Golden Ratio in design would be Leonardo da Vinci, who used the ratio extensively in his artworks.
But there’s even more to composition than just the Golden Ratio. Especially in fine art, two of the most used examples of composition are pyramidal composition and dynamic composition. Below is the Mona Lisa with lines to show the Golden Ratio (found in the spiral), and the painting’s pyramidal composition.
Both work together to form a very symmetrical and balanced painting, don’t you think?
In contrast, by using a dynamic composition (with diagonal lines), one can evoke the feeling of movement and even restlessness. See how movement is depicted in the painting above? This type of composition is most evident in Baroque art, which is probably why I find it more interesting to look at than Renaissance paintings.
Another very famous example of the use of dynamic composition is found in Peter Paul Rubens’ The Elevation of the Cross. Aside from the dynamic movement of the figures in the painting, Rubens also used color and lighting to provide asymmetry and imbalance. While I love this painting for what it is, I personally would not use overwhelming asymmetry in any of my tablescapes.
Now you might have read this entire thing and think “what’s the point?”, but just like any piece of artwork, composition also matters in the world of tablescaping. Just look at the first picture shown above and see how its fairly asymmetric composition still looks complete and balanced, while the tablescape below with its symmetric composition still exudes the feeling of cohesiveness, despite its vibrant color scheme.
It also helps that the centerpiece is smack dab in the center, giving the table a rectangular composition that draws the attention of the guests straight to the beautiful bouquet at the middle, and then down to the plates below. By using the basics of composition, you can direct the viewer’s attention to the things you want them to see first. I urge you to try it sometime—if you haven’t already been doing it subconsciously!
One other thing that helps me map out my tablescapes more effectively is to imagine a grid on my table. This is so that I can visualize the elements that I’ll be placing on the table and see if I can achieve a flowing balance. Sometimes this means adding height via some candles or flowers in one corner of the table before working my way downwards diagonally. Or, like in the example above, placing my centerpiece right at the middle of my grid to provide focus to the table.
Of course, it goes without saying that composition is not a hard and fast rule in the art (and tablescaping) world. Think of it like a tool to help you create a more cohesive piece that looks pleasing to your guests’ eyes, which may or may not be the goal you’re shooting for.
So is this something you’re interested in trying? Do let me know how your experiment goes down below!