Why do we think something is beautiful?

May 19, 2019

How do we reflect on our own artwork and respond to art created by others? What is it that results in us experiencing beauty? This questioning and wondering is often referred to as aesthetics: the theory of art and beauty. If something is referred to as aesthetic, it is seen as pleasing to the senses.

So, what is beauty?

The Oxford dictionary defines it as a ‘combination of shapes, form, colours that please the senses’. We look at a piece of art and may think it’s beautiful. But let's look beyond art. Sensing beauty in our world is often as we are viewing things, places, people but could just as well be hearing our favourite song, feeling a well-worn cashmere jumper, tasting mum’s home cooked roast, or smelling a perfumed flower. We may also see something as beautiful because it pleases our intellect. We appreciate an object’s usefulness, a person’s elite performance or an innovation that is uniquely amazing.

But how much is ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’?

The judgements we make about what we find beautiful are influenced by the culture, era and environment we were born into: the bronzed Aussie, the petite feet of Chinese women through foot-binding, lip discs of African tribes, body piercings and tattoos; the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, City of Petra, Neuschwanstein Castle; a new bike, a vintage aeroplane, a Lamborghini, a super truck… Not everyone finds these things beautiful.

As we mature, we develop values and interests based on those of the people we grew up with. If art is a mirror to our world and an expression of our experiences, our judgements of beauty in artistic portrayals may conform to societal norms. As we become more knowledgeable and our experiences broaden, our appreciation of what we find beautiful can be connected to our intellect as much as our emotions or feelings. We understand how combinations of shapes, colours, forms are created, and acknowledge skill and artistry. Our memories of past experiences with people, places, things can trigger a sense of beauty in new encounters. Our opinions become more personalised and unique.

Can something be intrinsically or naturally beautiful?

No matter who we are, where or when we live, certain objects have perfect proportions which are pleasing to the senses. Referred to as the golden ratio, these mathematical dimensions have been used to analyse faces, objects, buildings and elements of nature. The Fibonacci sequence of numbers is closely related to the golden ratio. When we make squares with these numbers we can create a spiral. These patterns occur naturally in nature: the spiralling scales of a pinecone, the unfurling frond of a new fern leaf, the swirl of a snail or sea shell. Watch this video to see some fun with spirals. Natural fractals occur particularly with plants where you see larger patterns repeated over and over in diminishing versions. The introductory image for this blog is an example of fractal patterns. A tree has a trunk with limbs branching off; each branch then has smaller twigs. The same pattern appears in lightening: as a whole it can look like an upside down tree with each branch looking like a miniature of the whole shape. An aerial photo of a river delta shows streams branching out in a similar way through the estuary to the sea. If you look closely at the leaf of a fern, each frond is made up of mini fronds. Some people feel these decreasing patterns have a pleasing, soothing effect and reduce stress. Nature has many aesthetically pleasing elements - colourful birds and flowers, contrasting textures and shapes, picturesque scenery - captured so well in the David Attenborough Planet Earth II series.

How can we improve chances that others will see what we create as beautiful?

Photographers, as digital artists, sometimes use the Rule of Thirds. The framed ‘picture’ or image they are working with can be divided into three, both horizontally and vertically. This uses clever balancing and off-setting, creating focal points or points of interest where the lines intersect. Try searching the Internet for examples of this approach then experiment yourself with these compositions. Do you find your photos more attractive...? There are many other techniques, like this, that artists use to improve visual impact and appeal. These tips for photographers can also be used for other types of artworks.

So what is the essence of beauty?

Sensing beauty can lift our spirits, drawing us to a moment and place in time where we feel good. When might artwork have this affect on us? It could be because:
* It reminds us of a pleasurable experience in our past.
* It strikes a chord with our intellect: appreciating and understanding the composition.
* It has cultural significance for us.
* It has inherent patterns like those in the golden ratio, the Fibonacci spiral or fractals.
* It uses a layout and focal point based on the rule of thirds.
* Or it is just pleasing to our senses and we smile, sigh and feel good!

Teacher and Artventure Blogger