Believe it or not, sculptors used design to create their masterpieces as well. I’m sure they start with a sketch, like most good ideas. After that, they can compose it in the rectangle and go from there. The sculpture should be amazing from all sides, so I’m sure they put a lot of effort into the sides and the back, but the main composition had to have come been focused on the front side.

The story behind this sculpture is pretty entertaining and you can read more here if you like. But to sum it up, Laocoon was a trying to warn the Trojans of the wooden Trojan horse that the Greeks were gifting to them. He didn’t trust the gift and tried to convince them to burn it down. After being painfully blinded by Athena (a Greek Goddess) for his attempts to warn the city of Troy, he doesn’t cease. Laocoon continues to try and warn the city of Troy. Finally, Athena sends two giant sea serpents to strangle Laocoon and his two sons. They die a painful death. Eventually the city accepts the gift, and later in the night, Greeks come out of it, open the gates to the other Greeks, and conquer the city, ending the war.

This sculpture is said to have been created by three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes: AgesanderAthenodoros and Polydorus. Now located in the Vatican Museum, Rome. (I really wish I was into sculptures when I visited there…I love this piece!)

Rule of Thirds – with a story like that, do you think they would settle with the rule of thirds being their guide to composition? Nope.


Rebated Square- some things lining up, but not as reliable as dynamic symmetry.


Root PHI Rectangle Basic Armature- We can see the sculptors chose the Root Phi to design their masterpiece with. Laocoon’s left leg lines up with the sinister diagonal. Also his right shoulder follows down to his left arm, then down to his sons left knee….all collected up on the reciprocal.



Root PHI Armature with Major Area Divisions (MAD) – Follow the lines of the MAD and you’ll find more elements locking in…the bottom of Laocoon’s chin, his sons right arm, the legs on the right…


Locked into the Grid – major parts of the sculpture locking into the grid.


Gamut – here they are repeating intervals creating a rhythm across each character.


Coincidences – plenty of coincidences to create flow from side to side, top to bottom.


90 degree – a few 90 degree angles present…even a complete square on his son.


Arabesque – plenty of arabesques swirling around this piece. That’s what makes it so animated, so full of life….uniting all of the characters and using the snake as his tool.


Ellipses – the sculptors use many ellipses to unite everything together. These lines aren’t imagined. They are really lining up across the form. They were designed that way (as far as I can tell). The ellipses aren’t a happy mistake.


Figure Ground Relationship (FGR) – Each character stands out from one another. Not much is misconstrued. Proper lighting will help define the forms as well…right now the lighting is flat.


Gazing Direction-we haven’t covered gazing direction much so far, but don’t let it scare you. Every work of art should have a gazing direction, meaning what is the dominant direction in which the subject is looking. The gaze and position of your subject carries weight, and this weight adds to the balance of the image. We will cover balance in a later article, but for now take note of Laocoon’s position. He is on the left, yet facing right….so is his son. Their line of sight, or gazing direction, creates a weight which helps balance the sculpture. If they were facing left it would be left heavy. That’s why some people that use the rule of thirds completely fail…they will place someone on the left third and have them facing left…no regards for gazing direction which plays a role in great composition.


With sculptures some of the design techniques don’t come into play, like GAC because they are typically one color…the lighting is what dictates the GAC. Also EF doesn’t apply because there is no visible rectangle surrounding it.

I hope you are beginning to see how the Canon of Design can be used to greatly benefit many forms of art. Again, if you have any questions, please let me know. I recommend you start analyzing some art that has inspired you to see if it was designed. you may be surprised!

  • Alberto


    Amazing work analyzing the Laocoon. This piece kind of obsessed me for a long time but never though about it in terms of canon of design. This piece is been restored several times and as you might know already during Reinaissance they decided to add the three right arms which were missing at that time (also the Laocoon one). There was an interesting discusion about the right Laocoon arm about how it was posed originally and despite the Michelangelo opinion, who rightly said it was bended, the restoring artist (Jacopo Sansovino) opted for a more heroic extended arm. This is how it looked.


    Which composition do you think is better in terms of canon of design?

    Best Reggards


  • tavis

    Hi Alberto, that’s interesting, thanks for commenting and sending me the link. I hadn’t read about the debate on the arms. I think Michelangelo was correct in his thoughts. I’m studying anatomy at the moment and when I look at both versions, I think the balance of the figure and the anatomy works best with the bending arm. He’s being attacked by serpents, so I imagine he’d be trying to get them off of his back instead of striking a superman pose 😉 Just my take on it though. Overall I think the version in this article works best. The composition in the other image you linked has a couple of design concerns. The son on our right has his hand sticking upwards which breaks the movement…it draws a lot of attention because of the shape it creates too. Almost seems like the hand is a major focal point, when it shouldn’t be. Laocoon’s arm is better bent because it helps keep our eye’s circling around the sculpture instead of thrusting it up and outward…plus the balance issue. I do like the arm of the son on the left, though it might help with the movement circling around the sculpture if it were bent just a bit more…that is, if Laocoon’s arm was bent also.
    I hope that answers your question 🙂 Which one do you like the best? Thanks again for sharing!

  • Alberto

    Hi Tavis,

    Many thanks for the comment, accordingly to wikipedia (not best source even but ey!) The actual pose of the arm is the right one. Somebody found the arm buried in Rome and they re-attached it to the Laocoon, so…Michelangelo was right in his analysis.
    I like more the bended arm and totally agree with your notes about why the bend arm fits better.

    All the best

  • tavis

    Hi Alberto, I enjoyed the additional history of the piece, thank you!

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