Artist Robert Dieckhoff explains his approach to the creative process during a Steamboat All Arts Festival seminar Friday.

Photo by Tom Ross

Artist Robert Dieckhoff explains his approach to the creative process during a Steamboat All Arts Festival seminar Friday.

Tom Ross: Artist guided by math in his paintings



Courtesy photo

A painting by Robert Dieckhoff.

Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or

Find more columns by Tom here.

— The gently surreal art of Robert Dieckhoff was everywhere you looked in downtown Steamboat Springs during the weekend.

His curvilinear take on some of the Yampa Valley's best known landmarks could be found on the back of T-shirts as well as on gallery walls during the Steamboat All Arts Festival. The artist's lush pastels seem to squeeze familiar landscapes until they bend unnaturally. What makes them so appealing?

It's all about mathematics. Dieckhoff doesn't undertake a painting without running the numbers first.

Dieckhoff told his audiences during a seminar at the Steamboat Artists' Gallery on Friday that when starting a new painting, he doesn't go beyond an informal sketch until he makes certain it fits into a mathematical formula. It's a formula that has been kicking around since the 16th century - even longer. In the course of explaining his reliance on numeric formulas, Dieckhoff provided fascinating insights into the creative process.

"To be an artist, you have to understand physics," he told about 15 people last week. "To me, it's integral to (everything). I have a library of math and physics books."

What many people don't know about one of Steamboat's most successful fine artists is that he has a background in science. Dieckhoff has a degree in food science, and that means chemistry. And formulas.

The formula Dieckhoff uses most often in planning a pastel landscape painting is the classic Pythagorean golden rectangle. Maybe you would recognize it as the other Da Vinci Code.

The ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras observed that there was a recurring relationship between a rectangle of particular dimensions and much of the beauty and harmony to be found in the natural order of things.

A golden rectangle is one in which the ratio of long sides of the box to the short sides is 1.618 - the short sides are a little more than half as long as the long sides.

Pythagoras found this ratio could be observed in the natural environment from crystalline structures to the array of leaves along the stem of a plant. Pythagoras also noticed that the human body was "designed" so that each body part was in perfect golden proportion to all the other parts - the relationship of the hand to the forearm, and the leg to the trunk, for example.

When it comes to human facial features, our perception of physical beauty often is in line with the golden ratio - the head forms a golden rectangle with the eyes aligning with the midpoint. The distance from the pupils of the eyes to the tip of the nose, the space between the outer edge of the eye to the center of the nose and many more relationships among facial features appear to be ideal when they conform to a ratio of 1:1.618.

Flash forward several centuries to 1500, and Leonardo da Vinci was hanging out with an Italian certified public accountant named Luca Pacioli who was deep into the golden rectangle. You can see his influence in the Mona Lisa - impose a small golden rectangle over her face, and you'll spy it.

Many artists have used the golden proportion to guide the composition of the paintings and sculptures using this fundamental mathematical relationship. In Dieckhoff's approach to portraying landscapes, he relies upon the intense pigments of pastels to provide the emotional content. He relies upon mathematics to provide a foundation for the piece.

"Math is the foundation of our physical reality," he said. "I use that as a license to create. (With it) I can develop my own reality."

The perception of surrealism in a Dieckhoff landscape of Emerald Mountain, for example, comes from his practice of squeezing a 260-degree view-scape into a narrower rectangle.

The artist begins by taking 50 to 150 photographs of a scene he intends to paint. He uses the photos as an aid in refining his concept for the finished piece of art. Next, he draws a casual sketch.

The mathematics come into play when Dieckhoff draws a complex series of intersecting lines through a golden rectangle. The points of intersection serve as his guide to where to place key points of interest in his painting.

And when he gets it just right, he taps into one of the mysteries of the universe.


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