According to wikipedia

“A triptych is a work of art (usually a panel painting) that is divided into three sections, or three carved panels that are hinged together and can be folded shut or displayed open. The middle panel is typically the largest and it is flanked by two smaller related works. “

The Mérode Altarpiece at the Cloisters in New York.


The triptych form arises from early Christian art, and was a popular standard format for altar paintings from the Middle Ages onwards.  The hinged panels meant that the works were portable, and had a sense of revelation as the work was opened.

The form is potent and resonates with the viewer and has been adopted by more contemporary artists like Francis Bacon:



This tryptic (top 3 images on their own) entitled   “Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer”  was sold for $45,712,500 at Sotheby’s London in 2014.  It can be seen that it is based on three photographs taken of his lover at the time “George Dryer”.  In my opinion the three photographs stand alone as an effrective tryptic.

The famous Chinese instillation artist Al Weiwei has used photographs to form a tryptic to show the action of a man dropping and destroying an expensive Ming dynasty ceramic.



Structural elements

The general structure of the tryptic can be utilized in different ways.  The icon art (above) often utilized the side panels to embellish the centre with additional details, telling more of the story.  The centre shows the angel announcing to Mary her immaculate conception.  In the side panels are on the left, Martha and her husband  and on the right her betrothed Joseph. The centre is always the focus of the viewers eye, and the focus of the story.  Vincent Van Gough also utilised this structure.

 “Vincent suggested that his brother flank the painting ‘La Berceuse’ with two canvases of the sunflowers, like a triptych–“then the yellow and orange tones of the head will gain in brilliance by the proximity of the yellow wings.”



Al Weiwei (above) used the tryptic to show three phases of an object in motion.  Here is another example of repetition.  In this case the three frames show an obscured face.  The face is obscured by smoke, head motion and the subjects hands.  The overall impression is of someone uncertain about his identity.

Artist unknownTriptych


Sometimes a single scene is cut into three pieces, like the photograph below by Sandy Farris.  This is a very common device.


Alternatively the tryptic may gather together disparate and unrelated images that create a unifying whole because of some similarity that the artist has noticed and draws our attention to.  This can be the most poignant form of the tryptic.  For instance Santiago Ydanez, Untitled (man and doberman triptych), 2014, in which a man dressed in a tuxedo is likened to a viscous doberman pincer dog.



or Robert H. Lee, Schism, 1949 in which the death of a soldier is flanked by the presumed portrait of his mother and lover grieving.



Creating Impact.

What is it that makes a good tryptic?  This is just my opinion.   I have struggled with tryptics over the years, often going back and re-jigging the composition at a later date.  I think these are the important points.

  1. Unity – The danger is that the three images just do not gel.  There needs to be some common element that binds the tryptic together.  Like the egg in the pudding so as to speak.  The intrinsic elements like focus and tonal range and colour temperature are often subliminal but very important,  They work best if they harmonize.  Successful colour schemes can be either complimentary or contrasting, but don’t make them clash.  The image can also be bound by the repetition of common shapes or by a sense of flow or movement between the panels.
  2. Centre – You have three images, but in my opinion there must be only one centre. Despite the historical context, the centre does not necessarily need to be in the centre panel.  It can be in the last, or more rarely the first panel.   Two of the images will be leaning towards, or reinforcing the third image.
  3. Flow – It is good when the typtic works like a single picture and moves from one element to another to lead the eye to the centre of interest.   There is a tendency to read a tryptic like a comic strip from left to right or from top to bottom.  You can utilize this tendency to reinforce the flow.  Elements that help create flow are, repetition, changes in scale, diagonal lines and diagonal placement of the object.  Beware of (not necessarily avoid) crossed lines and zigzags that disrupt flow.  Remember that our eye will also follow invisible lines like the direction of a subjects gaze or an outstretched finger or a ray of sunlight.  If you know where your centre is, don’t inadvertently direct the flow away from the centre.  This will create ambiguity in the tryptic.
  4. Story telling – The strength of a tryptic is that you can tell a story in three parts.  Don’t miss the opportunity to tell more.  Make it interesting – think of the unexpected.
  5. Break with conventions.  Try using different size images, try vertical placement, use disparate images to tell one story.  Experiment with minimalism.  Sometimes the key to an exciting image is to do it differently.

I hope that is useful