Balance is an important element in any good design. Without it a painting will look wrong. Something will be off and disturbing about the composition.
What exactly is balance and how can it be achieved on a flat surface? To answer this question, we must first think of three dimensional objects. If the objects are not physically balanced or anchored in some way, they would fall or tip over. For images created on a flat surface such as a canvas the same principle of balance applies. However, instead of having actual or physical balance, the artist needs to create an illusion of balance, referred to as visual balance.
In visual balance, each area of the painting suggests a certain visual weight, a certain degree of lightness or heaviness. For example, light colors appear lighter in weight than dark colors. Brilliant colors visually weigh more than neutral colors in the same areas. Warm colors, such as yellow tend to expand an area in size, whereas cool colors like blue tend to contract an area. And transparent areas seem to visually weigh less than opaque areas.
Balancing the components of a painting can best be illustrated by weighing scales or a child’s playground see-saw. Visually the scale can be pictured as an apparatus for weighing or a see-saw which has a beam poised on a central pivot or fulcrum. In using this scale or see-saw, balance is not achieved through an actual physical weighing process, but through visual judgment on the part of the observer. In this respect, visual balance refers to a “felt” optical equilibrium between all parts of the painting.
To balance a composition is to distribute its parts in such a way that the viewer is satisfied that the piece is not about to pull itself over. When components are balanced left and right of a central axis they are balanced horizontally. When they are balanced above and below they are said to be balanced vertically. And when components are distributed around the center point, or spring out from a central line, this is referred to as radial balance.
There are two forms of visual balance. These are symmetrical balance, also known as symmetry or formal balance, and asymmetrical balance, also known as asymmetry or informal balance.
Symmetrical balance is when the weight is equally distributed on both sides of the central axis. Symmetry is the simplest and most obvious type of balance. It creates a secure, safe feeling and a sense of solidity. Symmetrical balance can be achieved in two ways. One way is by “pure symmetry,” and the other way is by “approximate symmetry.”
In pure symmetry identical parts are equally distributed on either side of the central axis in mirror-like repetition. A good example of pure symmetry is the human face. It is the same on both the right side and the left side of the nose. Pure symmetry has its place in certain art works, however, because of its identical repetition, pure symmetry for a composition can easily become too monotonous and uninteresting to look at.
Approximate symmetry on the other hand has greater appeal and interest for the viewer. The two sides of a composition are varied and are more interesting to view. Even though they are varied somewhat, they are still similar enough to make their repetitious relationship symmetrically balanced.
Asymmetrical balance is when both sides of the central axis are not identical, yet appear to leave the same visual weight. It is a “felt” equilibrium or balance between the parts of a composition rather than actual. If the artist can feel, judge or estimate the various elements and visual weight, this should allow him/her to balance them as a whole. As a result, a more interesting composition will occur in the work.
The use of asymmetry in design allows for more freedom of creativity, because there are unlimited arrangements that may be devised using asymmetrical balance. The way to use asymmetry is by balancing two or more unequal components on either side of the fulcrum by varying their size, value or distance from the center.
Examples of the Effective Use of Balance
On the right radial balance is created by the flowers which spring out of the center of the vase.
The painting on the right is a little more obvious in it’s vertical balance. Notice how the three objects in the top part of the painting balance the apparent heaviness of the one object (the plate of pancakes) in the lower part of the painting.