Balance Basics
Whether or not a picture is balanced is a judgment that every viewer makes unconsciously and automatically.
Visual balance ~ the feeling of equilibrium and stability in a work of art. Visual balance corresponds to our understanding of gravitational forces. If the distribution of elements across the picture plane doesn't seem to defy gravity, we judge a composition balanced.
Hakvinsson's drawing of an orch wielding a sword a large ball and a small ball balanced on a see-saw
Orch with sword, by Andre Hakvinsson. A large form placed close to the fulcrum of a seesaw balances a small form farther away.
Visual weight ~ a perceptual analog to physical weight. An element's visual weight is determined by the amount of visual interest it generates relative to other elements in the composition. In Hakvinsson's drawing, above, the sword has substantial visual weight because its placement and isolation draw attention to it.
The mental weighing of visual elements is often likened to using a steelyard, a weighing instrument that uses balances and counterweights.
steelyard Dali's drawing of a man and boy walking together Dali's drawing minus the man's shadow
Left: A steelyard. The distribution of elements in a composition is weighed in the mind's eye as if suspended from a steelyard. Center: Dali as a child with his father, by Salvador Dali, 1971. The large shadow has enough visual interest to serve as a counterweight for the figures. Right: Without the shadow, the composition would feel unbalanced.
Axis lines and symmetry
To mentally weigh a composition for balance, it is necessary to establish an axis line.
Axis line ~ an invisible line that divides a composition. The visual weights of the composition's elements are balanced across this axis.
a schematic showing elements arranged around a vertical axis a schematic showing elements arranged around a horizontal axis a schematic showing elements arranged around a diagonal axis
Vertical, horizontal and diagonal axis lines. Each hand represents the combined visual weights of the elements on one side of the line.
Symmetrical balance ~ one side of a composition mirrors the other. A symmetrical design cannot help but be balanced because identical sides have identical visual weight. When the sides are similar but not identical, the composition is said to be approximately or nearly symmetrical.
Asymmetrical balance ~ the composition is balanced but the sides are different. Often, a dominant form on one side of the axis line is balanced by several smaller forms on the other.
a butterfly with a vertical line superimposed a fish with a horizontal line superimposed a leaf and two flowers with a diagonal line superimposed
Left: The butterfly has perfect symmetrical balance across the vertical axis line because the sides are mirror-images. Center: The upper and lower halves of the fish have the same visual weight and are similar but not identical. The picture is approximately symmetrical across the horizontal axis line. Right: The visual weights of the leaf and flowers are equally distributed across the diagonal axis line, but the sides are different. The composition is asymmetrically balanced.
As the following fractals demonstrate, a composition can have more than one axis line.
a mandelbrot fractal fractal art a fractal mandala
Left: The mandelbrot fractal set, by Paul Azunre. In this case there is only one axis line, the imaginary horizontal line across which each side of the image is reflected. Center: A fractal by Janet Boyd. Here, there is perfect symmetry across a horizontal axis line as well as a vertical axis line. (This type of symmetry is called "biaxial".) Right: A circle fractal by Rasta Robert. Many axis lines pass through the center of the fractal — one horizontal, one vertical and the rest diagonal.
Axis lines and balance
Four types of balance are defined by axis lines.
Horizontal balance ~ the elements of the composition are balanced left and right of a vertical axis line. This is the most common type of balance, and typical of asymmetrical designs. When the left and right sides are identical, as in the drawing below, the composition is said to have bilateral symmetry.
Vallejo's drawing of a human skull with horns Vallejo's drawing with a vertical line superimposed
Skull and horns, by Boris Vallejo. Like the human body, Vallejo's horizontally balanced drawing has perfect bilateral symmetry.
Vertical balance ~ the composition's elements are balanced above and below a horizontal axis line. A landscape reflected in still water is the classic example of vertical balance.
Frazetta's drawing of a girl standing in front of a horse. Frazetta's drawing with a horizontal line superimposed
Frank Frazetta's drawing of a girl and a horse. The elements are balanced vertically — i.e., top to bottom.
Frazetta's Cat girl(?)
Diagonal balance ~ the elements are balanced across a diagonal axis line. As the drawing below illustrates, diagonally balanced compositions have a dynamic quality.
Frazetta's drawing of a frog warrior riding a giant salamander Frazetta's drawing with a diagonal line superimposed
Frank Frazetta's drawing of a frog warrior riding a giant salamander. Notice that the salamander's lower body is only suggested. The lack of detail allows this element to balance the elements above without competing with them for attention.
Radial balance ~ multiple axis lines radiate from a central point.
Escher's woodcut of chameleons in a cage against a starry sky Escher's woodcut with three lines that cross in the center superimposed
Stars, by M. C. Escher, 1948. The geometry of the chameleons' cage creates axis lines that cross at the center of the composition, dividing it into nearly identical sections.
Snakes, by M. C. Escher (woodcut, 20 x 18), 1969.
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