Have you ever thought about what is balance in art exactly? Balance in Art refers to the use of artistic elements such as line, texture, color, and form in the creation of artworks in a way that renders visual stability. Balance is one of the principles of organization of structural elements of art and design, along with unity, proportion, emphasis and rhythm. When observed in general terms balance refers to the equilibrium of different elements. However, in art and design, balance does not necessarily imply a complete visual or even physical equilibrium of forms around a center of the composition, but rather an arrangement of forms that evokes the sense of balance in viewers. It is through a reconciliation of opposing forces that equilibrium or balance of elements is achieved in art. Balance contributes to the aesthetic potency of visual images and is one of their basic building blocks. There are several different types of balance. Regarding terminology, the most used terms are asymmetrical balance, symmetrical balance and radial balance. These types of balance are present in art, architecture and design. The history of their application and development is as long as human history, but for this text we will focus on the importance of balance in art and design and give some examples mostly from modern and contemporary art.
If we are to understand the importance of balance in art we need to apply the same reasoning as when we observe a three-dimensional object. If a three-dimensional object is not balanced it will most probably tip over. However, when it comes to two-dimensional subjects painted on flat surfaces, we need to rely on our own sense of space and balance. We need to apply the same analogy as with the physical object - only now with one difference. If three-dimensional objects are easily evaluated regarding balance as they share the same space with us, in modern and contemporary art - especially in art made on flat surfaces - the sense of balance comes from a combination of line, color and shape. If we evaluate the balance of physical objects regarding the distribution of their weight, same applies to art but only now the distribution of weight is not physical but visual. When creating balance in two-dimensional art pieces, artists and designers need to be careful in allocating weight to different elements in their work, as too much emphasis on one element, or a group of elements can cement viewers’ attention to that part of work and leave others unobserved. However, regardless of media we are talking about, balance is important as it brings visual harmony, rhythm and coherence to artwork, and it confirms its completeness.
Symmetrical balance can be easily established or observed in art. The single thing art practitioners and designers need to do is to draw an imaginary line through the center of their work and to make sure that both parts are equal regarding the horizontal or vertical axis. Being symmetrical implies that none of the elements stand out, so symmetrical balance is also sometimes referred to as formal balance. Left to right balance is achieved through symmetrical arrangements, but vertical balance is equally important. If the artist overemphasizes either the upper or lower part in their compositions this can destabilize the coherency and consistency of an artwork. Symmetrical balance is used when feelings of order, formality, rationality and permanence should be evoked, and it is often employed in institutional architecture and religious and secular art.
Symmetrical balance can have a few subgroups such as approximate or near, inverted and biaxial symmetry. Near or approximate symmetry relates to forms in which two halves are not mirrored images, but have some slight variations. It was used often in early Christian religious paintings. Inverted symmetry should be carefully used as it can throw the image off the balance. In inverted symmetrical balance two halves of an artwork mirror each other along the horizontal axis like in playing cards, while biaxial symmetry pertains to artworks with symmetrical vertical and horizontal axis. Although biaxial symmetrical balance may be more applicable in design than art, it is not unusual for practitioners to create works following this type of balance. Op art is inevitably one of the best examples of this principle among modernist art movements. Victor Vasarely, often called the father of Op art movement, used biaxial symmetrical balance in his paintings. It may appear that this type of balance is the most inexpressive, repetitive and rigid as it requires multiple repetitions of motifs, but Vasarely’s art is a good example of inherent dynamism in this type of works. Careful about the balance, Vasarely repeatedly combined shapes of contrasting colors creating in this way a kinetic optical experience from static, flat forms.
In any art perspective plays an important part. Particularly in figurative painting accurate application of perspective greatly contributes to the sense of balance. As seen throughout history, perspective in visual arts changed significantly. The old Egyptians used the so-called aspective perspective - the system in which each element is shown regarding its importance and characteristics. Combinations of perspectives are often used within a single figure, such as both frontal and profile views. Greek artists tried to achieve a sense of balance in art and develop perspective following the instructions proposed by Aristotle in Poetics, where he suggests the use of skenographia for the creation of depth on stage in theatrical plays. Later on, medieval sculptors and illustrators understood the importance of perspective and showed some feeble attempts to present the elements in the distance smaller to the viewers, but it was not until the early Renaissance and Giotto’s art that perspective based on geometrical method was first probed. Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the earliest artists to use geometrical method where perspective lines converge at one point at the horizon line in its full force. Following these developments modern and contemporary art further evolved in the use of perspective and playing with balance. It is either employed after the traditional standards of composition, or twisted and negated depending on the aesthetic and thematic scope of each artwork.
Leonardo da Vinci’s mural painting The Last Supper is an example of a work of art where approximate symmetrical balance has reached the level of perfection and where perspective plays an integral part in it as well. The center of the mural and the converging point on the horizon is occupied by the figure of Christ, while his disciples are symmetrically arranged on both his sides in the composition.
In contrast to symmetrical balance which can render works to be too rigid, formulaic and insipid, asymmetrical balance offers greater expressive and imaginative freedom to the artists. Asymmetrical balance in art can be achieved through various elements that share contrasting visual principles—smaller, lighter, darker, or empty forms and spaces are always contrasted and balanced by their counterparts. Due to greater freedom that asymmetrical balance gives to practitioners this type of balance is often called informal balance as well. While in symmetrical balance objects and motifs are usually copied around a fulcrum, asymmetrical balance allows for objects to balance around the center. The easiest way to understand this type of balance is to imagine balance scale where weights on one side balance the ones on the other, but they are not of the same size, color, shape, texture or weight. There is a balance present between these disparate objects but no replication of forms and motifs.
Prints of Japanese artist Hiroshige can be taken as one of the examples where asymmetry in balance creates visual works of great aesthetic value. The print Man on Horseback Crossing a Bridge can be taken as an illustration of this principle. A huge tree outweighs the other part of the print where only empty space and shadows of bridge and mountains are shown, but nonetheless, the print as a whole is a dynamic and successful artwork. Famous for his use of asymmetrical balance in art is Piet Mondrian as well. One of the founders of De Stijl movement, Mondrian used primary colors with black and white and created compositions that are asymmetrical in the distribution of elements but which nonetheless create a strong sense of balance, harmony and rhythm in each work. He distilled his abstract art to simple, geometrical forms in search for a universal balance and harmony.
Alexander Calder examined form, color and balance in his mobile sculptures, making a further step towards broadening of understanding and importance of balance in art. His mobile sculptures - although asymmetrical and unstable - actively engage space and through their movement constantly search for balance. The motility of these delicately crafted Mobiles is affected by air movements or touch. Here, balance is not employed as some fixed aesthetic or compositional decision but is active force that affects the immediate shape and dynamics of Calder's kinetic art. Instead of being deliberately achieved by the artist, Calder leaves his work to balance itself and to - through constant movement - negotiate and re-negotiate its balance and form.
In contrast to asymmetrical and symmetrical balance, radial balance although dependent on similar elements such as center and mirroring of forms, differs in the way forms are distributed. Instead of following horizontal or vertical axis forms are arranged around the center of compositions, radiating from it like the rays of sun - hence the term radial. Mosaic or crystallographic balance refers to visual compositions that do not have focal point or fulcrum, and therefore lack of hierarchy and emphasis is present. Sometimes this type of balance is also called ‘allover’ balance. Although it may seem that art and design that use mosaic balance are chaotic, repetitive, full of visual noise and disorder, they actually possess consistency and dynamism in the apparent chaos of forms and patterns. One example where this type of balance reached the highest expressive and aesthetic quality is work of Jackson Pollock and his action painting of dripping paint.
Matt Calderwood and Erwin Wurm are among contemporary artists who deploy balance not just as a constructive principle of their works, but as an active element in the formation of their sculptural art. It could be said that balance is the main star of their sculptures. Matt Calderwood uses mundane, everyday objects and combines them through the sole manipulation of balance. All the elements in one sculpture are co-dependent of each other, and every slight change could throw them out of balance and destroy the sculpture. Erwin Wurm goes even further as he engages visitors of his shows to participate in his sculptural works. In a series titled One Minute Sculpture he used bottles filled with water, tennis balls and other objects and enticed visitors to keep them in place by balancing them between their bodies or other surfaces. Visitors thus became performers in artist’s living and balancing sculptural act. Adequate to showcase contemporary precarities, balance art of Calderwood and Wurm take the medium of sculpture and used objects to the extreme limits. Rendering them both dangerous and prone to destruction with every, even slightest move or body twitch and at the same time poised and in equilibrium with the surrounding world, such artworks are testaments to the contemporary extremes of existence.
Similar visual principles apply to both art and design when it comes to balance. The principle of balance that can be sensed and directly observed plays an important role in any visual work as it adds to its completeness and expressive quality. Throughout history different art movements and periods demonstrated a preference for diverse forms of balance. Renaissance paintings usually possess symmetrical or approximate balance while Baroque aesthetics of exuberance and exaggerated motion found in asymmetrical balance the adequate formula for its dynamic compositions. In modern and contemporary art the definition and limits of balance are constantly probed and examined, as observed from Calder’s Mobiles. Instead of being set and fixed by the artist, balance in art becomes a quality often achieved through chance and sometimes even through physical interaction with the observer. In contemporary art forcing objects into balance that defies physical laws is another expressive tool referencing the precarity of everyday existence. Being one of the major principles of art and design, balance is directly dependent on the intimate sense of artist, designer and ultimately, the viewer. Various manipulations with visual principles and elements throughout history abound, but balance remains a constant that cannot be countermanded.
Editors' Tip: Pictorial Composition (Composition in Art) (Dover Art Instruction)
Composition is of paramount importance for a successful painting. All elements of a painting may be excellent but if good composition is lacking the artwork will fail. Composition relates to the harmonious use of versatile elements in art that create a whole. In this book, Henry Rankine Poore analyses works of both old masters and modernists and through examples explains the principles of art composition. Importance of balance in art takes a central stage in this book, as it is a topic considered in greatest detail. Richly illustrated with over 166 reproductions of artworks of Cézanne, Goya, Hopper and others, this book is a necessary asset to both practitioners and art lovers alike.
Featured images: Isamu Noguchi - Red Cube, 1968. New York. Image via onthegrid.city; Matt Calderwood - Untitled, 2016. Image via coca.org.nz; Leonardo da Vinci - Study for the background of the Adoration of the Magi, 1452-1519. Image via leonardodavinci.net; Hiroshige - Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple, 1834. Image via wikipedia. org; Rebecca Horn, High Moon, 1991. Image via sophia.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
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