Balance refers to the distribution of visual weight in a work of art. In painting, it is the visual equilibrium of the elements that causes the total image to appear balanced. Balance can be symmetrical (also referred to as “formal”), and asymmetrical balance (also called “informal balance”). Balance is usually a desirable characteristic of a composition. However, deliberately throwing off the balance of a piece in order to call more attention to some aspect of an image is, at times, desirable. For this reason, it is also necessary to discuss the concept of imbalance.
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Symmetrical balance is a type of visual balance where the overall composition is arranged to look like it is the same on both sides of the center of the design. In other words, it is a design which could be folded in half, and as the design folds, each part of the design would match up with its symmetrical counterpart on the opposite side of the center. Symmetrical balance is easiest to see in perfectly centered compositions or those with mirror images. When elements on both sides of a central horizontal or vertical line appear to be about equal in shape, weight, value, and color, the design is in symmetrical balance. In a design with only two elements they would be almost identical or have nearly the same visual mass. Symmetrical balance produces paintings that are restful, calming, and visually stable. An excellent example of symmetrical balance is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Proportion of the Human. This rather hopeful drawing illustrates that the human body can be vertically divided down the middle and the left and the right sides will correspond. When the sides of a piece match exactly, as Da Vinci would have us believe, it is referred to as pure or formal symmetry.
Another type of balance is called asymmetrical balance. In this case, balance is achieved by arranging related or unrelated objects of differing visual weights that counterbalancing one another. The advantage of asymmetrical balance is that it seems more casual, and less frigid. Asymmetrical balance can be more intricate and complicated; it can heighten interest, bring informality, or even produce tension in a painting. Joan Miró’s The Birth of the World is an example of asymmetrical balance. Fichner-Rathus explains this piece, “Against a washed, intermediate space, a figural form on the left–loosely described by a stack of black and white geometric shapes–is balanced on the right by a simple sphere of highly saturated red”. Fichner-Rathus goes on to explain that the placement and color of the objects achieve “the sense of overall balance,” if the red sphere is covered up, changed to black or white, or changed it to another shape, the piece would be thrown into imbalance.
While both symmetrical and asymmetrical balances offer different advantages, and have been used to create fantastic pieces, imbalance has been employed to create many incredibly visually appealing works of art. Such imbalance is a characteristic of works of art in which the areas of the composition are unequal in actual weight or pictorial weight. Imbalance can also allow the viewer to sense movement. In the case of Robert Capa’s photograph “Death of a Loyalist Soldier” it looks as though the soldier was trying to make it to the center of the frame but he has been shot and is stumbling backwards from the force of the bullet. As Fichner-Rathus argues about Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Black Venus, imbalance can do similar work while accomplishing very different effects. She indicates imbalance here “suggests a precariously balanced body
In addition to this view, the imbalance in this piece also possibly offers to the viewer a look at this Venus as though she were standing in water without physically submerging her in a pool. The artist actually is addresses the narrow field of what is considered to be an attractive woman, especially Western stereotypes. It’s interesting that Saint-Phalle’s Venus mirrors images of the Hottentot Venus; Being able to do two very different readings of this piece speaks to the versatility of imbalance; it allows the viewer to play more of an active role in their viewing.
The distribution of visual weight in a work of art is referred to as symmetrical and asymmetrical balances. These methods produce pieces that are restful and calming or tense and informal. In addition to these methods, throwing off the balance of a piece, using imbalance, to call more attention to some aspect of the piece can add many more dimensions to it and allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions from the piece.
Understanding Art 6th edition, Lois Fichner-Rathus, Harcourt College Publishers, Fort Worth, TX.