Balance

Basic to composition is balance. If a picture is out of balance, it will feel uncomfortable to the viewer, just like the out-of-balance figure discussed in Chapter 5. In Figure 6.28, the character is way off to the right and facing away from the center of the picture. It creates a large, uncomfortable, empty area in the middle and left side of the picture. It is off balance.

A good way to think of picture balance is to imagine that the picture is perched on a triangle, as shown in Figure 6.29. If the picture feels like it would be heavier on one side than on another, the picture will seem off balance.

Granted, this illustration is exaggerated for purposes of this lesson. But even pictures that are just a little off balance can be uncomfortable. If a person is uncomfortable with a picture, he or she will tend to not enjoy looking at it and will probably move on to other pictures.

Figure 6.28 The picture seems off balance.
Figure 6.29 The right side of the picture is visually heavier than the left.

Formal Balance

One way to solve the balance problem is to use formal balance. Formal balance is a system of balancing a picture by subdividing it into equal portions so that one side mirrors the other. Formal balance feels comfortable to us because many things in life have symmetry. Most animals are symmetrical, as is the human body

Symmetry is pleasing to view because it represents order and integrity. Take a look a Figure 6.30.

Figure 6.30 Symmetrical designs are pleasing to the eye.

One of the reasons that we think of this pattern as being pleasant to look at is the symmetry of shape and design.

Symmetry in the human form is considered beautiful. In fact, a person is considered disfigured if one side does not match up with the other. Leonardo da Vinci gives us a good example of the symmetry of the human form in his sketch The Vitruvian Man, shown in Figure 6.31.

Figure 6.30 Symmetrical designs are pleasing to the eye.

Figure 6.31 The Vitruvian Man shows the symmetry of the human form. Cameraphoto/Art Resource, NY.

For compositions in which the artist wants to have a feeling of dignity or majesty, formal balance or symmetry is a great approach. Not everything needs to be mirrored from one side to the other, but there should be a sense of equality in the masses from one side to the other for a picture to have formal balance.

Many of the great masters used formal balance in their paintings. Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife

Paintings With Formal Balance
Figure 6.32 Jan van Eyck used formal balance to organize the elements of his painting. Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

Giovanna Cenami (The Arnolfini Marriage) by Jan van Eyck is a great example of formal balance shown here in Figures 6.32 and 6.33.

Figure 6.33 Dividing the picture helps to show the formal balance. Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

The Madonna with Canon van der Paele, also by Jan van Eyck and shown in Figure 6.34, is another great example of formal balance. Notice how both these paintings have a formal, almost majestic presence.

Formal balance is great for formal pictures, but because it is so balanced, the picture can sometimes lack dynamics. Formal balance is not very good for creating pictures that give the feeling of motion or action. The artist needs to have other ways to balance a picture.

Balance Symmetry Drawing
Figure 6.34 Jan van Eyck used formal balance in many of his paintings. Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

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