Balance in art refers to the sense of distribution of perceived visual weights that offset one another. We feel more comfortable–and therefore find it more pleasing–when the parts of an artwork seem to balance each other. Imbalance gives us an unsettled feeling, and that is something that for most artists is not the desired effect. Some artists, however, deliberately disturb our sense of balance.
This portrait of a Zen master is solid and balanced, with a strong presence and sense of permanence. Zen practice places a strong emphasis on one’s teacher. This sculpture accentuates the value of the Zen priest in the strength of its balance.
In contrast, this sculpture almost appears off balance, as if it might tip over at any moment because of the twist of the body and backward leaning stance. This gives it a heightened sense of movement and suggests a dancing motion. Indian art reflects the value of prana, or the breath of life, which can be seen in the animated quality of its sculptures.
Symetrical and Asymmetrical Balance
There are two types of balance: symmetrical and asymmetrical. In symmetrical balance, if an imaginary line is drawn through the center of the work, both sides are exactly the same, and balanced in that way. In asymmetrical balance, the two sides are not identical, but differ from one another. However, the elements are arranged so that there is a sense of balance.
In the illustrations below, both examples use the exact same objects. The one on the left, however, is symmetrical, identical or nearly identical on each side. The one on the right balances the objects asymmetrically. Both sides are different, yet arranged in such a way that they feel balanced.
Examples of symmetrical balance
Symmetrical balance is used to convey a sense of formality, order, rationality, and permanence. Consider for each of the examples below, why would the artist want to use symmetrical balance?
Asymmetrical balance often has more variety, visual interest, and liveliness.
Asymmetrical balance can be achieved by using some of the following principles:
- a large form is heavier than a smaller form
- dark values are heavier than light values
- a textured form is heavier than a smooth form
- a complex form is heavier than a simple form
- two or more smaller forms balance one large form
- a smaller darker form balances a larger lighter form
- objects toward the edge or corner of the composition appear heavier
- intense colors are heavier than muted colors
Examples of asymmetrical balance in art
Japanese art is known for elegant asymmetry that is perfectly balanced. Here, the mountain on the right is balanced on the left by empty space, the close proximity of the travelers, and their movement away from the mountain.
Mary Cassatt was an Impressionist painter and printmaker. She was strongly influenced by Japanese art and was a master at creating asymmetrically balanced compositions. Notice how she balances strong forms with space and placement of elements in the composition.
The building is placed off center, to the left, but is balanced by the dramatic angle of the diving board, and its projection into the viewer’s space.