The Definition of Balance in Art

Jan Van Eyck's "Ghent Altarpiece"
This panel from Jan Van Eyck's "Ghent Altarpiece" shows great symmetry. Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Balance in art is one of the basic principles of design, along with contrast, movement, rhythm,  emphasis, pattern, unity/variety.  Balance refers to how the elements of art  – line, shape, color, value, space, form, texture – relate to each other within the composition in terms of their visual weight, and implies visual equilibrium. That is, one side does not seem heavier than another.

In three dimensions, balance is dictated by gravity and it is easy to tell when something is balanced or not (if not held down by some means) – it falls over if it is not balanced, or, if on a fulcrum, one side hits the ground. In two dimensions artists have to rely on the visual weight of the elements of the composition to determine whether a piece is balanced. Sculptors rely both on physical and visual weight to determine balance.​

Humans, perhaps because we are bilaterally symmetrical, have a natural desire to seek balance and equilibrium, so artists generally strive to create artwork that is balanced. A balanced work, in which the visual weight is distributed evenly across the composition, seems stable, makes the viewer feel comfortable, and is pleasing to the eye. A work that is unbalanced appears unstable, creates tension, and makes the viewer uneasy. Sometimes an artist creates a work that is unbalanced deliberately.

Isamu Noguchi's (1904-1988) sculpture, Red Cube is an example of a sculpture that intentionally looks off balance. The red cube is precariously resting on a point, contrasting with the gray solid stable buildings around it, and creates a feeling of great tension and apprehension. 

Types of Balance

There are three main types of balance that are used in art and design: symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial. Symmetrical balance, which includes radial symmetry, repeats patterns of forms systematically. Asymmetrical balance counterbalances different elements that have equal visual weight or equal physical and visual weight in a three-dimensional structure. Asymmetrical balance is based more on the artist's intuition than on a formulaic process.

Symmetrical Balance

Symmetrical balance is when both sides of a piece are equal; that is, they are identical, or almost identical. Symmetrical balance can be established by drawing an imaginary line through the center of the work, either horizontally or vertically. This kind of balance creates a sense of order, stability, rationality, solemnity, and formality, and so is often used in institutional architecture – i.e. government buildings, libraries, colleges and universities – and religious art. 

Symmetrical balance may be a mirror image - an exact copy of the other side - or it may be approximate, with the two sides having slight variations but being quite similar.

Symmetry around a central axis is called bilateral symmetry. The axis may be vertical or horizontal.

The Last Supper by Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is one of the best well-known examples of an artist's creative use of symmetrical balance. Da Vinci uses the compositional device of symmetrical balance and linear perspective to stress the importance of the central figure, Jesus Christ. There is slight variation among the figures, but there are the same number of figures on either side and they are situated along the same horizontal axis.

Op art is a kind of art that sometimes employs symmetrical balance biaxially - that is, with symmetry corresponding to both the vertical and horizontal axis.

Radial Symmetry

Radial symmetry is a variation of symmetrical balance in which the elements are arranged equally around a central point, as in the spokes of a wheel or the ripples made in a pond where a stone is dropped. Radial symmetry has a strong focal point since it is organized around a central point.

Radial symmetry is often seen in nature, as in the petals of a tulip, the seeds of a dandelion, or in certain marine life such as jellyfish. It is also seen in religious art and sacred geometry, as in mandalas, and in contemporary art, as in Target With Four Faces (1955) by the American painter, Jasper Johns (b. 1930).

Asymmetrical Balance

In asymmetrical balance, the two sides of a composition are not the same but appear to have an equal visual weight nonetheless. Negative and positive shapes are unequal and unevenly distributed throughout the artwork, leading the viewer's eye through the piece. Asymmetrical balance is a bit more difficult to achieve than symmetrical balance because each element of art has its own visual weight relative to the other elements and impacts the whole composition.  

For example, asymmetrical balance can occur when several smaller items on one side are balanced by a large item on the other side, or when smaller elements are placed further away from the center of the composition than larger elements. A dark shape can be balanced by several lighter shapes.

Asymmetrical balance is less formal and more dynamic than symmetrical balance. It may appear more casual but takes careful planning. An example of asymmetrical balance is Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889). The dark triangular shape of the trees visually anchoring the left side of the painting is counterbalanced by the yellow circle of the moon in the upper right corner.

The Boating Party, by American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), is another dynamic example of asymmetrical balance, with the dark figure in the foreground (lower right-hand corner) balanced by the lighter figures and particularly the light sail in the upper left-hand corner. 

How the Elements of Art Influence Balance

When creating an artwork, artists keep in mind that certain elements and characteristics have greater visual weight than others. In general, the following guidelines apply, although each composition is different and the elements within a composition always behave in relation to the other elements:

Color

Colors have three main characteristics – value, saturation, and hue – that affect their visual weight. 

  • Value: Darker colors seem visually heavier in weight than lighter colors. Black is the darkest color and the heaviest weight visually; white is the lightest color and the lightest weight visually. However, the size of the shape matters, too: for example, a smaller darker shape can be balanced by a larger lighter shape. 
  • Saturation: More saturated colors (more intense) are visually heavier than more neutral (duller) colors. A color can be made less intense by mixing it with its opposite on the color wheel.
  • Hue: Warm colors (yellow, orange, red) have more visual weight than cool colors (blue, green, purple).
  • Opaque areas have more visual weight than transparent areas.

Shape 

  • Squares tend to have more visual weight than circles; and more complex shapes (trapezoids, hexagons, pentagons, etc) tend to have more visual weight than simpler shapes (circles, squares ovals, etc.)
  • The size of the shape is very important; larger shapes are heavier visually than smaller shapes, but a group of small shapes can equal the weight of a large shape visually

Line

  • Thick lines have more weight than thin lines.

Texture

  • A shape or form with texture has more weight than one that is not textured.

Placement

  • Shapes or objects located toward the edge or corner of the composition have more visual weight and will offset visually heavy elements within the composition. 

Balance is an important principle to heed, for it communicates much about an artwork and can contribute to the overall effect, making a composition dynamic and lively, or restful and calm.