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Friday, August 15, 2008

Playing With Balance

Balance is equilibrium. We've all been thrown off balance, whether physically, emotionally, spiritually or psychologically. It's uncomfortable, we don't like it. We need balance and we seek it in every area of our lives.

From the beginning, our need for balance found its way into painting. Even the cave artists demonstrated a strong sense of balance and over the centuries, artists have identified and worked with two major kinds of balance, symmetrical and asymmetrical.

In symmetrical balance in painting, the focal point is centered with each side of the piece being, more or less, a mirror image of the other. It is therefore symmetrical. Achieving asymmetrical balance in painting is totally different, depending upon our sense of balance to guide how we place our images and how we control their size, shape, edges, color, direction, texture and value.

Symmetrical balance, though, can be more than simply placing images on one side of the painting and making a mirror image of them on the other. Artists have traditionally played with symmetrical balance to see how far they could stretch the concept and still keep the feeling of symmetry.

Leonardo da Vinci's 15th century painting, "The Last Supper," is our most familiar example of an artist's creative use of symmetrical balance.
The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci 1496 to 1498
in the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie
The Christ image is absolutely centered. The architectural shapes in the background are mirrored images though one side is in shadow and the other in light. The table is symmetrical. Slight variations occur in the people images. The size of the left grouping is the same as the size of the group on the right. The direction is horizontal, thus the same. The most variation is found in placement of color and in the arrangement of the figures themselves.

Raphael's "School of Athens" is another example of using symmetrical balance with slight variation.
Italian Renaissance artist Raphael , circa 1510 and 1511

Like Leonardo, Raphael has used the architecture to create the mirror. It's within the people images that he pushes variation. Notice the group on the right almost fit into a rectangular shape whereas the group on the left tend toward a triangular arrangement.

David took this idea yet a step further in his "Oath of Horatti.". He actually breaks the symmetry with the subject matter but uses symmetry in the architectural background.
Jacques-Lois David The Oath of The Horati 1784
The fun part of compositional principles is playing around with them, using them as tools rather than as rules. Next week I'll show some ways that artists had fun playing with asymmetrical balance.

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