This past week there has been a discussion on the QuiltArt list about the elements and principles of design. Several people asked for information or “lessons” on the elements and principles. I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the principles here. I’ll start out with balance. If anyone else wants to tackle another, feel free!
The scale, above, represents balance at it’s most elementary—matching the contents of the two sides of the scale in weight, so that the scale balances. It is also a visual example of formal balance in art. The object is centered and each side of the composition is a mirror image of the other side, with the exception of the shadows. This is the easiest kind of balance to achieve, known as formal balance or symmetry. You can liken it to an actual scale, knowing that the easiest way to balance the scale is to put identical objects in each side. But we also know that in addition to using two identical apples to balance the scale, you can achieve balance with an apple on one side and an apricot and a handful of grapes on the other side.
The classic art lesson example of formal balance is the mantle with a clock, two candlesticks and two bowls.
To make the balance informal, move the objects around distributing them so that total mass is reasonably equal on each side of the mantel even though the objects are not the same on each side.
You can change the size of objects, eliminate one or more object and continue to move things, still keeping the total mass more or less equal on each side.
In art, however, there are other things besides perceived volume that contribute “weight” to an element of the design. Intensity of color, value (dark objects appear to be heavier), contrast, direction and movement all add weight.
In general formal balance tends to be static and informal balances more naturalistic with more movement and flow through the piece, but that formal balance may be exactly what you want for a piece. Traditional quilts are almost always examples of formal balance, which may be why many quilters, turned art quilters, seem to have such a hard time stepping out of that mode.
Grant Wood used near-formal balance in his painting American Gothic to emphasize a kind of formal, iconic presentation. Everything here is solid, grounded, carefully balanced (boring?)–the epitome of solid American values.
There are so many ways of working with the idea of balance in a work of art. In this painting of Cezanne’s, the fruit on the plate reads as one thing, centered in the composition. He plays with that simple balance only a bit by adding a design element on the top right, (the leaves)balanced by another on the bottom left (the cylinder and dark area). The composition is stable and unambiguous.
The next Cezanne has a similar kind of balanced composition…
Except that I cropped the painting. Here is the complete painting:
The vessel on the far left complicates the issues of balance, but in the end feels balanced because of the “heavier” tone of the additional element–its darker value and movement off the side of the painting, making it a more interesting and challenging piece than my cropped version.
I think the thing to realize about balance in art is that it is approximate, that there are a variety of ways to achieve balance and that less than perfect balance can be a way of achieving tension or a feeling of disequilibrium. (however try as I might, I was unable to find an example–I’m still looking)
I find the more intricate the balance, often the more interesting the piece. A man standing alone in the center of a stage is perfectly balanced, but not very interesting. A man standing on a large ball in the center of a stage, with a cat on his head and a spinning top balanced on the tip of his nose–well that is where balance becomes the main event.
Balance is something I am always aware of as I work. How about you?
Here are a couple of examples of informal balance to examine, both by van Gogh. What do you see?