Principles of Design: Balance – Terry Grant

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?




9 Responses to “Principles of Design: Balance – Terry Grant”

  1. 1 Rita Hong May 31, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I am a student from Nursing.
    I would like to ask copyright about the “balance” designed by Terry.
    How much did I need to pay for the copyright to use in the PhD thesis as a image?
    Many thanks.

  2. 2 fernando May 13, 2008 at 8:57 am

    Melanie is parcially right, the balance in van gogh isn´t a solid static balance, is a balance in motion, the constant encircled movement can balance a “unbalance” composition, the costruction in van gogh it is not one made of line (made for gravity or plane distribution) instead of that is one made of axis, in the first one face arms and flowers made an eliptic figure with the face in one of his axis, in the second the sky really is water flowing through and around the stars, it is clear a romantic posture in van gogh base in the subjetivity of his own focus adding to them the construccion + time of an impresionsm way

  3. 3 Melanie November 22, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    I noticed something similar to what Kristin noticed in the Gachet — the brushstrokes ‘encircle’ the face. If you start with the sitter’s right cuff, then look up and over that shoulder, around the head, and down the lapel and across the jacket — the strokes form a kinetic frame arpund the face. Which has more to do, I suppose, with focal point than balance.

  4. 4 Kristin November 22, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Although the man and the plant in the first van Gogh painting are leaning left and the vertical arm “props” the movement, it’s the brush strokes that bring my eye back around. The left-leaning composition is balanced by brush work moving to the right. As terry mentioned, the balance is delicate. I love that it’s not just physical objects that affect balance, but technique as well. In Starry Night the swirly brushstrokes keep the textbook balance from being boring.

    And yes, I am always aware of balance (and it’s cousin, proportion) in my work.

  5. 5 terrygrant November 21, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    I agree with Eileen about the Starry Night. It is almost textbook balance with the moon on one side, the dark tree on the other and that swirling star plunked right smack in the center.

  6. 6 terrygrant November 21, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    That first van Gogh is interesting isn’t it? I find the balance intriguing, because it is clearly weighted to the left. But I think it gets saved from falling off that side by the tilt of the head. The eyes bring you right back into the painting. So many things affect the balance and this is so delicate. There is also something about those buttons lining up almost dead center. So I see the balance as a little teter-totter-y. I think this is a wonderful painting, btw.

    June, I think the Sorrowing Old Man is a great example of the effect of that slight off-balance supporting a mood or feeling.

  7. 7 June November 21, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    The first Van Gogh seems off balance to me, which I think is appropriate given the subject matter. Perhaps I’m influenced by another Van Gogh (“Sorrowing Old Man”) where the figure is seated in a straightback chair, leaning forward, almost ready to fall forward with his head in his hands — the picture of despair. The feeling of the weight of living, the melancholy of being — chaos just beyond the vision — seems to me to be the point of the two paintings.

    It is true that in the Van Gogh above that the weight of the hand on the table is strong and helps keep the poor fellow from tipping over entirely. Is that balance? Physically, yes, of course, but visually? I suspect so, although we feel it in our bodies not our eyes…..

    Here’s a good web image of “Sorrowing Old Man” or “Old Man in Sorrow.”

    When I look at it, it looks off balance to me, but absolutely appropriate. The painting stunned me when I saw it in real life in Seattle.

  8. 8 eileen doughty November 21, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Excellent subject and examples.

    Looking at the two van Goghs, the first one seems to be strongly weighted to the left. The head and flowers are vertically lined up, but everything else is pointing off to the left – his posture, the flowers, the brush strokes, the edge of the table. Perhaps his large dark jacket adds mass to the right side to keep the image from crashing to the floor off the left.

    In the second, the cypress seems to be balanced by the bright moon. The swirls in the center bring the eye around and around in the center. Nothing is straight or lined up, but it seems fairly balanced to me.

    Balance is probably something we all have in mind as we move pieces of a work in progress around on the design wall, either consciously or subconsciously. It is good to explicitly know these concepts so one can think about them while composing.

  9. 9 Sylvia November 21, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Terry, Nice article with great illustrations.

    Deliberate unbalance creates a feeling of wonder and curiosity–what is the rest of the story? What happens/ed next? It becomes the proverbial cliffhanger and lets the viewer speculate. For me, there is a difference between looking at a painting of an apple that is so real I think I can smell it or pick it up versus one that might be rolling off the table.

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