Terms you should know
- Asymmetry A common form of balance. Unlike symmetrical balance, the objects do not reflect one another on either side of the implied vertical axis, yet it has a balanced visual weight.
- Visual Weight is essential to balance. The shapes, forms, color, etc. (artistic elements) used in the composition make up the elements referred to as visual weight.
- Artistic Elements are the elements (shapes, forms, color, etc.) used in a composition
- Picture Plane The area in which you draw, paint, etc. If the artist is filling an entire piece of paper with a drawing, then that area is referred to as the Picture Plane. In painting the entire surface of the stretched canvas is considered the Picture Plane, etc.
- Composition The relationship between the parts or elements of a work of art. For example, the arrangement of balance, rhythm, color, etc., on the picture plane.
- Positive Space the form of the subject/object(s) in a composition.
- Negative Space The area that surrounds the positive space and shares the outside edges with the subject/object.
In my experience, if there is a compositional problem with a design, poorly placed visual weight is often the culprit! In my opinion, understanding how balance and visual weight works are one of the most critical concepts in design. I have found that many of you instinctively understand the concept of asymmetrical balance, but once we begin breaking it down it can feel confusing!
Review of the basics of Balance Understanding the concept of visual weight is the key to understanding balance.
Unconsciously, the viewer imagines a vertical axis running through the center of the picture plane. The visual weight of the artistic elements on either side of the vertical axis establishes balance.
We unconsciously view the picture plane as having a top, bottom, left and right side. We, in the U.S. learn to read left to right, so view art from left to right.
The visual weight of the artistic elements on either side of the vertical axis establishes balance. This statement is true for both symmetrical and asymmetrical balance. If you haven’t done so, please read the blog on symmetrical balance.
Asymmetry balance often gives causal feeling to the viewer. But don’t be deceived, asymmetrical balance is more complex for the designer to correctly achieve than the other forms of balance. Instead of repeating the same artistic elements from one side of the vertical axis to the other side, as in symmetrical balance, asymmetrical balance uses different artistic elements on either side of the vertical axis to create balance (equal visual weight).
The goal of asymmetrical balance is that the (visual) weight of the artistic elements equals out from one side of the vertical axis to the other side. In the example below the blond woman on the left side of the vertical axis (which is size and detail) balances against the row of food (detail and color). Both sides have their own type of visual weight, and yet each element of visual weight balances one another. To get a clearer understanding, let’s look at the five elements of visual weigh.
Each artistic element used on the picture plane possesses some quality of visual weight. The challenge is to get the visual weight to equal out on both sides of the vertical axis.
Size Place two squares on the picture plane, both the same value, created in the same manner, equal in every aspect but size. The larger of the two squares have more visual weight because the larger the item, the more space it takes up.
Value Place two stars on the picture plane, both the same size, created in the same manner, equal in every aspect but value. The darker star has more visual weight. The darker value absorbs more light, giving the illusion of being heavy. This type of heaviness also appears closer to the eye than lighter objects.
Interest or Detail Place two hexagons on the picture plane, equal in every aspect but one is created with more detail. The hexagon with more detail has more visual weight. Detail can be created by texture, pattern and/or how the artistic element is drawn, painted, etc. Detailed objects naturally pique the viewer’s curiosity, inviting the viewer to come in for a closer look. If the detail is texture, texture naturally appeals to the unconscious.
Color There are numerous ways to create visual weight with color, here is one way. Place two squares on a page, equal in all manners except one has color and the other is de-saturated, the square with pure, saturated, color will have more visual weight. When you study color theory, this concept will have more meaning. Color Theory will be added to this site in the future.
3- Dimensional vs. 2-Dimensional Place two squares on a page, equal in size, value, etc. except one appears 2- dimensional while the other is 3-dimensional. The 3-dimensional square has more visual weight. This type of visual weight appears to be closer to the viewer due to the addition of depth. It creates the illusion of absorbing more space on the picture plane.
Negative/Positive Space & Asymmetrical Balance
One last compositional aspect I like to consider with asymmetrical balance is the negative space. In the piece by Hernri Riviere (below), the composition has a strong negative space that creates visual interest, adding to the all-over visual weight. Before breaking it down, let’s take a quick look at negative/positive space.
What is Negative & Positive Space?
Positive space is the subject/object(s) on the picture plane. Negative space is the area surrounding the subject/objects (positive space), sharing outer edges with the subject/objects. In the image below; the yellow vase is considered the positive space , while the black space is the negative space.
Negative & Positive Space and asymmetrical balance
Now that you have a basic understanding of Negative/Positive space, let’s look at how it effects visual weight and balance.
This piece by Hernri Riviere was created in 1895. The title tells us it is about a funeral in the rain. Victorian funerals were big business. In the top, left corner is a horse-drawn hearse. The funeral director and employees were in the front and sides of the hearse, next came family, lastly followed by friends and colleagues. This piece also reflects the interest in Japanese art and techniques. The chop, in the bottom, left corner is just one nod to that interest. The Chinese chop or seal is used in Taiwan and China to sign documents, artwork, and other paperwork.
The two main elements of visual weight on the left side of the vertical axis are color and detail. Let’s address the color first. We see warm colors before cool colors. This is especially true with purer colors. The majority of the warm colors in this piece are located in the top, left, corner of the picture plane. There is also a red chop placed in the bottom, left side of the piece.
The second important element of visual weight on the left is in the top, left corner which is the horse-drawn hearse. This is detail. It is an important part of the story that the image is communicating. The audience of that day immediately knew what the horse and hearse represented. By adding the bright splashes of color near the horse and hearse, Riviere gives immediate importance to that part of the composition.
On the right side of the vertical axis the main elements of visual weight are size and value. The fiures in the rain are created with mainly dark values. As the figures get closer to the viewer, the size of the figure increase.
Look through the images below an access what are the two top elements of visual weight on either side of the vertical axis.
Credits: Some of the information in this presentation comes from the book, Design Basics, Seventh Edition by David Lauer