In physics, Balance is that point where a specific distribution comes to a standstill. In a balanced composition, all elements are determined in such a way that no change seems possible. The piece must give the feel of steadiness, otherwise, it will just seem off.
Rudolf Arnheim, in his Art and Visual Perception book, stands that there are 3 elements to balance: shape, direction, and location. He also says that in the case of imbalance “the artistic piece becomes incomprehensible […] the stillness of the work becomes a handicap”. And that’s what gives that frustrating sensation of frozen time.
In this simple example, you can see all this. Having the sphere off center gives the sensation of unrest. The sphere seems to be being pulled to the corner almost. It’s if like an invisible force is pulling it from the center. These pulls are what Arnheim calls Perceptual Forces. And with the sphere in the center of the walls, you have the sense of balance, where all the forces pulling from the sides and corners of the square are equal.
Returning to physics, we can say that when talking about Balance the first thing that pops into our heads is Weight. And that’s what it is all about, what we think. Because, as I said before, perception is just the brain processing images. So, if when we talk about balancing something we think of weight it definitely has to have something to do with it in art, right? Exactly.
Arnheim talks about knowledge and weight in balance referring to the fact that anyone who sees a picture of a scale with a hammer on one side and a feather in the other knows that the first one is heavier. If the scales are perfectly balanced it will just seem off. But balance does not always require symmetry, as we might tend to think. Isn’t equilibrium that brings balance. If the scales tilt to the “correct” side (the hammer) perceptual balance would have been achieved.
In Art, as in physics, the weight of an element increases in relation to its distance from the center.
So an object in the center can be balanced by objects to the sides, and objects on one side of the frame must be balanced with objects in the opposite location. But this doesn’t mean that the objects must be the same (symmetry and equilibrium), for there are properties that give objects weight besides their actual apparent weight.
SIZE. The larger the object, the heavier.
COLOR. Red is heavier than blue. Also, bright colors are heavier than dark ones.
ISOLATION. An isolated object seems heavier than the same object accompanied by smaller ones all around it. Arnheim puts the moon and stars as an example here.
SHAPE. Experimentation has shown that different shapes affect the way we perceive weight. Elongated, taller, figures seem heavier than short ones (even though they both have the same area size).
To expand on this matter I recommend you to go back to the books I will reference in the sources down bellow. Even though these are really simple examples, I plan to move on with this theory applied to environment art.
The whole take on Balance gives all the world building process a solid base stone. Embracing these principles will help you understand and better plan object placement in your scene to avoid the feared feel of steadiness Arnheim warned us about.
There is still a bit more to explain about Balance so I will be expanding a bit more on this matter in future posts.
Thumbnail art: Madame Cezanne in a Yellow Chair, c.1891 - Paul Cezanne
Arnheim, Rudolf (ed.) Art and Visual Perception. A psycology of the creative eye. University of California. 1954.
Bang, Molly. (ed) Picture This. (1991)
Baker, David B. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of the Psychology. Oxford University Press (Oxford Library of Psychology), 2012.