• # Composition 101: Balance

Visual Arts

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

Sources:
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.

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## User Feedback

Posted (edited)

This is a great article and what @gdarchive writes is really important. I would like to complement the article because the stated is also true for orchestral music composition. Of course it's always up the to artist to decide how they want their piece to feel like. Imbalance is not by all means a bad thing, although it's usually what you would try to avoid. It's important, however, that the artist is aware of what techniques exist and what set of emotional experience they lead to for the listener.

So, let's image, you got that really strong cello line which starts in the lower registers and then climbs all the way up to where the strings are almost screaming. Now your cellos are located in the front right of your orchestra. As said, we keep the tone but vary the color in our example here. So there're three things we would try to balance here: Texture, tone and direction. I will try to explain what each of them will do. And I will try to show why full balance is best in most cases but is not always what you want.

So let's start with direction, or simply speaking "stereo". Of course, to balance a sound that comes from the right, we need to add one coming from the left. Be sure to not pick an instrument that isn't too much in the rear because this would lead to even more imbalance. A good choice would be a clarinet, maybe a bass clarinet or even the whole section of them. To keep our balance, we would have them play in their lower registers as well.

Now we only have those low notes but maybe want to balance up to the higher octaves. Be sure, though, to keep them very silent as the high cello notes, that will come later, need to remain the strongest voice. As we are going for balance and don't what to set any counter voice right now, we need to carefully pick a matching color, something similar. Horns go very well with clarinets and would also get us some output from the rearer part of the orchestra. But maybe we want to swap the supporting colors to - again - gain more balance. Maybe the middle registers of the trombones would do when played piano in a very soft and fine tone. To accomplish the same sort of balance for the cellos we could use the bassoons but as we decided to swap the supporting parts, we might be going better with the lower registers of the violins. Remember, you can almost always intermix instruments of the same section together.

We should now already have quite some balance in our piece. At least when it comes to color and direction.

So let's go over to the texture. As of now, we only have a melody. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Do we want to support, complement or enforce the melody? Enforcing would mean that all the other instruments we have so far would either play pretty much the same the cellos do, or express a counter melody. This would give us a very powerful melody that is well defined and strong in its expression, no matter what the articulation tells.

Complementing would mean that we try to fill all the pauses and silent notes the cellos play in their main melody. This would take away some rest but still establish some sort of balance in such a way that they would be alternating and taking turns, if you wish.

Supporting the cellos would mean to let the other instruments almost play straight chords, either allowing the cellos to break out of them every now and then, or to re-harmonize everything the cellos do (which is harder to do but creates a softer and more fitting overall experience).

I won't go too much into percussions here but remember that they also consist of very different colors and tonal heights. Use them as such! That is: Having very fast bass drums under very quick double basses will lead to nothing more but audio porridge while placing a few cymbals or triangle hits over the double basses will create interesting rhythmic patterns.

Edited by ptietz

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