Last summer as I was following along with lessons from different drawing books, I came across one assignment — to seek out and draw things which were asymmetrical. It seemed like an easy thing to do, until I tried to find things that weren’t symmetrical.
Everywhere I looked, I saw symmetry. I searched through the house and came away shaking my head. Glasses, bottles, jars, toys, lamps, tables, stuffed animals — you name it. Everything had symmetry.
Finally as I rummaged through a closet, I came across an old purse haphazardly tossed in the corner. Although the purse itself is symmetrical, its position was not. I latched onto it, brought it to my drawing table, and re-created its lopsided, asymmetrical appearance.
You can tell from this quick sketch, no doubt, that I was quite frustrated and ready to call it a day with drawing.
Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about symmetry and its opposite — asymmetry. Our brains seem to be wired for symmetry.
I’ve been studying design principles, the concepts of harmony, rhythm, and balance in art, and those ideas can all add up to symmetry of one sort or another. I’m not going to get into different types of symmetry. Heaven knows, it’s confusing enough!
Even William Blake wrote of fearful symmetry in The Tyger:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
So maybe Mother Nature also loves symmetry, golden ratios, and all of that. Please, let’s not go there this morning.
Questions about symmetry and asymmetry have been on my mind more than usual the last few days. I’ve been reading Landscape Painting Essentials by Jonathan Vloothuis, and while proponents of dynamic symmetry are telling me how important that concept is for good composition, Vloothuis is explaining that symmetry should be avoided in landscape painting.
According to Vloothuis, symmetrical shapes in nature are not pleasing — at least not when we use those shapes in our paintings. He says:
“Nature produces many symmetrical shapes. They may look good outdoors but once scaled to mini sizes in your artwork, they become painfully obvious. This takes a toll on the artistic beauty.”
Now, let me point out that I do understand the difference between using dynamic symmetry in composition and not using symmetry in landscape elements. This isn’t an either/or proposition. It’s a bit of an oxymoron, perhaps, like the concept of random order. We can create paintings that make use of both symmetry and asymmetry.
Today it’s the asymmetrical ideas I’m focusing on, but trying to get away from symmetry is a challenging task. I managed in that quick sketch of my old purse. I find it much harder in landscape painting. But I suspect that Vloothuis is right.
When I look back at paintings I’ve done I see lots of very symmetrical-looking trees. Those are the ones I’ve groaned over, lamenting the fact that my trees often look childish. On those occasions when I’ve painted trees I’ve liked, they are definitely more asymmetrical. So, point taken, Mr. Vloothuis. Thank you.
One problem, I think, is that we’re so often instructed to use geometric shapes in laying out a composition. How many times have you heard or read that we should start by seeing the broad overall shapes? We sketch in a scene using circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, cylinders — all of which are symmetrical.
Vloothuis advocates changing those shapes a bit, and he suggests practicing abstract shapes. The method he teaches is to visualize landscape forms as silhouettes and then to draw them with a marker.
That was my project recently. I grabbed one of my little 5 x 7 canvas practice panels and drew a very nice, very asymmetrical tree. I wish I’d taken a photo of it. It looked good. Really good.
And then I painted it. Lo and behold, my asymmetrical tree somehow became much more symmetrical once I had the brush in my hand.
While it’s not perfectly symmetrical, it’s a far cry from the asymmetrical drawing I started with. So, I’ll be doing a lot more of these silhouette/shape practices, trying to convince my brain that it doesn’t have to see evenly-matched elements in my landscapes.
Maybe it’s because I have the concept of balance so ingrained in my thoughts. It would help me to realize that balance and symmetry are two different things, and here we’re going back again to the principles of dynamic symmetry, and other theories of composition.
What it comes down to is that we can create interesting, well-balanced landscapes without resorting to symmetrical elements in trees, rocks, and other natural features.
It’s proving to be a difficult lesson for me to put into practice, but it’s something I’m definitely going to work on. So, when you see me painting rocks that look like perfect rectangles, tree trunks formed by neat cylinders, or nicely-rounded limbs and leaves, remind me that I’ve once again fallen victim to the fearful curse of symmetry.