Balancing Acts

Like most kids back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, I loved the circus. Among my favorite films, I count The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Trapeze (1956) and Toby Tyler — 10 Weeks with the Circus (1960). It was probably the latter which influenced me most because its main character was a young boy who reminded me of myself in many ways.

Like many before me, I had childhood fantasies of running away to join the circus. A very impractical idea since no circuses ever visited our small town. So, with that option clearly not available, I banded together with friends to create our own circus. It wasn’t much, I assure you, but it kept us entertained for a good part of one summer.

For my role in the circus, I learned tightrope walking. We had a few trees in the backyard that were perfectly suited for such an endeavor, so, yep, I strung a rope up between them, grabbed a ladder, climbed up, and stepped out. I fell a few times — it wasn’t a serious distance — but each time I fell I got up and tried again. Soon I was walking forward, backward, and even dancing to the sounds of Tequila, a popular song by the Champs.  Indeed, I put on quite a show, and passers-by often stopped to stare in wonder at the silly little girl walking in the air between the trees.

Maybe it’s because of my childhood experiences, but I’ve always felt I had a fairly good grasp of the principles of balance. I don’t necessarily apply those principles. My life is usually wildly out-of-balance in many different ways, but when it comes to art, I think I instinctively strive to create “good balance” in my compositions.

A useful definition for “balance in art” is this: the use of artistic elements such as line, texture, color, and form in the creation of artworks in a way that renders visual stability. The key-word in this definition is stability.

In his Theory of Pure Design, Denman Ross counts balance as one of the three essential elements of good design. He speaks a lot of creating balance from a central vertical axis. This leads to the concept of symmetry, wherein both sides of an object or drawing are precisely the same, such as in this simple butterfly illustration from an online education site.

As part of a drawing lesson a few years ago, I went on a search for assymetrical objects. It proved difficult. At some level our brains seem to require the careful balance that symmetry provides.

Yet while symmetry is almost always part of good design, it’s not necessarily something we want in art. Our task, then, is to understand assymetrical balance, where two sides are equal but not the same.

Maybe the easiest way to think of balance is in terms of weight. The familiar see-saw from our childhood teaches us most of what we need to know. You can delve into it with basic physics, such as those illustrated here, if you want. For most of us, though, it’s probably easier to just think back a bit and draw from our own experiences.

With a heavy child on one end of the seesaw and a lighter child on the other, the imbalance was obvious. When another child joined in, we could create a better balance. We could, of course, move forward or backward to achieve balance.

With art, we also have various methods of making adjustments. Once again we have to begin with the idea of weight — which isn’t something we think of a lot when it comes to drawing and painting.

Certain elements in art “carry more weight” than others. If we were to place two solid-colored squares on a page — as if we were putting them on a seesaw — they would be equal in weight. But let’s remove the color from one, and what happens? Oops. We’re a bit out of balance.

Darker colors are heavier than lighter colors.

Size makes a difference, too. Put a large square on one side and a smaller square on the other. Again, we’re out of balance, even if those squares are the same color.

Larger shapes are heavier than smaller ones.

And what about the shapes of those shapes? Yes, that can make a difference, too. Our brain perceives squares as having more weight than circles; complex shapes seem  heavier than squares.

Shapes can have different weights.

And going back to colors, it’s not quite as simple as “dark is heavy, light is light”. Saturated colors seem heavier than muted tones; opaque colors carry more weight than transparent hues, and those colors we think of as warm — reds, yellows, and oranges — are heavier than the cool blues, greens, and violets.

Warm colors are heavier than cool hues.

A few other guiding principles include:

Thicker lines are heavier than thin lines.

Textured areas are heavier than smooth areas.

And just as we did when playing on a seesaw, we can use placement to create proper balance. Objects placed near the outer edges feel heavier. Those closer to our axis are lighter.

The closer to the center vertical axis, the lighter the element’s weight.

All of this might seem like a lot to think about, but it’s really not too difficult. Our brains are essentially “hard-wired” for balance, and we depend upon good balance in our daily lives for walking, standing, riding bicycles, and many other activities. If you’ve ever suffered from vertigo, or have temporarily lost your balance from another health condition, you know all too well how vital good balance is. Instinctively we can tell when things are out of balance around us.

In addition, we each have a lot of first-hand physics experience in performing various balancing acts. We’ve used scales where we’ve had to move a weight from one side to another to find the exact balancing point. We’ve played games like Jenga or built towers from blocks with our toddlers.

So, taking what I know, or at least what I think I know about balance, can I create an illustration that is well-balanced? Here’s what I came up with. While I liked it at first, looking at it again… hmm, maybe the right side is a bit heavier than the left. What do you think? How would you correct the imbalance?

I am having fun sitting on the floor and playing with shapes! If you’re looking for a good way to learn design principles, grab some paper — I used several sheets from a pad of scrapbooking paper — or cut shapes out of old magazines. Lay them out, move them around, see what you come up with!

Maybe it’s not quite as much fun as tightrope-walking used to be, but I’d say it’s definitely a lot safer.


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