Elements of Composition: Balance

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Christian Marquardt / Getty Images

Balance is one of the easier Elements of Composition to see, and you'll soon discover whether your natural inclination is towards a perfectly balanced or symmetrical composition or an unbalanced, asymmetrical one. It's not that one is better than the other, but whichever you choose as the underlying component of your composition has an impact on the overall feeling of the finished painting. Symmetrical tends to feel calmer and asymmetrical livelier.

We're using the famous Mona Lisa painting to illustrate the role of balance in a painting, because while it is mostly a balanced composition, the positioning of the figure is slightly off-center, or off-balance.

Symmetrical Balance Creates Harmony

A photo of the Mona Lisa painting looking at its balance, one of the elements of composition.
Photo of Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci © Stuart Gregory / Getty Images

The face in a portrait is typically the focal point, and this painting is no exception. We're seeing the face straight on, and there's balance created as we're seeing equal amounts of the face on either side of the nose. (If the face had been at an angle, we would see more of one side of the face than the other.) Yet if you draw a line down the center of the face, you'll notice it's not positioned in the center of the canvas, but a little way to the left. So the balance is undermined somewhat, though without careful looking it's hard to put your finger on exactly why. But the composition results in the face looming out of the painting towards the viewer, giving it more impact.

Take a look at the background, analyzing the dominant colors. You'll see it forms horizontal bands, which I've shown in red on the photo. The varying widths of these bands add visual interest to the composition, it's a change of rhythm, but it's gentle. A subtle effect of the diminishing width of the bands towards the top reinforces the effect of perspective on the background.

Now, look at the bands in terms of the negative space around the head. How large is each, and is it equal on either side of the figure? For instance, in the negative space around her shoulders, there's more on the left-hand side than the right. What at first glance appears to be balanced, isn't totally.

Layers of Balance in a Painting

A photo of the Mona Lisa painting looking at its balance, one of the elements of composition.
Photo of Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci © Stuart Gregory / Getty Images

There are several other layers of balance in addition to that created by Leonardo da Vinci in the background of his Mona Lisa painting. Look for strong lines and shapes, repetitions and echoes. The places a particular color has been used, as well as light and shadow.

In the photo above I've marked the places I see strong diagonal lines. There are three on the figure, starting with the hands and forearms, where the lighter tones of the skin and the highlights on the fabric stand out against the darks of her dress. Above this the lines formed by the top edge of her garment, and then above this the lines where the light tone on her chin meets the dark shadows underneath it.

Have a look at where these three sets of lines intersect, how one is aligned with her nose (which is positioned off-center, as I mentioned previously), and how the other two are aligned to the right of the center of her face but in fact closer to the center of the canvas. This not-quite-symmetrical balance adds a subtle uneasiness to the composition, one of those hard-to-fathom mysterious qualities of this painting. In addition, the combination of the two forms of balance, the horizontal bands mentioned on the previous page which pull the eye upwards with perspective, and the diagonal bands which draw the eye back down and to the center, act together to keep the eye roving around the painting, rather than letting it run off the edge.

Another layer of balance is in the lights and darks of the background, which create diagonals that lead our eye into the distance. Notice how the components of the composition of far distance on the left is at an angle, whereas on the right they're horizontal. Now compare the colors used in both parts of the painting. In terms of color and tone, they're quite similar, which enhances the sense of balance. But in terms of pattern, they're not, which adds a sense of imbalance or unease. It wasn't done accidentally by the artist, it was a deliberate compositional choice.

Now have a look at the painting with the word "circle" in your mind. How are full circles and semi-circles or curves arranged to lead the eye? The obvious ones are the oval of her face, the semi-circles of her forehead against the hairline and the top of her hair against the sky. But they're also there in the folds of the fabric along her arms, the position of the fingers of her left hand, the tops of her eyes. The more you look, the more you see. To analyze the impact of this on the composition, do a thumbnail of the curves, a map of what's going on.