Principles in Art – Balance


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There is more swing or freedom of movement in a composition when balance is felt intuitively rather than when having followed strict rules, but having a basic knowledge of some guidelines is always useful when making our own compositions, this is particularly true to Still Life paintings.

The painting below made by the Dutch artist, Willem Van Aelst, is a simple arrangement where the stem of the main foreground rose, the rose itself and the red carnation facing backwards form a flat S shape which is very pleasing. The three light pink flowers above the marble structure are balanced by the downward facing carnation, the four of which form a stable triangle. S formations and triangular compositions are very common in Still Lifes.

William Van Aelst; Group of flowers (1675)

                       This painting is a very complex assymmetrical composition arranged marvellously by the renowed Dutch artist, Gerard Van Spaendock.  It consists of a lavish group of flowers and foliage arranged in a basket  along with aan alabaster urn on a marble pedestal. We can make out the triangular composition where the structure at the right forms one side of the right-angled triangle, the marble pedestal forms the base side and connecting the tip of the urn on the right with the tip of the marble structure on the left forms the diagonal side. The edges of the flowers and the foliage also lie on this diagonal.

The urn on the right seems heavier than the group of flowers on the left but notice that the top left hand side has a very dark background. This is how the visually-heavier dark value on the left balances the heavy object in terms of weight on the right.

Color, value,weight of objects, size or area all have visual weights and by placing them on an imaginary physical balance in our minds, we can bring refinement to our compositions.

Smaller flowers and tiny buds are made to support the larger heads of flowers and intercepted by twigs and vines to scatter or diffuse the composition, to add interest and variety and keep the eye moving about the whole picture. Dragonflies, butterflies, a fly and a beetle placed strategically add to the opulent extravagance of this composition.

Gerard Van Spaendonck; Still Life

                   The painting below, is made by Cornelius van Spaendonck, brother of Gerard van Spaendock. This painting is exceptional not only in its composition but also in his treatement of light. Notice how the eye is pulled first towards the area of the three light colored roses and the brightly lit urn. From there, he has diffused the brightness of the light radially towards the edges.  The lilac branch is made progressively darker as it moves upwards, the same is true for the blue sprig of flowers just below the lilacs, the peony, the brown urn at the bottom, the grapes and grape leaves at the right etc. In this way, the eye is made to move softly from the outer edges to the centre and focus on the roses. The large, red peony and its leaf balance the larger group of flowers diagonally towards their right.  The morning glory twig connects the two urns gracefully. If you have a large mass of flowers, its important that the vase or urn holding them appears stable and large enough to support the flowers and not look as though it would topple over.

Cornelius van Spaendonck, Still Life of Flowers

                     This painting is an unusual composition but one that still works well. The main area of interest consisting of the pink roses, rose buds and butterflies is placed quite low, at the lower left hand corner. The eye meanders up, to the white lilacs, white and red striped tulip; the red poppy pulls the eye upwards to the right corner and from there it moves towards the left to the blue iris which is not as strident as the red poppy.

Willem van Aelst; Flowers in a Silver Vase (1663)

This painting consists of a luscious arrangement of fruits and flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem. It is a symmetrical composition, the two shapes on either side of a vertical line drawn through the centre are near identical as it forms an oval shape. But this symmetrical composition is anything but monotonous, it is delightfully varied and absolutely seething with activity, with butterflies, moths, beetles and flies darting about in every direction. This festoon is suspended from a bronze ring and tied with a blue ribbon. The textures are beautifully rendered, from the rough skin of the lemon, the glittering water drops, spilling pemogranate seeds, soft centifolia rose, shiny cherries and grapes. The elements at the front, closest to the viewer, brightly lit up and gradually disappearing as they recede, the realisitic textures and darting insects all give us the impression of the whole mass as being real and alive and breathing.

Jan Davidsz de Heem


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Elements and Principles of Art

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For many of us, the choices made in color and other elements while creating artworks is instinctive and often produce harmonious results and through practice and study we can refine these choices a great deal. Usually its easier to tell whether a painting is working or not than to identify the exact reasons why it is not working. But luckily, we have a whole wealth of information that has been studied and collected by generations of artists. Success in creating any kind of visual arts requires  the basic understanding of the design elements and principles of art.


            The elements of art are the basic building blocks of an image:

1. Line:  A line is a continuous movement of a point along a given surface. Outlines or edges of shapes and forms are also called lines and can be dotted, dashed, zigzaged, irregular etc. They can have different thickness, length and direction. Lines can have qualities like of pent up energy of a tight spring shape, lazy lines, calligraphic lines, lacy lines. Adding color to these lines gives them other interesting qualities.

2. Shape: A shape is a two dimensional, enclosed area that is created by an obvious boundry like a line or one that is only implied by differences in color, texture or value.

3. Form: A form is a three dimensional object or something that is made to appear as three dimensional in a two dimensional artwork. Shapes and forms should be arranged so that they are well related to one another. Individual forms placed at equal distances will usually not work. Overlap some of them together a little. This will also give the impression of depth, as one form will be slightly behind another.

4. Space: Space is the area between, around, above or below the different elements. A positive space is the area occupied by the subject and a negative space is the area around it.

5. Color: Color has three componenets

1.Hue of the element, e.g red, yellow.

2. Intensity or Chroma: how bright or dull a hue is. E.g: cadmium yellow has a higher chroma than a raw sienna.

3. Value: how light or dark a hue is. E.g: blue mixed with white makes for a lighter value than the unmixed blue.

6. Texture: Texture is the feel of an object, smooth,fluffy,rusty… Texture can be actual or implied. Actual texture can be felt on the surface whereas implied texture appears as smooth or furry but cannot be felt.

The principles of art are the tools that are used to organise the elements:

1.  Unity: Unity is achieved when we get a sense that the work is united and whole and each element belongs in its place. It comes from the use of the other principles.

2. Emphasis: Emphasis refers to the centre of interest or focal point of the work. One focal point is easier to manage than two, if there are two, they are usually placed diagonally to each other and one is made more dominant than the other. Other elements are used in such a way as to guide the eye through out the painting and to the focal point. Unless it is a formal composition, the focal point is not placed at the dead centre of the work. Moving it off-centre makes it look much more interesting. Divide the entire area into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The intersecting points are good locations for the focal point.

3. Balance: Different elements have different visual weights and balance refers to the way they are arranged in a composition such that the work looks stable. Balance can be symmetrical, assymmetrical or radial. An architectural artwork usually has vertical symmetrical balance, meaning that the two opposite sides of a line drawn vertically along the centre of a building will be identical or near identical. Horizontal balance happens when the two sides of a line drawn horizontally along the centre of the work are identical or near identical. Radial balance happens when the elements are distributed about a centre point like in a wheel or flower for example.

Assymmetrical balance is harder to achieve but is more often used by artists because this looks more interesting and more energetic. Here, the two sides are not identical yet appear to have the same visual weight and therefore the artwork looks balanced. Different elements have different visual weights and these have to be judged and placed on both the sides so that it does not look like one side has more weight than the other and give a feeling that it might tip over. E.g: Darker values have more visual weight than lighter values, so a smaller darker value balances out a larger lighter value. Higher chroma colors have more visual weight than neutral or subdued colors. A heavier object like a piece of lead has more visual weight than a lighter object like a feather.

4. Proportion: Proportion refers to the relationship of the sizes of the different elements of the artwork. The different elements must be brought to scale with each other. For e.g the head should be in porportion to the rest of the body; another example is in a landscape: one can only feel the sense of vastness of the open skies when the objects in the foreground are proportionally smaller.

5. Movement:  Movement is the path that the eye travels as it moves through the artwork. Movement can be created through

1. Rythm: Rythm is created by the recurrence or repetition of similar elements throughout the painitng. The eye then follows these repetitions which can be varied a little to add interest. E.g: the same or slightly modified color can be echoed through out the painting to make the eye move through the entire painting and then reach the focal point. A similar form or shape can be repeated, alternate lights and darks can be used, abstract works sometimes donot have a focal point and repetition is used here to unify the painting.

2. Gradation: Gradation is the gradual change of any element, which creates movement. For e.g the receding posts in a fence is a great way to lead the eye through it towards the horizon. Gradation can also be in color, value or temperature. Usually solid blocks of color next to each other donot work unless you want to represent something forceful like violence. Gradual and subtle changes in color is always more graceful.

This is a painting by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (Composition with Yellow). The white squares have been painted in layers and they are not completely white. Some are a warm white, (creamish) and some a cool white, (bluish) and this makes for a very subtle gradation in color and the eye as it moves from one rectangle to another sees this jump in color which makes the whole area seem to pulsate. There forms a path between these pulsating whites and the four pure spots of colors. The red square, the focal point is placed roughly according to the rule of thirds and the yellow one diagonally opposite to it. The little bit subdued blue and the small red rectangle donot attract attention away from the focal points but add interest. The distances between the black lines from left to right first keep decreasing, keep same for the next two coloumns then increase, this also forms a rythmic movement. This forms a simple, yet effective and harmonious composition.

Piet Mondrian

3. Action: Movement can also be created by action, that is from an outstretched hand, the direction of a gaze, a falling ball, a flying bird etc such actions can be used to lead the eye effectively and so should not be arranged haphazardly.

In this painting, Woman with a parasol by Claude Monet, the blue skies and directional lines of the twisting skirts and blowing veil very effectively convey to us the movement of the wind on a warm, summer day. These lines lead the eye upward along the line of the parasol to the green of the parasol which again has lines leading radially downwards, connecting the eye to the green of the grassy path. The shadow on the path connects the figure with the path, the boy gives added depth to the scene as he is placed behind the grass and so on another plane, the upper portion of the parasol and the white dress reflect the blue skies. The boy, woman and the parasol form a triangular composition and their gazes connect with the viewer inviting us into the warm and windy scene.

Claude Monet, Woman with a parasol

6. Contrast:  Contrast occurs when two different elements are placed next to each other. The greater the difference the greater the contrast. The eye is naturally attracted to the region of highest contrast. Contrast adds variety and interest to the composition. Too many similar components will make the work monotonous but on the other hand, too much contrast will make the work confusing and jarring to the eye. So a balance must be achieved between similarity and contrast. Different textures like soft feathers and hard stones create contrast. Round and sharp objects create contrast.

— Hue contrast is achieved by placing different, pure hues next to each other.

—A light dark contrast of values (Value Contrast) is a very effective way to create a dramatic scene which demands immediate attention from the viewer. In this painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) (French artist who led the Impressionism movement ), La Loge (The Theatre Box), we can see the extreme contrast between white and black on the stripes and also on the man`s costume. The light-dark stripes on the skirts and the arms move upwards and converge towards the woman`s face.  Despite this strong contrast it is amazing how  Renoir has brought about a delicate look to the woman. He has done this through the beautifully and subtly toned whites, which have dusky pinks, mauves, blues and dull golds, this treatement of whites in itself is stunning. Also, he has brought out the delicate look through the transparent frilly cuffs, the light peach roses at her bosom, the light pink roses in her hair, the red-orange of her lips, the shimmering pearls at her throat and ears, his treatment of the skin, and mainly through the innocent look in her eyes and on her face. There is also contrast at the cuffs of the man`s sleeve but it is not as strong as the contrast between the pearls and two black stripes at the woman`s neck and bosom. The man is kept almost entirely in a cool, bluish shadow except for the the area of warm white at the bottom of the shirt which actually points upwards towards the woman`s face and so the figure of the man does not interfere with the foreground woman`s figure. The gaze of the man is upwards and out of the picture plane but this also does not pull the viewer`s eye out of the picture because it is blocked by the opera glasses .

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La loge (The Theater Box)

—Temperature contrast is the contrast created between warm and cool colors.  JMW Turner, who was called the painter of light, first painted in these techniques of intensity and value contrast. This painting shows how he has effectively placed the warm , yellow, orange, red colors of the sunset and the smoke blowing out of the funnel of the tugboat against the cool, blue  of the skies to pull the eye towards the focal points and around the painting (through the directional lines of the clouds)

                  — Intensity contrast is a very interesting technique, it is formed by the contrast between pure, strident colors against subdued colors so that the pure color looks even more brilliant due to the surrounding large area of subdued color. Claude Monet, influenced by JMW Turner`s painting tehcniques founded the French Impressionist painting, the philosophy of which is to paint the ever subtle variations in the atmospheric and light conditions in nature as applied to plein-air landscape painting. In intensity contrast, the important thing is that the values remain more or less in the mid tone range, only the intensity of the colors changes from pure and bright to subdued and greyed down. Introducing large areas of darks will ruin the delicacy of the work. In this painting, Impression, Sunrise (This name was first coined by an art critic to describe away the work in a derisive way, as it gave only an impression of a sunrise and looked to be unfinished, but that name became popular with the public and later the Impressionists themselves adopted it) The broken, orange lines against a subdued purple gives a shimmering effect of light forming a path on the waters leading the eye towards the brilliant sun which is red-orange against the dusky purple of the sky which also has downward strokes of a pale orange.

Claude Monet, soleil levant, 1872 

8. Harmony: Harmony results from the proper relationship between similar elements in a composition.

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