Here is yet another article on the topic of composition, but this time as the title suggests we are going discuss balance within an image. Balance is the most important compositional factor, because not just the eyes of the artist but eyes of the viewer naturally seek it. Classical painters used to flip their canvas upside down, look at it in the mirror or walk away from it and look at it from a distance to check if their painting was well balanced.

The easiest way to check if your image is balanced is to draw a vertical and a horizontal line right down the middle. From these two lines, the vertical line is the more important as the natural balance is on the sides of a central support.

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Every item within your picture has a certain weight to it, and has a certain attraction for the eye. Generally the farther away from the middle point and the more isolated an object is, the greater its weight or attraction. Artists call this the Principle of the Steelyard.

According to the principle of the Steelyard, a very important object placed near the middle of the picture, will be balanced by a very small object, placed on the opposite side of the picture far removed from the middle. This means one side of an image could be holding all the compositional interest, while the other side of the picture is practically useless, its sole purpose being to provide leverage and create balance.

 

"Robert Andrew and Wife" by Thomas Gainsborough — You can notice the Principle of the Steelyard at work in this composition. The tree acts as a fulcrum for the main subject while the hay and the trees at the right are introduced for balance alone.

“Robert Andrew and Wife” by Thomas Gainsborough
— You can notice the Principle of the Steelyard at work in this composition. The tree acts as a fulcrum for the main subject while the hay and the trees at the right are introduced for balance alone.

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“A Dutch Courtyard” by Pieter de Hooch — The main group on the left is balanced by the small figure on the lower right and the mass of the buildng.

 

This small “object”, doesn’t need to be an object or a figure. It can be a dot, a line, a glow or any sort of gradation. You cannot let it become a point that causes divided interest. It has to be just enough to provide the eye something to dwell on. You might think, if it is so insignificant why not cut it off and leave only the main object or portrait? — Once you try it you will notice that by cutting it off you provide a new central point to the picture, and now you have a completely new harmony to organize.

 

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“Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Brueghel, the Elder. — The steelyard can be noticed in depth as well as in breadth. Balance in more than one dimension is vital to good composition.

 

Below are a few rules to keep in mind.

  • Every picture is a collection of units or items.
  • Every unit has a given value.
  • The value of a unit depends on its attraction, and its attraction varies according to its placement
  • A unit near the edge has more attraction than the same unit at the middle of the image
  • Every part of a picture space has some attraction.
  • Space without details can possess attraction by gradation and by suggestion
  • A unit of attraction in an otherwise empty space has more weight through isolation than when places with other units.
  • A black unit on white or a white unit on black has more attraction than the same unit on grey.
  • The value of a black or a white unit is proportionate also to the size of the space that contrasts with it.
  • A unit in the foreground has less weight than the same one in the distance.
  • Two or more associated units may be reckoned as one. Their united central point is the point on which they balance with others.

Not every good picture has complete balance, but when the artist strives for balance and achieves it, the image is that much better. It is not difficult to recognize a good composition, but it is that much harder to tell why it is good. To tell why, and how to make it better is what every artist wants to know.

When in doubt, analyze your picture and weight its content keeping in mind the Principle of the Steelyard.