Creating is a human practice that exercises all kinds of muscles in our brains and hearts and helps us find balance in our lives. Making bad art is how we learn and grow. If you hear one thing in this column, I hope it’s that everyone should make something, good or bad doesn’t matter, just make it—make it for yourself, but also take every chance you get to learn to make better art. That’s what the “Principles of Art” are all about: understanding how to grow. 

“The Principles of Art” are balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm and unity/variety. Judicious application of these principles can help us make better art. This month I want to talk about balance. 

As you might imagine, balance has to do with the weight of the composition, but it’s not a literal weight—it’s a visual weight. When you look at a piece of art, imagine a fulcrum underneath the canvas like a teeter-totter. The fulcrum can move back and forth under the bottom edge, but as it does both sides of the composition need to be balanced to create a piece that is properly weighted, so if you move the fulcrum right you’ll need more weight on the right side to balance a smaller weight on the left side. 

In a simplistic way, two-dimensional art follows the physics of the world around us. We are accustomed to understanding our environment through our experiences; seeing how a car moves, or a bird flies, or a tree sways in the wind. We learn intuitively from the world around us what is heavy and what is light, so when we apply those same elements to a painting, our brains want everything in our 2D art world to feel ‘right.’ Similar to the physics in a video game, they don’t need to feel real, but they need to feel consistent and convincing. The things that give a composition weight, then, are the same things that give things in our real-world weight: big solid blocks, dark colours, piles of repeated shapes, and thick lines. The things that lighten them are lighter colours, things we can see through (like the leaves of a tree) and thin lines. Additionally, objects placed higher on the canvas will feel lighter, and things near the bottom will feel heavier.

I’m reminded of the old riddle, “What weighs more, a ton of bricks or a ton of feathers?” In art, as in life, it doesn’t matter—they both weigh the same—but a ton of bricks is denser, so it’ll take up less space, and be quite a bit darker. If you want to balance it with feathers, put the brick in the bottom left hand and fill the whole right side with feathers. If you’re painting a prairie scene, there could be a big red barn on the right side (big, colourful, solid = heavy) and a copse of trees on the left with a big pile of white clouds (light, semi-opaque, floating = light) in the sky above. Putting a bunch of lighter objects on one will balance out the heavy weight of the other, make sense? 

To make the principle even more complex, there is good balance and bad balance. If you make a symmetrical piece it can feel very stable and balanced, but it will be a boring and predictable piece. If the shapes and weights are similar on both sides (imagine The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci) but not identical it’s called approximate symmetry, which can create a calm piece but might not be an interesting or dynamic piece. Finding creative ways to vary the forms on both sides of that fulcrum in a way that creates motion and tension without losing the stability is the best way to create compositional balance while maintaining visual interest. 

There are many ways to create balance in a composition, so exercise your creativity to come up with new and unique ways to use weight as a tool and use your intuition to know if it feels right or not. Finding balance in your compositions—and in your life—are guidelines that can be ignored, but if you do by all means do so with purpose.