A Question of Balance

(10 points for anyone who can make the musical reference without cheating!)

I was reminded the other day of an old trick that we used in art school painting classes in regards to looking at a composition’s balance, and it bears revisiting. I had sent a design over to a colleague just to look at. She made a few good suggestions including observations about the piece’s balance, and that we can’t always see errors in a work until we step away for it for a while and look at it anew. And this brings us to our discussions of balance.

She was correct of course. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned it to give a piece a break and come back to it later for review. Just as one can’t proofread one’s own work (just trust me on this – and that’s why I’ve work as and with proofreaders for years!), one gets “blind” to errors in a design. And overall balance is the first thing one should look at, as it’s the “frame” on which all of the elements hang.

My art school method of looking anew at a composition was simply turning the painting upside down and seeing if the elements still felt in balance. Now that I was seeing the objects simply as shapes without meaning, it was easy to tell where things were bunched up together and where there were blobby holes. Now, it’s a little more difficult to turn a computer screen upside down but rotating the canvas in the program or simply taking a screen shot and rotating it accomplishes the same thing.

Now, does this idea of balance mean that items have equal spacing all around them? Not in the least! As I noted to my colleague, I rarely put anything in “symmetrical balance.” I find aligning things all up in nice rows equidistant to each other static and boring. I much prefer (and an better known for) using “asymmetrical balance” and even pushing it as far as I can.

In asymmetrical balance, items aren’t the same size nor are they the same distance from each other. Instead, they visually play off against each other. A large shape is counterbalanced by 3-5 smaller items (as odd numbers of objects are also more interesting). Items are not placed in exact middles of anything, but 1/3 – 1/5 or so over.

detail of the top element of the Battersea shield

I think that the perfect example of asymmetrical balance is the one the first spoke to me long ago – this detail from the Battersea Shield (from 350BCE and currently in the British Museum)

Now, that center piece is relatively symmetrical in design, although it’s not classically symmetrical with rather different motifs at the top and bottom versus the left and right. No, it’s the upper and lower details that just sing with energy and movement. Those 4 enamel circles are equidistant from the center one, but just look at the curves that link them all together! They’re inside out and back to front and all in perfect unison with the next. Even the little round balls visually fit in their spaces. The Celtic mind didn’t see life as a linear progression on and on. It pulsed and tugged and was always in motion.

The complete face Battersea Shield .

So remember – a design in motion is an interesting design. A design in balance with itself is beautiful. And design that contains all of the same elements all spaced the same is for chartered accountants and their business cards.

(and for those of you who have read this far and are still wondering about the musical reference, you’ll find your answer here. Not my favorite, but nice to give a nod in that direction.)

The less well-known Wandsworth shield. It also appears to be symmetrical, and it somewhat is. But look closely an you’ll see that the curves undulate and are all a bit different.

Posted in History, Philosophy