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Design in Art: Balance and Contrast

Author: Lucy Lamp



Balance in art refers to the sense of distribution of perceived visual weights that offset one another. We feel more comfortable--and therefore find it more pleasing--when the parts of an artwork seem to balance each other. Imbalance gives us an unsettled feeling, and that is something that for most artists is not the desired effect. Some artists, however, deliberately disturb our sense of balance.


Portrait sculpture of a Zen priest, Muromachi period (1392–1573),

14th–15th century Japan
Lacquered wood  
H. 40 1/2 in. (103 cm)

Metropolitan Museum of Art        Purchase, John D. Rockefeller 3rd Gift, 1963 (63.65)

image Source: Portrait sculpture of a Zen priest [Japan] (63.65) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This portrait of a Zen master is solid and balanced, with a strong presence and sense of permanence.Zen practice places a strong emphasis on one's teacher. This sculpture accentuates the value of the Zen priest in the strength of its balance. 


Shiva Vinadhara - Dakshinamurti    Southern India,Chola period
11th century C.E.
Musee Guimet, Paris

In contrast, this sculpture almost appears off balance, as if it might tip over at any moment because of the twist of the body and backward leaning stance. This gives it a heightened sense of movement and suggests a dancing motion. Indian art reflects the value of prana, or the breath of life, which can be seen in the animated quality of its sculptures.



Isamu Noguchi  Red Cube, 1968

image source

The bright red of this sculpture presents a strong contrast to the browns and grays of the surrounding buildings. It is also distinctive because of its seeming lack of balance in the presence of strong, solid, buildlings that convey permanence. The tension of the tilt of the cube is disconcerting, especially in such a large object; it appears as if it will fall at any time. Noguchi stresses the relationship between architecture and sculpture and that the spaces around buildings should be dramatic.




Symetrical and Asymetrical Balance

There are two types of balance: symmetrical and asymmetrical. In symmetrical balance, if an imaginary line is drawn through the center of the work, both sides are exactly the same, and balanced in that way. In asymmetrical balance, the two sides are not identical, but differ from one another. However, the elements are arranged so that there is a sense of balance.

In the illustration below, both examples use the exact same objects. The one on the left, however, is symmetrical, identical on each side. The one on the right uses the same shapes in the same colors, and balances them asymmetrically. Both sides are different, yet arranged in such a way that they feel balanced.



Examples of symmetrical balance

Symmetrical balance is used to convey a sense of formality, order, rationality, and permanence. Consider for each of the examples below, why would the artist want to use symmetrical balance?


Neoclassical architecture

United States Capitol Washington D.C.  begun 1792, completed 1830

Architects Dr. William Thornton, George Hadfield, James Hoban, Benjamin Latrobe, Charles Bullfinch




Jan Van Eyck   The Ghent Altarpiece (closed).  Completed 1432.  Tempera and oil on wood, approx. 11' 6" by 7' 7".

Jan Van Eyck   The Ghent Altarpiece (open).  Completed 1432.  Tempera and oil on wood, approx. 11' 6" by 7' 7".




Contemporary sculpture

Rebecca Horn, High Moon (1991) in New York  Marian Goodman Gallery  mixed media

image source  limitless cinema in broken English,  blog published by celinejulie

from the post PLEASE IMPORT VALIE EXPORT, July 20, 2007




Asymmetrical Balance

Asymmetrical balance often has more variety, visual interest, and liveliness.

Asymmetrical balance can be achieved by using some of the following principles:


  • a large form is heaveir than a smaller form
  • dark values are heavier than light values
  • a textured form is heavier than a smooth form
  • a complex form is heavier than a simple form
  • two or more smaller forms balance one large form
  • a smaller darker form balances a larger lighter form
  • objects toward the edge or corner of the composition appear heavier
  • intense colors are heavier than muted colors



Examples of asymmetrical balance in art


Japanese woodblock print

Hiroshige  View of Mount Fuji from Harajuku, part of the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō series

ukiyo ("floating world") print, referring to an evanescent world, impermanence, and fleeting beauty

image source wikipedia commons

Japanese art is known for elegant asymmetry that is perfectly balanced. Here, the mountain on the right is balanced on the left by empty space, the close proximity of the travelers, and their movement away from the mountain.


Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt was an Impressionist painter and printmaker. She was strongly influenced by Japanese art and was a master at creating asymmetrically balanced compositions. Notice how she balances strong forms with space and placement of elements in the composition.

Mary Cassatt Boating Party 

oil on canvas  46.06 inch wide x 35.43 inch high

National Gallery Of Art, Washington, DC

image source

Mary Cassatt Summertime 

from Mary Cassatt: the Complete Works


David Hockney: contemporary painter

David Hockney A Bigger Splash, 1967

Acrylic on canvas,_A_Bigger_Splash.jpg

The building is placed off center, to the left, but is balanced by the dramatic angle of the diving board, and its projection into the viewer's space.



What is contrast?

Contrast in art is a distinct difference between elements of a form or composition; either visually or in subject matter.

In the example below, two types of contast are shown. The image on the left represents visual contrast, which is achieved through the use of intense complementary colors. Complementary colors--across from each other on the color wheel--are opposites in terms of hue, and the more intense they are, the more contrast they create.

The image on the right shows contrast in subject matter. Night and day are also opposites, and the use of both within the same composition creates a strong contrast.




Examples of contrast in artwork: visual contrast


Richard Anuszkiewicz: Plus Reversed  1960


An example of op art, this painting has such a strong contrast in colors that it plays with visual perception and makes it seem as if the shapes are moving. There is also a contrast in shapes, in that positive shapes becomes negative shapes, and vice versa.


Charles Sheeler Golden Gate, 1955
Oil on canvas  H. 25 1/8 in. (63.8 cm), W. 34 7/8 in. (88.5 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, George A. Hearn Fund, 1955 (55.99)

Source: Charles Sheeler: Golden Gate (55.99) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Vissual contrast and contrast in subjeArt History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a dramatic and beautiful portrayal of a dramatic and beautiful bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, California. The bridge has a distinct orange hue, and against the blue sky, creates a strong visual contrast. Sheeler has optimized this contrast by simplifying and almost abstracting the form of the bridge into shapes, and enhancing the intensity of the color of the bridge and the sky. The angle of view reveals its size and magnificence.



Andy Warhol Electric Chair 1971

screenprint on paper 35.5 x 48 inches

all signed in ink on reverse BL "Andy Warhol '71"; all inscribed in offset ink BR "© Copyright Factory Additions/Edition Bischofberger Zürich 138/250" Edition:138/250  Printer:Silkprint Kettner, Zurich, Switzerland  Publisher:Factory Additions, Edition Bischofberger, Zürich

from the Walker sArt Center solo exhibition: Andy Warhol Drawings, 1942-1987, 1999

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

image source


From the label text for Andy Warhol, Electric Chair (1971), from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001"In 1962, Andy Warhol started a series of silkscreened paintings of death and disasters that included photographs of suicides, plane and car crashes, and tragedy-stricken celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. All the images were taken from the print media. He depicted an electric chair in several groups of silk-screens throughout the 1960s, the first in 1963--the same year that New York's Sing Sing State Penetentiary performed its last two executions by electric chair (capital punishment was banned in the United States from 1963-1997). For his 1968 retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Warhol produced yet another series, of which these works are a part. In these prints, however, he made some variations: he cropped the image to bring the electric chair to the foreground, and screened it in a variety of colors other than black, occasionally printing off-register double images. By the artist's account, the replication of the image was intended to "empty" it of meaning."

This print contains a distinct visual contrast in the colors that are used. It also presents a contrast in subject matter, in the sense that the colors used do not fit our interpretation of expectation of an electric chair. The result is that it causes us to look at and consider the electric chair in a new way.


Examples of contrast in artwork: contrast in subject matter


Emmanuel Rudnitsky (Man Ray)  Gift 1921

Cast iron, tacks6 x 3 1/2 x 5 in. (15.24 x 8.89 x 12.7 cm)
Publisher Emmanuel Galleria II Fauno, Turin
(replicated in a 1970 edition of 11)

Minneapolis Institute of Arts  The William Hood Dunwoody Fund
Image Copyright:© Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris

The title of this artwork, "The GIft", belies its content and presents a contrast between our idea of what a gift is and what this object represents. An iron, normally used to press clothing, is lined with tacks that would prevent normal use of the object. Man Ray offers us a visual pun and a Surrealist viewpoint of life.



Mona Hatoum  Nature morte aux grenades ( the death of nature by grenades) 2006-2007
Crystal, mild steel and rubber

95 x 208 x 70 cm   Edition of 5 plus 1 AP


Mona Hatoum  Nature morte aux grenades  detail

 imagre source[artwork_uid]=1745&tx_hetzlergallery_pi1[exhibition_uid]=298&tx_hetzlergallery_pi1[modus]=exhibitionviewzoom&tx_hetzlergallery_pi1[tt_modus]=past&cHash=5d20876d14


Mona Hatoum often presents a contrast between subject matter and materials in her work. Like Warhol's Electric Chair, this work forces us to look at an object (hand grenade) in an entirely new way, because of the bright colors and unexpected materials. The "grenades" are displayed on what appears to be an operating table, suggesting an up close and and detailed examination--of the hand grenade--and presumably its purpose, use, and history in the contemporary world.