Amore Enternos, 2023
By Bobby Padilla
Acrylic and gold leaf on Masonite, 20"x24"
One of the rudimentary concepts in art and design is balance of composition. Usually, there are no rules when it comes to art, everything is subjective. However, there are elements that determine the successfulness of a piece if to no one else other than a trained eye. In this post we’ll chat about symmetry and balance as it applies to two-dimensional art and employ shapes and symbols to achieve an even more dynamic composition.
Flower, Bird and Profile, circa 1900's
Unknown artist from Indigenous Republic of Panama
Sunset (Ojibwe Floral), 2016
By Catlin Newago
Acrylic on board
Just so we're all on the same page. Look at this Josef Albers piece below. He’s mostly known as a colorist who treated color as a science. While color is one of the pillars of basic design principals, we’ll focus on the simplicity in this example. Imagine drawing a line right down the middle of the image and creating two equal halves. What’s on the left side is the same as what’s on the right side. There would be two identical sets of dark orange rectangles with a pair of orange and yellow brackets ( [ ] ) facing right on the left side and facing left on the right side. When that imaginary dissection line is removed, instead of a pair of dark orange rectangles plus two sets of orange and yellow brackets, we have three squares; a small dark orange square within a light orange square all surrounded by a yellow square.
Homage to the Square, 1967
By Josef Albers
Oil on Masonite
Adding symbols and more complex geometric shapes can make the composition more robust and create interest. Even with figurative or descriptive art, a symmetrical principal can be applied. Take for example, Di Vinci’s Last Supper where the components of the painting are aligned perfectly to lead your eyes to the central figure, Jesus. Note below, the balance of the six disciples to each side of Jesus and even the architectural elements have a perspective that slant towards Jesus.
Last Supper, 1498
By Leonard DaVinci
Tempera on gesso pitch and mastic, 181"x 346"
If you drew an imaginary line down the middle of this landscape by Preston McCall you would clearly notice one side is a mirror image of the other.
Symmetry Painting, 2012
By Preston McCall
Oil on canvas, 51"x 41"
This concept is used commercially to create logos or branding that can strike an emotional tone with consumers. You see, symmetry is from the Latin root word symmetria meaning “common measure.” It’s a tactical design element that evokes feelings of rhythm, harmony, and having pleasing proportions of equal parts. It also conjures up feelings of truth, beauty, and overall goodness, which is why many artists and designers apply this principal in their work. It can be successful on a product label just as well as, say, on an album cover for one of your favorite bands. Architects use symmetry when they design buildings then the interior designers use it to create the spaces within those buildings. Symmetry is even applied by musicians when writing a song.
Album Cover for Tool's 10,000 Days
There are similar design concepts to symmetry but are categories unto themselves. Each concept has balance and rhythm like symmetry but have different origins. Tessellation is the use of pattern. Usually, the foundation for a tessellated pattern is driven by math and often applies to mosaics. There are three basic laws of tessellation: all shapes are basic polygons; the polygons cannot overlap or have gaps between them; all the vertices must be the same.
A Wall Tiling at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain
Similar to symmetry, heraldry, from the root word herald, pertains to the art displayed on armor or in a crest. Yes, like knights of the round table, suit of amor kind of stuff. The colors and symbols signify social rank, family pedigree, and specific ceremony.
Quae Sursum Volo Videre (I wish to see What's on High)
By Cathy Stables
In regards to art, you might think that using symmetry might hinder the creative choices you would make, but quite the opposite. Say you are making a painting where you dissect the plane into four equal parts, each section can have any number of things going on while the underlaying compositional structure has balance. Another way to think about it is, imagine a tennis court or basketball court. Each court has equal parts, particularly, two sides from which opponents or teams face each other. In tennis, think of all things that a player can do from their side of the net: overhand smashes or delicate drop shots; hitting balls with top spin or backspin; hitting a lob or a shot down the line. All the footwork and choices you make within a symmetrical court of equal proportions. In basketball, same concept, think of all the plays that can be run on either half of the court. Consider all the different variables that can happen in order to score or prevent the other team from scoring.
Kahnawake (Long Walk Home, Mohawk)
By Tom Wilson
Oil on board, 6'x4'
Tamoachan 12th Heaven
So, getting back to that painting, a balanced composition can have many elements at play. See what I did there coming off two sport analogies? Choice of color, shape, and texture are just a few of the decisions an artist makes to create a symmetrical design.
When it’s all said and done, symmetry is a design rule, but not the rule. Like many aspects of life, you should at least know the rules before you break the rules. This is true when it comes to making art of any kind.
Aboriginal Rock Art, Anabangbang Shelter
Kakado National Park, Austrailia
Incan Sun Mask