Art in Focus


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In this Art Quest you will have the opportunity to learn more about balance. After you complete this Art Quest take the online quiz to test your knowledge.

After you have learned to recognize the elements of art, you will learn the ways in which the elements can be organized for different effects. We call these organizational rules the principles of art.

One of the principles of art is balance. You know that when you speak of balance in everyday life, you are usually speaking of equalizing the weight of one or more objects so someone or something won’t fall. For example, a seal might balance a ball on its nose. Or a person may have to keep his balance if he walks a tightrope.

Balancing Visual Forces
In order to know whether two objects are of equal weight—that is, whether they balance each other—a balance scale can be used. In the visual arts, however, balance must be seen rather than weighed. The art elements become the visual forces, or weights, in an art object.

Central Axis
A central axis is a dividing line that works like the point of balance in the balance scale. Many works of art have a central vertical axis with equal visual weight on both sides of the dividing line.

Look at the painting here:
An Afterglow, 1883
Winslow Homer

The light area down the center acts as a central axis. The dark sailboats on each side provide balanced visual weights.

Horizontal Axis
Works of art can also have a horizontal axis. In this case, the visual weight is balanced between top and bottom.

Late classic sarape, Navajo, 19th century

Formal Balance
Formal balance occurs when equal, or very similar, elements are placed on opposite sides of a central axis. The axis can be vertical or horizontal. It may be a real part of the design or it may be an imaginary line. The examples we have looked at so far have formal balance. So do the following images:

Symmetrical Balance
Symmetry is a special type of formal balance in which two halves of a balanced composition are identical, mirror images of each other. Most textiles, pottery, and architectural works are perfectly symmetrical. This type of balance is sometimes called bilateral symmetry.

Ancient Art
Female Figure (bioma or agiba), 20th century

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Radial Balance
Another type of symmetry is radial balance. Radial balance occurs when the forces or elements of a design flow outward (radiate) from a central point. The axis in a radial design is the center point. Radial balance is often used in pottery designs.


Native American Baskets

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Native American Pottery

Recognizing Natural Balance
Natural balance gives the viewer the same comfortable
feeling as formal balance, but in a much subtler way. Sometimes called informal balance, or asymmetry, natural balance involves a balance of unlike objects.

Many factors influence the visual weight, or attraction, that elements in a work of art have to the viewer’s eye.

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Size and Contour
A large shape or form appears to be heavier than a small shape or form. Look at La Fortune below and notice how the smaller shapes at the top of this painting balance the larger ones at the bottom.

La Fortune, 1938
Man Ray

An object with a complicated contour is more interesting and appears to be heavier than one with a simple contour. Click on the following image:

Place Pasdeloup No. 2, 1929
Stuart Davis

The decorative contours of the building and the wall balance the large, smooth, and featureless shapes of the surroundings.


A high-intensity color has more visual weight than a low-intensity color. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the area of bright color.

The intense colors of the boy with the hatchet and the man in the red coat draw our attention even though the figure in the foreground is much larger.

Parson Weems' Fable,1939
Grant Wood


The stronger the contrast in value between an object and the background, the more visual weight the object has.

The black and white area in the center has much more weight than the more neutral color surrounding it.

Super Table, 1925
Stuart Davis

In this print, the black area seems to press down with its weight upon the woman.

Heimarbeit (Piece Worker), 1925
Käthe Kollwitz


A rough texture attracts the viewer’s eye more easily than a smooth, even surface does.
Think about how the texture in the The Farmer’s Kitchen attracts the viewer’s eye.

The Farmer’s Kitchen, 1933-34
Ivan Albright


Children playing on a seesaw quickly discover that two friends of unequal weight can balance the seesaw by adjusting their positions. The heavier child moves toward the center; the lighter child slides toward the end. The board is then in balance. In visual art, a large object close to the dominant area can be balanced by a smaller object placed farther away from the dominant area. In My Egypt, by Charles Demuth, the large shapes of the white building extend from one side over the middle of the painting. Two smaller shapes—a black chimney and part of a red building—sit on the far right.

My Egypt, 1927
Charles Demuth

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