What is balance
Balance is usually described as an even distribution of weight. In art, however, this is a bit more nuanced. Balance in an artwork is the amount of attention that is generally given to a specific point in the illustration, which more often than not consists of a single focal point. The point where the eye is drawn to at the beginning. Think of it as a weighing scale with on one side a piece of lead, the focal point. And on the other side, a bunch of sticks counterbalances the piece of lead. Naturally, because of the density of lead, there will be much more sticks needed to counterbalance the piece of lead.
This focal point has to stand out and should be counterbalanced by areas that don’t catch as much attention, which is usually a larger area than the actual focal point. Focal points can be right in the middle of the canvas but are more often than not off-center. The rule of thirds and the golden ratio are two very good examples of that. In both cases, the focal points will be off-center toward the side or a corner of the image.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is very commonly used in photography, but also in artworks. Although this is a very powerful approach to creating balance, as artists we are free to create whatever we like and however we like to. Unlike photographers, we are not dictated by what is right in front of us. And although not every composition lends itself to it: It’s a good approach to aim for the golden ratio whenever you can.
The golden ratio is a technique for pinpointing focal points that usually are favorable in artworks. As an artist, you have more control over what will be on a canvas, so it’s not unreasonable to aim by default for the golden ratio. It’s largely similar to the rule of thirds, but it’s a bit more in-depth as you can see in the image below. The golden ratio is often seen in nature, a good example of this is the way sunflower seeds are arranged or the way water spirals down a drain.
Image by: AJ Ramos
There are far more options and ways to balance out your artwork compositionally, but the two mentioned above are the most common ones and will serve as the guidelines for the information that comes next. When you have the hang of it you can always continue to explore.
It goes to say that the human eye is attracted to color. Unlike most other species, we can see a relatively wide spectrum. We can’t see the full spectrum of color, but we have a really good range regardless. This means that color is a very powerful tool for us artists to use.
When you use a higher concentration of colors around the focal point it will naturally draw the eye there. Some ways to achieve this are:
- Having a higher concentration of colors.
- Have multiple colors.
- Higher saturation of colors.
- High values in colors.
More info about colors
- The fundamentals of color theory explained
- Color theory exercises, how to improve!
- Color theory, color shifting in your artwork
- Autumn color study – Colors affected by light
- Color theory, terms, and effective color combinations
Saturation is one of the ways to describe a color. The brighter a color the higher the saturation. The more white, gray, or black, the lower the saturation of the color. More often than not, higher saturation levels will be concentrated around the focal point.
Value describes how light or dark a color is. As the human eye is attracted to light, it’s useful to have high values (light colors) around the focal point. So not only color saturation will help you out, but also lighter colors such as pastels (color mixed with white) and yellow.
Tones are colors mixed with gray. These colors usually have a low saturation and a low contrast. They can form a nice counterbalance to focal points, but usually are not or only minimally part of it.
Shades are colors mixed with black. They usually have a low saturation but a high contrast thanks to the black. Because of this it may actually be a solid part of your focal point, but can also be a very strong counterbalance.
Lighting is determined by the angle of light you want to use in your artwork. Almost without exception, the focal point will receive the most lighting. Sometimes it works to give the lighting a very strong color to add extra interest, which goes at the cost of the amount of lighting contrast you can achieve in your piece. This doesn’t change the rules though, as most of the lighting would still be around the focal point.
The second circle is a good example of a tone = color mixed with gray.
Then the 3rd circle = the one with the highest color saturation.
Finally, the inner ones can be considered pastels = color mixed with white.
The human eye is very well adapted to seeing textures. You probably don’t notice this yourself, but we only see contrasts very well in a very short area around the point we’re looking at. Just test how many words you can see around this one. It’s probably 2 or 3 to the left and right, but that’s it. So we do see a lot of detail, but only in a very limited area. So it’s very natural for us to see very little detail around the point we’re looking at.
Knowing this, we can utilize it by adding extra textures around the focal point and less in other areas. The points of the least interest may even be blurred out. This helps you to achieve a really pleasing balance that looks and feels natural. A very good example of this is the image from AJ Ramos in the Golden Ratio chapter up above.
Textures and details go hand in hand. However, details are more than just textures. Details around the focal point consist of a cluster of information. For example an eye, eyebrow, the highlight and colors within the eye, the expression directly coming from that area, etc. Details are not only in the eyes but also in other features such as hair, skin, clothing, ornaments, wings, you name it. Just like every other tool we are discussing here, most details will be around the focal point and they gradually die down when you move away from it.
Image by: Tessa Geniets
Shape design is yet another fundamental that you should have a good understanding of. You might think that in this case yet again the most weight should be around the focal point. This is not the case. The bulk of a human being is around the chest area, not the face. And that’s just one example. Shapes can be utilized in many ways. You can expect them to be more defined (with the help of lighting) closer to the focal point. But you can shape your subject or its environment in such a way that shapes point toward the focal point, leading the eye right back to it after it left the focal point in the beginning.
Poses and motion are two very powerful tools in shape design. Whether or not your artwork feels right may stand or fall with the initial shape design. For example: A character carrying a heavy two-handed sword will probably not stand upright as if it’s made out of cardboard. Instead, the character will be leaning the opposite way of where the sword is, counterbalancing the weight from the sword. And it is that way with everything you draw. A four-legged creature that is front-heavy will have strong front legs. An animal changing its angle of attack at high speed will have an extreme angle, or it would fall over. A strong and balanced shape design will be the first foundation of your artwork.
Negative spaces are powerful tools to counterbalance the focal point. It’s not only a space where there is something else but the main subject. It can also be a fairly neutral spot on your character, for example, a breastplate that holds very little detail. Negative spaces can be near the focal point but usually are not in the focal point. They serve as a place to rest for the eye and/or a point without much if any interest.
Flow is the ultimate thing you’re trying to create throughout your piece. As artists, we create ‘eye candy’. To achieve that there has to be a flow within the artwork. A flow is what happens when the eye goes right to the focal point and naturally moves around the artwork to ultimately come back to the focal point. You manage to do this by making use of the tools that are mentioned above. Usually, the best artworks are those with the best flow.
Everything is relative
It’s important to note here that everything just mentioned is relative. In a very dark artwork, 50% brightness or saturation on color may look like it’s screaming at you. And sometimes, breaking the rules may help you to get an even better result than you could have hoped for. Everything in this article is a guideline for you to use, but it shouldn’t be followed religiously.
Also, try to refrain from using all the tools mentioned above. Some artworks don’t need highly saturated colors. Others may not need high contrasts to work. Things such as texturing, shape design, negative spaces, details, and flow tend to be recurring things almost without exception.