The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Balance: Weight and Direction

I've been reading Rudolf Arnheim's book, entitled Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. It's a rather lengthy book (500+ pages) but contains a lot of important insights. Today, I'm considering Arnheim's discussion about how weight and direction influence the equilibrium, or balance, in a work of art. His point is that the direction of visual forces can depend on the attraction exerted by the weight of neighboring elements. Here are some of the factors that determine the weight of these elements:

1. The distance from the center (greater distance = greater weight).

2. The greater the depth an area of the visual field reaches, the greater the weight it carries.

3. Size (larger = heavier)

4. Bright colors are heavier than dark. (example: red is heavier than blue)

5. Intrinsic interest areas are heavier (keeps the viewer's attention longer)

6. Isolation (example: the sun or moon in an empty sky)

7. Shape (regular geometric shapes carry greater weight)

8. Compactness of an arrangement.

9. Orientation. (vertical orientation is heavier than oblique.)

Interestingly, Arnheim notes that weight counts more in the upper part of perceived space than in the lower. I'll go into "sidedness" another time. Prior to reading this book, I hadn't given thorough consideration to weight and direction in such a comprehensive way. It's time to do some experiments and see how this works! More on that, later.


Unknown said...

Interesting thoughts...I never considered those insights before.

hw (hallie) farber said...

A timely entry from you. I'm working on a pastel and wondered why my eye kept going to the isolated, off-center, red sphere rather than the bright yellow (not a bad thing). It would be difficult for me to keep all these insights in mind while painting, but good to know the "whys" when looking at art. Thanks.

M said...

Much of my composition is instinct. I balance things out until they feel right. I do know the basics of composition and when I apply them objectively, the support most of my decisions. I'm very interested in the points you presented and now I'm going to take them and consider some of my new work in the Reading a Garden series that I am struggling with. Maybe I will have an answer. This seems like quite an interesting book.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Frank.

HW - I'm so glad the timing was right on this blog. Hope you'll be posting your latest work; I'd love to see it!

Margaret - the book IS interesting, but sometimes difficult to plow through. I try to pull out what resonates with me now, but will need to read it again in the future.

M said...

Maybe laziness will be my approach and I will wait for your excellent synthesis of pertinent points.

-Don said...

I think the weight may count more in the upper part because the bottom is naturally weighted by gravity. You need to work to push the eye up and and keep it there. At least, that's my guess...

I noticed that when I matte a print or a watercolor painting, if I leave the matte size the same all the way around it looks like it's smaller on the bottom. I think this illusion is because of the "weight" of the image it's framing. To balance that I make the matte a slight bit thicker on the bottom which pushes my eye up into the image.

From your response to Margaret, I'm glad you're the one reading this book and passing along the nuggets you find. Thank you for that... -Don

Unknown said...

Don ... Good observation! Way back when I was still in college, we were taught to add an additional inch to the bottom of the mat for the very reason you state. Thanks for bringing this up.

M said...

I've had time to think about the nine points.

Overall I agree with most of these points when I read them in isolation, but I think they may only work in isolation. When you start considering them together it gets muddled. You can solve all kinds of bad choices in composition by adjusting other things. For example:

I agree that size affects composition and larger is heavier and bright colours are visually heavier than dark ones, but if you have a small bright colour and a large darker one you can make it work. I also feel that when location of the above two is a factor, it changes again.

The three I had difficulty with were: #5 - intrinsic interest areas are heavier (don't know what he means by intrinsic interest) #2 the greater the depth an area reaches , the greater the weight. I'm having trouble coming up with an example ... could it be like a tea cup on its side for example? I might not work in landscape because you do all those lightening effects for arial perspective. # 7 shape- greater with regular geometric shapes - having trouble with an example again.

I will conclude that no matter what you do in a composition you can do something else to fix the problem. It is more like an orchestra than discrete instruments. You almost need to have a number of paintings to look at to consider each of these points. I bet you will find examples against them that still work in a composition.

Unknown said...

Mary - As always, you provide a terrific analysis of these nine points. Overall, I agree with you. The nine points work in isolation and there's a larger orchestration where some points need to remain silent while others have
volumes of different intensities. These are the decisions that an artist (the conductor) must make.

I think that "intrinsic interest areas" are those where the artist has created emphasis, either through the subject, texture, extreme value contrast, etc. It's where the eye tends to go, so it would have weight.

The greater weight exerted by areas of greater depth is probably created by the effect of forcing the eye back into the pictorial space. For instance, chiaroscuro painting does this. Perhaps "visual weight" could
also be expressed in terms of leading the viewer's eye. Just my