Compositional Weight
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Sept 16th 2020

Different objects, due to contrast, color, shape or size, have a stronger or weaker presence compared to other objects in a scene. Their presence is referred to as weight, a stronger presence has a stronger weight, as though the objects have an actual mass to them. And so to have a successful composition, you need to balance the weight of these shapes not only with each other, but with the frame you place the composition in. We'll start with some theory on how to achieve balance in your compositions, and then go into some practical examples where I show some successes and failures in my own art achieving a good balance in the composition.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.

Defining Weight

As I mentioned before, something that has a strong presence has weight. Something that has weight also becomes a focal point. And one way to achieve this is through contrast. So if you haven't already, you may wish to read my tutorial on Contrasts In Composition.

You can refer to individual objects in a painting having weight, or you can refer to the overall weight of the image as being Top Heavy, Bottom Heavy, Left Heavy, or Right Heavy.

Here's a really simple example of weight, the right side of this image has the most weight because it has the bigger object.

The size of the object on the right is making the image unbalanced, it almost feels like the whole image will tip to the right if it wasn't securely attached to the wall.

But size isn't the only way to achieve compositional weight. Here's an example where color creates weight. Both squares are the same size, but the image feel heavy on the right because there's a strong color contrast.

To achieve balance in your composition, there should be no difference of weight in any portion of the painting, otherwise it'll feel like the painting is leaning in that direction. One simple way to do this is through symmetry, everything on the right should also exist on the left, and same with top to bottom.

This image has equal weight on both the left and right, since it's symmetrical. But if your composition is asymmetrical, it's still totally possible to have a balanced weight in the image, it just takes a little more work.

The Fulcrum Principal

This is also known as the teeter totter. The principal states that if something is heavy (due to size, color, contrast, etc), it should be closer to the center of the image. If something is light, it should be further away.

Imagine a seesaw from when you were a kid (or not, apparently teeter totters are mostly gone from North America because they're viewed as dangerous). If you were a kid, and you only had an adult to play with, if you both sat at the end of your respective side of a teeter totter, the weight would be off and the kid was always stuck up in the air.

A number of ways to fix this. First, add a second kid to one side, that can help create balance.

Another technique is to keep 1 kid, but move the adult closer to the center. That also achieves balance.

Just like with physical weight...

The same is true with elements in your composition...

Let's take that original image above that was weighed too heavily on the right...

You can balance it by adding more small objects to counter the one large object...

Or you can move the heavier object closer to the center, and the lighter object away from the center.

That feels far more balanced.

You can even mix different techniques, like balance a bigger object with an object with stronger color contrast.

Flipping The Canvas

Anyone who watches someone paint something in photoshop will notice them using the Transform -> Flip Vertical or Flip Horizontal command a lot. The reason they do this is to avoid having compositions that are unbalanced. If you stare at an image long enough, we can become blind to an unbalanced composition. By flipping it, it tricks the brain into reconsidering the image, and that way we can find flaws in the composition's balance. For example, I tend to weigh my compositions too heavily on the right (probably because I an right handed). So when I flip the canvas Horizontally, all of a sudden all of that compositional weight will be on the left, and my brain will go "hey, you need more stuff on the right to balance all that stuff on the left!" So so I add stuff to the right, then when I flip the canvas Horizontally again, the result is a more balanced overall canvas.

A Note On Landscapes

One quick note on landscapes. Because we see landscapes in real life all the time, we are used to seeing a really detailed ground with a less detailed sky. So while achieving balance is still a good idea, like for example adding some clouds to a sky so that it balances the detail in the ground below, not achieving perfect balance in a landscape is one of the lesser mistakes, because it's a balance problem that the audience is likely used to seeing, and so won't bother them as much.

People will likely forgive you for a composition like this above.

But the image below would be more balanced.

Practical Examples

The best way to explain these principals is to look at some practical examples.

Entry Point 2 Example

Here's a composition I made 15 years ago which I think doesn't work as well from a weight perspective. The main issue is the light and dark, there's a strong light in the upper right, but not in the lower left, and so the whole painting is unbalanced.

To have a better balance, adding some more contrasty areas in the lower left may have helped

or using the fulcrum principal, I could move the bright patch in the upper right closer to the center by adding some dark to the upper right

Mothership At Sunset Example

A mistake I frequently see in a lot of student portfolios is adding too much weight to a particular part of a composition due to image cropping. For example, take this painting I made which I have an alternate cropping on. Notice how much weight exists at the top of the image with the big mothership, with then very little at the bottom of the composition to balance it out, since it's mostly clouds.

Two ways to fix this, one, you can add something in the clouds to give weight to the bottom of the composition to try and balance out the mother ship at the top of the image.

Or what I did in my original painting was to have far more space above the mothership, so that the mothership was a little closer to the center of the composition, which gave it better balance.

Remember, changing the crop (adding more sky) on an image can do the same things as moving an element closer to the center of our teeter totter. By adding more canvas to the top of the image, we are moving the heavy element (the mothership) closer to the center of the image to balance off the rest of the composition.

Also note, the mothership in the composition is still a little higher than the center, which still gives it a little bit of extra weight at the top, so I tried to balance that out with an area of contrast in the bottom half of the composition, which is a darker small spaceship in the foreground against the lighter clouds.

Also notice to achieve left / right balance, I placed a fin on both the left and right side of the composition. If I had the fins on the left, but not the fins on the right, it would have been weighed too heavily to the left.

Meeting The Space Pirates Example

So in this image from my Inc book, the space pirates have landed in their spaceship and are meeting Inc and Landis for the first time. I use symmetry and place the people on the left and the spaceship on the right to balance the composition.

Unfortunately, while the objects are placed in a balanced manner in terms of position, we have atmosphere to consider. The ship is further way than the people, and so the people will be darker than the ship (since there's less atmosphere between us and the people than there is between us and the ship). So the ship will be lighter, which ruins the balance. So I did two things to try and fix this. First, I made the ship larger and bulkier than the people. So while the ship is lighter in value, it is heavier in size. Then I also varied the mist on the ship to be more on the left side and less on the right side. So the darkest part of the ship is the extreme right, just like our teeter totter, to balance out the "heavier" people on the left.

Landing Example

One final example, in Landing from "The Story Of Inc", the main ship (it's the main ship because it's the darkest and the closest to camera) is almost dead center. Now where to place the other ships?

The next closest ship (and so still plenty dark) is to the right. This now weights the image too much to the right. So to compensate, I place the next two ships to the left of the main ship. These ships are further from camera, and so are smaller and not as bright, but there's two of them, so I'm trying to balance out darkness and size on the right (circled area 2) with quantity on the left (2 ships in circle 1).

The remaining tiny ships are placed in a similar manner. It still feels perhaps a little bit too right heavy, if I were to go back and adjust the image some more, I may have cropped off a bit of the image on the left so that all of the elements were shifted slightly to the left.

Conclusion

Achieving balance in a composition is a very difficult task, and even the very experienced don't always get it perfect all the time. In fact, even the definition of perfect is rather subjective. So don't worry about achieving perfect balance in a composition, but avoid making really unbalanced compositions.

Or for bonus points, use unbalanced compositions to really drive home a point. Want a spaceship to feel really heavy? Place it really far to the right with nothing to balance it on the left. While unbalanced, the viewer will certainly feel the heft of the spaceship in a really physical way.

Anyways, best of luck with balancing the weight of your future compositions.

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