Painting Lessons for Symmetry

by David Ferris
Symmetry or imbalance can be used to great aesthetic effect in art.

Symmetry or imbalance can be used to great aesthetic effect in art.

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Aesthetics --- the study of beauty --- places high value on balance and equilibrium within a work. Symmetry can be used to achieve this effect. Symmetry imbues a painting with a sense of harmony and order, which the mind's eye finds pleasing. Conversely, the deliberate lack of symmetry can also be an effective aesthetic technique.

Balance of Color

Symmetry of color is just as important as symmetry of form. A balanced color scheme lends an internal organization to the painting. De Stijl paintings, for example, drew on balanced quadrants of hue to create symmetry and order. Chromatic symmetry doesn't just mean matching colors on different sides, but balancing colors that naturally complement each other, such as blue and yellow, which occupy opposite positions on the color wheel.


Geometric shapes and designs can be used to create symmetry in painting. Ancient Islamic paintings especially utilized this technique, with interwoven, symmetrical clusters of diamonds, triangles, trapezoids and squares. Many basic geometric shapes are naturally symmetric and their mathematical orderliness precision can be adapted to the canvas.

Center Axis

Pure symmetry is a mirror image, normally organized along the vertical or horizontal axes of the painting. The intersection is known as the center axis, the point where our eye is naturally drawn, and where the symmetry is focused. Painters can use this organization of the canvas to create perspective and depth that maintains the symmetrical quality, such as Michelangelo's "The School of Athens," where Plato and Aristotle occupy a prominent place at the center, while the content is balanced to the left and right.

Imperfect Symmetry

Many painters incorporate elements of symmetry while refraining from absolute symmetry. The relationship between the symmetrical and asymmetrical elements create an aesthetically pleasing tension. The Rule of Thirds, for example, divides the visual plane in three vertical and horizontal segments. Often, one element occupies a third of the plane, while the other two-thirds are dominated by something else.

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