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3 Tutorials that teach Symmetry!
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Symmetry!

Symmetry!

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will explore symmetry as an element of composition.

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Tutorial

Exploring symmetry within a composition.

Video Transcription

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Hello, I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about symmetry and how it's used, or not used, by artists in a composition. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end the lesson today you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain how artists use symmetry and asymmetry in works of art.

The big idea for today is that the properties of symmetry and asymmetry are used by an artist to create visual balance and dynamism in a composition.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is symmetry, the quality of having exactly similar parts facing each other across an axis. Asymmetry is the lack of equivalence or similarity between parts. Bilateral symmetry is when two halves of something are exactly the same. An axis is an imaginary line that divides an object. Balance is when elements of a composition carry equal weight, or create harmony. A composition can be asymmetrical and balanced at the same time. And I'll talk about that later. Dynamism is the illusion of movement in a composition.

I'm going to start by simplifying the key terms to help understand what they are in an informal way. So symmetry, try to think of symmetry as being equal across an axis. We'll talk about what I mean exactly by equal. Asymmetry, think of unequal across an axis. Bilateral symmetry, think identical across an axis. And an axis is an imaginary line of division.

So I'm returning to my old standby, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. And another of his works The Vitruvian Man, to illustrate the difference between symmetry and bilateral symmetry. Now symmetry in a work of art is more of a description of equivocal weight between two halves rather than identical halves. In The Last Supper we can use a vertical axis to split the fresco evenly down the middle.

This fresco is symmetrical because the distribution of elements are the same in both halves. So for example, there are six disciples per side. There are four recesses in the wall per side. There's half the table per side, et cetera. Even though they aren't mirror images of each other, it is still a symmetrical piece.

Bilateral symmetry, on the other hand, means that the two halves of something are identical, or mirror images of each other. Even though you could make the argument that The Vitruvian Man isn't exactly symmetrical bilaterally, it's pretty darn close. And hopefully close enough to illustrate the point. If you were to fold the image across the imaginary vertical axis, the two halves would match up quite nicely. So that's an example of bilateral symmetry.

Now this next work of art is titled The Descent from the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens, and is the central panel of the triptych, which is a three panel display. Now as opposed to The Last Supper, which was symmetrical across a vertical axis, The Descent is an asymmetrical painting, meaning that the image is not symmetrical across a specific axis. Rather than compose this image across a vertical axis like da Vinci did in his Last Supper, Rubens employs the use of a diagonal axis, which draws the viewer's eye up from the bottom left to the top right and in doing so, creates the sensation of movement, or dynamism, in how the viewer is really panning across the image.

Asymmetry doesn't necessarily mean unbalanced. And I'll illustrate in just a moment. Balance and dynamism, which is the illusion of movement, are achieved by a careful distribution of elements through the composition.

We can get a better sense of this by breaking the image into quadrants. Now notice how the two quadrants I'm identifying by the arrows hold the majority of the visual weight in this image, as well as a roughly equal amount of weight in each quadrant, and are diagonally opposed to each other. The other diagonally opposed composing quadrants have an equal distribution of empty space, empty of people, at least, which forces the eye, again, toward the diagonal access and up to the right, creating the sense of dynamism I alluded to earlier. So it can still be balanced even though it's asymmetrical.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms, and can you explain how artists use symmetry and asymmetry in works of art?

Once again, the big idea for today is that the properties of symmetry and asymmetry are used by an artist to create visual balance and dynamism in a composition.

Well that's it for today. I'd like to thank you for joining me. I'll see you next time.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Symmetry

    The quality of having exactly similar parts facing each other across an axis.

  • Axis

    An imaginary line that divides an object.

  • Balance

    When elements of a composition carry equal weight, or create harmony. A composition can be asymmetrical and balanced at the same time.

  • Asymmetry

    Lack of equivalence or similarity between parts.

  • Bilateral symmetry

    When two halves of something are exactly the same.

  • Dynamism

    The illusion of movement in a composition.