What is the Law of Symmetry?
The Law of Symmetry is a Gestalt psychology principle that artists can use to create visual balance. This is one of the more complex principles, so read with intent! The mind prefers symmetry over imbalance, but this doesn’t mean that the photograph or painting should reflect a mirror image(symmetrical balance) opposite of the center. We can still use the law of symmetry if we have two small subjects on the left of an image, and one larger subject on the right (asymmetrical balance). This is considered visual weight, but it all ties into the law of symmetry.
Let’s back up a bit…
Knowing Gestalt psychology is like breaking free from a constraining cocoon and flying high above the rest!
THEY TAUGHT US THE WRONG THING IN SCHOOL
There’s a technique that we’ve all been taught in school and online that is negatively affecting our compositions. Yes, it’s the rule of thirds (see #396) and we’ve all been fooled (myself included) into believing that it creates a “pleasing image”. The majority of the time it just creates an imbalance, with too much negative space, and lackluster appeal. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t state something so bold, without backing it up with examples.
Remember when we said that the mind tries to find balance in everything? Well, without a counterpart (see Day 57), the image will be more heavy on one side than the other.
We can see this in the photo I captured below, where the man is perfectly adhering to the rule of thirds. Unfortunately, the balance of the image is all out of whack. We have way too much negative space on the left, with no visual interest.
Now, when we look at the original photo I captured with both characters (sister and brother-in-law), we can see the balance corrects itself. The mind doesn’t fuss in the same way it use to, because we have taken control of the Law of Symmetry and created an asymmetrical balance with our visual weight.
WHAT ELSE AFFECTS THE BALANCE OF AN IMAGE?
We’ve already talked about how some mainstream rules can negatively affect our balance, and how the image has visual weight. Now what?
When it comes to the Law of Symmetry, it’s more complex than the generic illustrations you see floating around the internet. Those typically cause more confusion than anything, so how are we suppose to learn what we need?
As artists, we need interesting, relatable examples that we can learn from to incorporate the principle into our art. This means we need great examples of the design techniques that relate to the Law of Symmetry (the balance of our image). And believe me, there are more than you think!
To list them quickly, we have breathing room, gazing direction, negative space, visual weight, value weight, perspective weight, and magnetic momentum. Never heard of these terms? Well, you’re in the right place to learn about using them in your art!
EXAMPLES OF MORE AMAZING TECHNIQUES
We’ve already busted open a can of worms with all of these different techniques that adhere to the Law of Symmetry. Now, let’s ease your mind by giving you a taste of some techniques being used in the real world.
In this next painting, by John Singer Sargent, we can see the original on the left looks amazing. Yet, when it’s manipulated to cut off the negative space from the top and right side, we get a suffocating feeling. This negatively affects our balance, and it also creates visual tension…something we usually don’t want in our composition. This is why we call it “breathing room“. The subject needs the perception of air to breathe, and so does the overall composition. Without enough negative space, we can affect our balance and perception of the image.
Breathing room this perception of air, and the top to bottom balance, but what about the balance from left to right?
That’s where gazing direction comes in handy!
The gazing direction affects the left to right balance of the composition, and still adheres to the Law of Symmetry. The subject, either inanimate or not, can create a movement from one side or the other, depending on it’s placement. The actual gaze of a subject can create movement as well.
In the image below, by Annie Leibovitz, we can see how the subject is placed on the right and gazing right. With no visual interest on the left of the image, we get an imbalance from left to right.
We see that it’s heavier on the right, so how do we fix this?
Well, typically we want to control the balance on-location. We don’t want to resort to cropping when we do the post-processing. Painters need to get the balance correct in their preliminary sketches, because there’s no turning back once you lay down expensive paint.
To create a better equilibrium, and adhere to the Law of Symmetry, we can crop the left part off. Can you feel how this helps balance the image?
In structural photographs, paintings, or architecture the law of symmetry can play a big role to create perfect symmetry, which is sometimes preferred. As artists though, what we really need to keep in mind with the Law of Symmetry is the balance of the composition. The mind is always searching for an equilibrium; not just from left to right, but from top to bottom as well. If we don’t know how to control the balance of an image, then we will fail to present our art to the viewer in a pleasing way.
Wanna learn more about how to control the way people see your photos or paintings? Consider grabbing the Gestalt Psychology video collection. You won’t find anything else like it in the world, and it will seriously make you see things differently…forever.
STATEMENTS ABOUT GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY PRINCIPLES
Here are some inspiring emails from artists wanting to advance to the master level!
Thank you so much, I can’t wait to get started! A couple of months ago I read an article by New York photographer Chris Knight (also boyfriend of fashion photographer and CreativeLive educator Lindsay Adler) which mentioned the Gestalt theory and triggered my curiosity. Through quite a lot of searching for more information I ended up on your site and to be honest, I’m probably more excited than on the day someone told me very kindly I needed to learn about lighting.
As a photographer I have always (until now) focused on technique, lighting, posing, expression, etc, etc, to improve my images, but always relied on “intuition” and the rule of thirds for composition. So I am very grateful for your information on the matter, especially as it seems to be overlooked by many of my colleagues.
Very best wishes,
Hi Tavis, I have been diving into your work religiously in my off time and I can already tell I’ve struck gold. What you have created is exactly what I was looking for which I couldn’t find elsewhere. I remember stumbling upon some gestalt info in the past but it was related to graphic design and I dismissed it because I couldn’t easily relate it to my own art, but you go through and show exactly how it relates to 2d art in a way that is easy to digest and apply, and the dynamic symmetry has been blowing my mind. It’s one of those moments where I can tell my art is going to take a quantum leap forward as long as I do everything I consciously can to master this methodology. I am truly thankful for your work and effort in creating this, my friend.
Thanks again Tavis!
I was able to download the rest of the Gestalt Video Collection! Watched them all already. Can’t wait to start applying them to my work!
Thank you once again, ?
What Does the Video Cover?
There’s a lot of very generic illustrations out there trying to simply explain the law of symmetry, but they tend to create more confusion than anything. That’s why this expanded seventh video covers the Gestalt principle more in-depth.
With tons of examples and an on-location photo session (photo below) we will demonstrate how to effectively use techniques to find proper balancesuch as gazing direction, negative space, breathing room, value weight, perspective weight, and magnetic momentum.
The Law of Symmetry video also touches on other techniques like dynamic symmetry, and greatest area of contrast to create a masterpiece. These are all the same techniques used by master painters and they can be applied to your art, whether it’s photography, painting, or sculpting to clearly communicate to your viewer with power. The Law of Symmetry video is an extremely important in understanding visual perception!
*Pre-Requisite – since Gamut greatly relates to the dynamic symmetry of root rectangles (see Day 14) it would be beneficial if you familiarized yourself with it a bit. Not necessary, because the techniques in the video still apply, but it would heighten your level of comprehension. Alternatively, I have several videos on YouTube that explain dynamic symmetry.
Preview Gestalt Psychology Video Collection
This is a mind-blowing time-lapse video, which shows just a fraction of the rich content within the Gestalt psychology video collection.
The best photographers learn from master painters.
The videos are concise, so you will get nothing but super juicy value for a total of an hour and a half. Saving you time, and giving you exactly what you need!
7 HD videos– Law of Continuity, Figure-Ground Relationship, Law of Proximity, Law of Similarity, Law of Pregnanz, Law of Symmetry, Law of Closure
Total Running Time: 1h 32m
Quality: 1080p HD
Download Size: 5.8GB
Quick Links to In-Depth Descriptions
All seven Gestalt psychology videos have their own page…loaded with details.
Click on the links below to be magically transported to the secret knowledge you’ve been missing out on.