Composition principles: The timeless beauty of symmetry


Have you ever asked a researcher or a mathematician about their favorite artworks? You could be surprised by their answers! Many scientists would probably express an appreciation for symmetry in visual arts and maybe even give you a bunch of excellent examples. The timeless beauty and stillness of symmetrical compositions might be both striking and fascinating. However, it can also be boring. Discover the world of symmetrical shapes and learn how to use the rule of symmetry in photography, graphic design, and filmmaking. It’s worth it!

Text and pictures by Joanna Wróblewska

A mathematician would probably advise you to start with learning more about fractals as, for instance, the Koch snowflake. Aren’t you interested so much in the beauty of mathematical curves? Take a look at the stunning compositions by Zofia Kulik, Damien Hirst or Andreas Gursky. Or even better, watch a couple of movies by Stanley Kubrick. Many famous artist love symmetry, while others find it quite annoying. Before you join either one or the other group, read about symmetry and try it out on your projects or designs.

Order versus chaos
Symmetry in visual arts means that one side of an image balances out or even entirely mirrors the other. It provides a particular type of order and stillness. If you experience difficulties in recognizing symmetrical compositions look at first at your mirrored face. Draw an imaginary vertical line starting at the middle top of your forehead, splitting your nose into two equal parts and finishing at the middle bottom of the chin. Yes, our faces and bodies are symmetrical! Then draw 5-6 simple symmetrical compositions yourself. You can use only geometrical shapes if you like. This easy exercise will train your eye pretty fast.

Observe and learn
Want to find out more? Become an excellent observer of nature and urban life. Search for symmetry everywhere! Look at leaves, flowers and animals like butterflies. Analyze the structure of buildings and urban planning schemes. They all will teach you something meaningful about the rule of symmetry.

Go to a museum. Search for symmetrical sculptures, paintings, and photographs and experience the calming power of symmetry.

Grab a camera or a smartphone and take a couple of symmetrical pictures. Train your eyes and discover the beauty of simple, symmetrical forms. Make a short movie consisting of different symmetrical scenes. What does the rule of symmetry do with the images?

Diversity kills boredom
Now make the next step and imagine or find an image where both of the balanced parts are exactly the same. Isn’t it a bit dull? Probably. What saves a picture from being boring is the diversity! Small differences in details: shapes, colors, and directions will make the image more attractive. Check how Leonardo da Vinci achieved a balance between symmetry and diversity in Last Supper (1498). The painting is symmetrical but at the same time rich in diverse details.

Our faces and bodies are not completely symmetrical, and that makes them more appealing. On the other hand, too much asymmetry might cause the odd feeling of unbalance or even chaos. Remember that the artist (a graphic designer, a filmmaker or a photographer) takes a number of decisions that influence the final look of the image. The result differs depending on composition skills of the person, so learn, exercise and order the chaos in your designs, unless you created it on purpose!

Learn more:
Symmetry (definition)
Symmetry and patterns in photography
Symmetry and asymmetry in aesthetics and the arts


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