What makes a painting a masterpiece often boils down to its underlying abstract design, not the drawing or the subject matter. Art students are invariably taught something called “ The Principles of Design,” Balance, Unity, Focal Point and Rhythm among them. One favorite art school project is to take a famous painting, let’s say Brueghel’s “Wedding Dance” and break it down to its basic design elements. When I taught art history I would often project a slide of the painting onto the blackboard and proceed to outline its major shapes in chalk, describing how they worked together using the Principles of Design. When I turned the lights on, the abstract basis of a non-abstract painting would be clearly revealed. The class would sit there mesmerized.
Let’s start by talking about “Balance,” since that is a relatively easy Principle to explain. Think of a seesaw with a child at either end. The seesaw must be “balanced” if it is to work. This usually requires the children to be of equal weight but you can also achieve balance with two light and one heavy child, or by placing one child closer or further towards the middle than the other. Paintings operate the same way, although in a much subtler fashion. If successful, the work simply “feels” balanced, even if you can’t say why. For example, if you took something away or added something on one side of the painting, you might have to do something on the other in order to maintain that sense of balance. And in the end, it’s the old “You’ll know it when you see it.” It’s purely intuitive; it can’t be plotted or explained mathematically, but it’s there.