Johannes Vermeer’s vivid painting, “Woman Holding a Balance” is an example of how attentive artists utilize the various principles of design. It shows how these different elements harmonize together to compose one visual ensemble. To understand how each operates within this example, they must be dissected individually.
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Let us begin by discussing the painting’s emphasis. An artist does not necessarily have to place the focal point in the center of the canvas in order to highlight the subject. In this piece, the eye is drawn to the focal point by Vermeer’s use of light. In general, the painting is heavily shadowed. However, Vermeer creates emphasis on the woman by illuminating them. The window, which serves as the light source for the composition, is placed high in the upper left corner. From this source the light falls upon the principle subject, the woman, and the reflecting light from the white hood and trim of her clothing frames her face by contrasting against the dark background.
This leads us into the second principle of design, balance. Vermeer creates emphasis by contrasting light and shadow, however, it is worth noting that in so doing he has not sacrificed the balance of light and dark. Though the painting has a distinct focal point, it is not so distracting that it negates the rest of the imagery. The balance is kept in tact because the piece is composed to flow; it draws the eye immediately to the emphasis, then the play of light continues to guide the attention around the rest of the painting. This creates a constant, circular, movement of the eye that assures no detail of the piece will escape attention. This circular movement demonstrates Vermeer’s understanding of radial balance.
Balance is also achieved through the use of symmetry and asymmetry. In the painting one sees that the composition is not weighted on one side more than another. What this means is that though the woman, already established as the painting’s emphasis, is positioned on the right side of the image, she is balanced by the light of the window and the cloth on the table. This gives equal “weight” to both sides, creating symmetry. However, the painting is also an example of asymmetry in that the two sides of the image do not mirror one another. This is another way Vermeer creates emphasis as well.
Now let us take a look at the painting’s proportion and scale. For example, the woman does not tower above the table, nor is she so small that the negative space takes up most of the composition. Proportion and scale is one way some artists use to create emphasis by perhaps making the focal subject unusually large or small in comparison to the other elements of the painting. Yet, we already know that Vermeer has used light to create emphasis in this piece, therefore, such exaggerations were unnecessary.
There is also a sense of rhythm within the piece. The woman’s downcast eyes, and the downward direction of the light bring focus on the painting’s secondary point of emphasis, the scale. In this second focal point the rhythm of the piece can be determined. The scale is perfectly balanced in the woman’s hand. This suggests stillness, concentration, and silence- a slow rhythmic pulse with a tone of serenity. Rhythm is most often associated with fast movement, but this piece demonstrates that rhythm does not have to be a fast-pounding beat; it is sometimes a whispering melody.
All of the described elements contribute the over all unity of the piece. The variety within the piece is subtle, yet still effective. There are splashes of color to add visual interest- the blue cloth, the red hue in the woman’s skirt, and the subtle twinkle of jewelry on the table. These subtleties are kept within the rich color scheme so as not to detract from the principle subject, yet are prominent enough to add depth. The play of light which delicately outlines the other visual elements of the painting, give the piece dimension.
Vermeer’s painting is a grand illustration of some traditional ways artists have used and developed the many principles of design. It shows us in both subtle and bold ways how each element contributes to another, and how often these elements will overlap with one another to achieve a single effect. “Woman Holding a Balance” is a beautiful example of harmonious design.
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