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Watercolor Balance

Easily overlooked but vitally important

Balance in a painting can refer to a number of different attributes. We can have a balance between simplicity and detail. We can balance warm and cool color temperatures, we can balance areas of clarity with areas of empty relief, we can balance sharp focused marks with soft lost shapes, we can balance a large mass with a smaller mass, the list goes on and on.


Balancing different elements is often done, almost subconsciously, in the planning stage of a painting, but things can also be adjusted as the work progresses. Details can be sharpened or softened, color temperature can be adjusted with transparent glazes, emphasis can be increased or decreased by adjusting tonal contrast.

Balance works best when unequal areas balance one another.
Watercolor, Ink and Gouache

This group of fishing boats on the left are balanced by the smaller, less detailed group on the right. The smaller group being closer to the edge of the painting makes it appear to balance the larger group.

There is a similar balance between warm and cool color temperature. The predominant warmth of the sky, water and main boats is balanced by the punctuating shots of cool blue and green around the focal area.

Balance between Detail and Simplicity
Watercolor, Gouache, Ink and Charcoal

The balance between simple areas of relief and a focal area of busy, high contrast detail is what makes this painting interesting. The eye is immediately drawn into the focal area but can wander out to the simpler, more understated regions of the painting.

This balance between simplicity and detail increases the impact of the focal area.

The large area of cool blues, grays and greens surrounding the small patch of warm colors in the focal area keeps the the color temperature balanced and interesting.

Balancing Transparency and Opacity
Watercolor, Tinted Gouache, Inktense Pencil, Charcoal and Burnt Sienna Pigment Ink

This stark, simple painting of a rocky outcrop is given impact by the cool, flat gouache sky. The contrast between the detail in the rocks and the simplicity of the sky and foreground makes the focal area clear and obvious.

The small area of dark sky balances the large mid tone region of the rock outcrop.

Using flat, opaque gouache for the sky really makes the transparent orange wash of the rocks come to life. By keeping the transparent area of the rocks and foreground larger than the opaque area of the sky an interesting balance is achieved.

Balancing two similar areas of interest
Watercolor, Gouache, Gesso, Ink and Charcoal

I love the elevated vantage point in this painting. The problem here is the fact that there are two almost equal areas of interest.

By increasing the contrast in the foreground and linking it to the upper area with the vertical yacht masts, the eye is drawn in through the foreground then up, via the masts, to the main focal area of the buildings.

The small patches of contrasting orange surrounded by the predominant blue/green of the water, balance the color temperature and help keep attention in the focal area.

Balancing Tonal Contrast and Detail
Watercolor, Gouache, Ink , Gesso and Charcoal Pencil

The easing of tonal contrast and detail as the eye moves away from the area around the door in this painting is what establishes the focal area. It is important to keep a balance between sharp focused detail in the focal area and understated suggestion in the surrounding areas.


Too much detail in the surrounding areas will create confusion and make the painting appear too busy. Too little detail in the surrounding areas will cause them to lose their relationship with the focal area, breaking up the unity of the painting.

Watercolor, Gouache, Ink, Gesso and Charcoal Pencil

The tonal contrast, stronger color and hard edged detail in the focal area of this painting is balanced by the soft, simple surrounding washes. The decrease in contrast and detail as the eye moves to the left, away from the focal area, must be just enough to balance the painting without causing distraction. 

This is not something that can be planned from the start. I will often place a couple of pieces of painted paper, cut to whatever shape is needed, to judge the effectiveness of what I plan to do. It is often just a tiny dot of dark or light in the right place that can make a painting feel balanced and complete.

When it comes to painting, balance is not something that immediately springs to mind. Other things like color choice, the amount of information to include, how to tackle the drawing, always seem to loom larger. 

Try to think in terms of balance as you rough out your thumbnail sketch then, as the painting progresses, keep asking yourself:

    •Does the work appear balanced?

    •Are there areas of relief?

    •Is there a balance between warm and cool color temperature?

    •Does it need a spot of dark here or a little more light there?

These are big overall questions that can have a real impact on what you achieve. The more you consider these questions the more the answers will become second nature.

Author: John Lovett

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