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Br J Psychol. 2005 Nov;96(Pt 4):493-503.

The link between composition and balance in masterworks vs. paintings of lower artistic quality.

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  • 1University of Maine, ME, USA.


In painting, composition is commonly defined as the two-dimensional arrangement of elements within the canvas. Each element is considered to have a perceptual weight. The arrangement of these weighted elements determines how balanced a painting is. It has been suggested that due to superior composition, masterworks may be more balanced than works of lower artistic quality. We tested this hypothesis by instructing our participants to rate masterworks and selections of lower artistic quality on balance. This hypothesis was not supported. Second, it has been suggested that rearranging elements within a painting may have a more detrimental effect on composition (and by extension balance) in masterworks than in selections of lower artistic quality. This view associates works of higher artistic quality with visual rightness, thereby predicting that compositional change would be more likely to cause deviations from a visually right state in masterworks. We tested this hypothesis by displacing an element within each painting to a different location, and measuring the effect on balance. In accordance with recent findings in the literature, we also took into account the severity of the compositional alterations. The results demonstrated that compositional alteration affected balance ratings equally across masterworks and selections of lower artistic quality. These results demonstrate that, although balance is a function of compositional structure, balance on its own is not sufficient to distinguish between works of varying artistic quality. To the extent that balance is considered a function of composition, the results suggest that masterworks are distinguished from works of lower artistic quality for reasons other than solely composition.

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