Master paintings

Symmetry & How to use it

How to achieve balance in your composition? Max Kurzweil (1867 – 1926) used symmetry. 

Do you agree ‘Lady in Yellow Dress’ is a peaceful painting? When looking at this picture, it is like my unconscious is telling me there is nothing to worry about. How come?

We are probably used to seeing harmonious images because balanced objects are all around us. Every natural object in our world is in equilibrium due to the laws of gravity. All that grows or that we built must have a counterbalance. Otherwise, it will collapse.

Without being aware of it, we prefer a balanced image. Max Kurzweil achieved this with symmetry. Let’s have a look at this and what effect it has on design.

Formal Balance

Like the wings of a butterfly, one side of the dress mirrors the other side. We call this mirror symmetry. It is a formal balance: clear and orderly.

People associate mirror symmetry with ratio and science. Did you know that a lot of official buildings, like institutes and courthouses, were built as symmetrical as possible? One of the earliest and most extreme examples is ‘Villa Rotonda,’ a 16th-century villa in Vicenza, Italy.

Symmetry will give your design a professional and trustworthy look and feel. However, it is kind of straightforward. Symmetry is only one of the tools in our toolbox to achieve balance. I will write about other noteworthy tricks in another blog post.

Types of symmetry

These are the three most recognizable types of symmetry. Look at the image of the Eiffel tower. This photograph shows mirror symmetry: a reflection on the y-axis. People often use it in home decorating or gardening: two vases in the window or trees on both sides of the road.

The opposite of mirror symmetry is reflection symmetry: a reflection on the x-axis, which you will recognize as the reflection of trees in the water.

Finally, there is rotational symmetry: the reflection that rotates around a point in the middle. You can find this type of symmetry in flowers, shells and rose windows.

Best practice

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Have you seen the symmetrical portraits of Julian Wolkenstein? He reflected the left and the right half of his subjects. As you notice, hardly anyone has two identical halves. This is interesting because in our perception the faces of others look symmetrical. Apparently, our eyes are deceiving us.

Max Kurzweil
Lady in yellow dress
oil on canvas
Vienna Museum

This blog post was originally published on, my personal blog about master paintings and design.