How to Achieve Balance in Outdoor Lighting

by | Sep 11, 2020 | Design, Latest, Projects

Mark Carlson is the founder of the Experiential Landscape Lighting Initiative (ELLI), an educational resource dedicated to the landscape lighting profession.  His 20+ years of hands-on experience as a landscape lighting designer, small business owner, and published writer has allowed him to advance the art form. “The Original Garden Lighting Book,” Mark co-wrote with Michael Gambino was recently named among 77 Best Lighting Design Books by Arch Daily. Mark is currently performing studies on the psychology of light and nature, to provide therapeutic relief in human health. He is also the owner of Avalon Lighting Design

Here we go!  This is the first in a series of articles focused on lighting composition and how we can use this to our advantage for better lighting designs. There are six principles of composition:

  • Balance
  • Contrast
  • Emphasis
  • Pattern & Rhythm
  • Unity
  • Movement

The first on the list is balance. To define balance, it’s the visual interpretation of gravity in the design. What does that mean? It means that the visual weight of objects is distributed evenly across the composition. When this occurs, the viewer feels comfortable, and the setting is pleasing to the eye. Psychologically, balance provides us with a sense of calm.

Symmetrical Balance

There are three forms associated with balance: symmetrical, asymmetrical and radial. Symmetrical balance occurs when you can draw a line across or down through the design to create a mirror image. This form feels formal, elegant or conservative. If a design is purely symmetrical, then it can sometimes feel boring, dull and constrained.

This article will address symmetrical balance only, as I’ll save the other two forms for the next article. Most designers will find this form and the radial form the easiest to understand and implement. It should be noted that not all spaces or designs will allow for an exact matching of mirrored spaces, but this balancing concept provides for a means to design through a setting.

Light It Right Example

In the below photo provided by Brandon Kuehler of Light It Right in Katy, Texas, you’ll notice the wonderful symmetry in this layout, because there’s little to question or be confused by. If you draw an imaginary line down the middle of the pool and through the circular patio, you can see that the planters generally match, as well as the illumination. This provides a formality and elegance, which is described in symmetrical balance. In addition, this balance is seen in the foreground all the way to the background, therefore it is calming.

Milow Outdoors Example

Another example of this form of balance is shown below. This photo is provided by Steve Schafer of Milow Outdoors in Long Lake, Minnesota. In this example, it shows a more realistic scenario for most designers by not being a true mirror-image. However, the red-colored tree at the center of the drive acts to center the piece, and there’s balance in each side emulating like lighting applications. The pathlights lining each side of the drive, the trees and structures behind, and the fore, mid, and backgrounds all work together to complete the setting. And even though the visual weight is slightly heavier to the left, it still works.

Assess Your Existing Conditions

As professionals, whether you are developing landscape designs or lighting designs, you must first assess your existing conditions. Is there a natural symmetry which already exists? Which of these three forms does it best cater to? No matter if you choose to add lighting or not, the landscape must be considered first, during the daytime. I say this because when the lighting is added, you will now compound the psychological issue; the lighting will take on its own life and act to impact this balance more. Most landscape and lighting professionals do not realize this.

Consider the Mood & Feeling Lighting Creates

Consider this question: What do most designers think about when plotting out their lighting?  The answer is function or task. The designer usually only cares about serving the general purpose of where the lighting is needed. However, the problem is that it doesn’t consider any psychological impacts. People are emotional—they react to one way or another to stimuli.  Light or the lack of light is a high-value stimulus which causes us to react positively or negatively to it. The stimulus can be strong (intense) or weak (mild), it matters not.  If we include the principles of composition into our design equation, then we will be more successful in achieving good design results.

And lastly, the reason lighting impacts balance doubly is because at night, light and dark are contrasting elements which capture the eye. We will discuss contrast later, but just know that this can weigh the balance of a scene greatly at night. My next article will pick up from here to discuss asymmetrical and radial balance.

Photos by Light It Right and Milow Outdoors—copyrights apply.  Both of these lighting designers are a part of the Experiential Landscape Lighting Initiative (ELLI).

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