I started this page to give myself an easy way to retrieve specific information, websites and videos when teaching “out and about.”

Balance and Proportion Lessons | Animations (middle and high school)

For an art class that is working on drawing or painting, a quick overview of the principles of balance and proportion can be useful as they consider how to engage with their subjects.

One of the difficulties of being a visual or graphic artist is being able to step back from being an interpreter of the information, and step into the role of filter of the information. The artist wants to judiciously represent what is actually in front of them, relying less on what they think an object is and instead reflecting only that which is actually visible. Cubists such as Picasso, and primitive (or folk) artists such as Grandma Moses, often show what their mental image of an object is more than that which is actually in front of them. Thus, Picasso shows both eyes on one side of the head, or Grandma Moses shows a village with all the people out in the streets.

Sometimes, these are good effects. At times, however, the effect is disconcerting, or disturbing. An artist might use them on purpose to make the viewer stop and consider something in a new way. As for example the famous painting by Salvador Dali The Persistence of Memory (includes short video that describes Dali’s work and surrealism’s purpose).

Balance and proportion are the primary ways we judge distance and stability of what we view. Most artists keep their work in balance in some way, so that the viewer does not feel as if the earth is tilting. The figure or figures, or the composition as a whole, is anchored in some way that reassures the viewer of its stability.

Proportion is related to the concept of perspective. With perspective, objects that are closer to the viewer appear larger than objects that are technically the same size, but at a distance. A nose on a face seen head-on is drawn slightly larger in proportion to the actual nose because the nose is slightly closer to the artist. A leg placed in front of an animal as if taking a step looks visually longer than the other foreleg. The back wheels on a wagon are drawn smaller than the front wheels.

Proportion relates to the way the various parts of an object or composition relate to each other. One way we identify a young child from an older child is the size of the head. A baby’s head is about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total height of the infant, an elementary-age child’s head is about 1/5 to 1/4 of the total height, and for most adults the head is about 1/6 the height of the person. For most people, when they are standing and their arms hang at their sides the elbow comes down to about the waistline. For most people, the nose is about 1/3 the length of the face, and so on. For most adults, a chair is not taller than they are when standing. Most of the time, a person is not taller than a house.

When drawing or painting something, artists who are trying for accurate representation pay close attention to the proportions, and to the balance. Each artist eventually develops their own ways of thinking about proportion and balance. They develop ways of seeing relationships between the parts of a composition.

Arguing Art has a series of videos on the principles of art. Balance [6:46 min] and Proportion [8:46].

Questions to accompany arguing art videos:

How can an artist use proportion to create emphasis?
How might an artist use balance to create interest?
What is the relationship between Balance and Proportion?

Another concept that is used in art, that relates to balance and proportion, is value. It refers to how the dark and light in a picture relate to each other. Value can be used to create, emphasize or de-emphasize parts of a composition. It helps to visually mold a figure in much the way that sculptures are shaped.

Jeff Hein has a video that explains how he thinks about proportion as he draws a woman’s face. It also beautifully illustrates how shadow/value help mold the virtual dimensionality of a piece. [12:27 min]

Questions to accompany Hein video:

How does Hein use value to emphasize or highlight various parts of his subject?
If one doesn’t have a white pastel to add highlights, how could one achieve the same effect on a pencil drawing?
How could you use — or how have you used — value shading in your picture to emphasize important elements or create the illusion of dimension?

some additional vocabulary:


(Arguing Art)

Animation videos can be used to introduce the theme of storytelling in art, as well as framing, point of view, use of color, realistic vs cartoonish, multicultural awareness, how artists “think” about their subject, how balance and proportion are used in film to generate action. They are also fun, as a break from really hard work.

The videos in the first set are appropriate for middle and high school. I included a German version of the tell-tale heart because I was showing them the day after Halloween in the United States. Some of the videos at the end would be appropriate for all ages.

Art Playlist 1