Category Archives: concepts & terms

Scale & Proportion

Scale and proportion in art are both concerned with size.

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Scale refers to the size of an object (a whole) in relationship to another object (another whole). In art the size relationship between an object and the human body is significant. In experiencing the scale of an artwork we tend to compare its size to the size of our own bodies.

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Proportion refers to the relative size of parts of a whole (elements within an object). We often think of proportions in terms of size relationships within the human body.

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Scale in art

An artwork has a physical size; when referring to an artwork’s size, we use the term scale. Scale is more than simply the object’s size, however. It is the size of the art object in relation to another object. The relative size of the artwork is always compared to the size of the human body–life-sized, miniature, enormous–are all terms that use the human body as a size reference.

Larger-than-life scale

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Chuck Close is a photorealist painter. Photorealism, a movement that began as a reaction to minimalism and abstract expressionism–both of which eschewed realism as high art–involves the use of photography to create an image so realistic in detail that it can be mistaken for a photograph. Close revolutionized photorealism by expanding the scale of his work to an enormous size.

Close’s approach to portraiture was to not only make his subjects massive in size, but to represent them in an extremely realistic and forthright manner, including their flaws.

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Artists as quoted on Minneapolis Sculpture Garden website:

Claes Oldenburg: “Very often I am sitting at dinner and I take out my notebook. I get very inspired when I eat, for some reason.”

Coosje van Bruggen: “One of the things that sculptors who work in an urban surrounding think of is scale, the object in comparison to the other things in the surroundings–buildings, the highway, the Cathedral, lantern posts, anything.”–Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen create sculptures of ordinary objects–a clothespin and a tube of lipstick, for example–in a monumental scale, which causes us to see these ordinary objects in a completely different way. The sculptures also become iconic representations of the specific cities they were designed for. Consider how the enormous scale of both the Close portraits and the Oldenburg/van Bruggen sculptures changes the meaning of and our relationship to ordinary objects and people.

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Joseph Cornell combined and placed his objects in small scale box constructions. The effect is that of a miniature world full of magic and possibilities. Although the scale of the boxes is small, the world within the box is as large as the imagination makes it. In Cassiopeia 1, for example, one can imagine an entire solar system. Within the boxes the objects relate in some way but remain suggestions rather than narratives. Cornell leaves it to the viewer to fill in the gaps.



Proportion in Art

Proportion is the relative size of parts within a whole. The human body is an effective example of the design principle.

Proportions of the human body as a reflection of cultural ideology

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This famous drawing is based on the geometrically calculated ideal human proportions described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. According to Vitruvius the human figure was the primary source of proportion used in Classical orders of architecture.

Hannah Hoch in Weimar Germany:

purposeful alteration of human proportion to make a political statement

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Within this period Hannah Hoch created numerous artworks and developed the art of photomontage. Using this method she was able to piece together elements from different sources and alter the scale of objects in the composition as well as proportions within the human body. Consider how this alteration in proportion related to the historical period in which she was working.

Perfect Proportion: The Golden Ratio, the Golden Mean, or Fibonacci’s Spiral

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A Fibonacci spiral which approximates the golden spiral, using Fibonacci sequence square sizes up to 34. Image by user Dicklyon 17 March 2008

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Woodcut from the Divina Proportione, Luca Pacioli 1509, Venice, depicting the golden proportion as it applies to the human face.

The golden ratio is a mathematical proportion based on pi (1.618033988749895…) and is used to define aesthetically pleasing proportions in art and architecture.

It can be derived with a number of geometric constructions, each of which divides a line segment at the unique point where the ratio of the whole line to the large segment is the same as the ratio of the large segment to the small segment.

The ratio is found in within all of the natural world; and is clearly illustrated in the spiral of a chambered nautilus.

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The ratio is found in all proportions of the human body, from the hands and feet, to the face, to the body as a whole. The ratio has been analyzed in terms of what is considered beautiful in human faces and found that the more closely proportions of the face follow this ratio, the more beautiful it is considered to be.

The ratio has been used for centuries, by the ancient Egyptians in the pyramids, ancient civilizations in the construction of temples, Renaissance artists (who called it the Divine Proportion), and is still used to create a sense of beauty, harmony and balance in art.


Movement uses art elements to direct a viewer’s eye along a path through the artwork, and/or to show movement, action and direction. Also, giving some elements the ability to be moved or move on their own, via internal or external power.

In a still picture such as a painting, photograph, or print where nothing is actually moving, various strategies can be used to give the viewer a sense of movement and speed, or to move the viewer’s eye through the work. These include lines, diagonals and unbalanced elements; blurring; placement; direction; and motion lines and after images.

  • Lines pointing in one direction and spirals can create movement; diagonals, tilted elements, and things out of balance or unsupported will all give the feeling that movement is or is about to occur.

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  • Fast-moving objects can be made to appear blurred, a little at the trailing edge or all over, depending on the speed and direction of motion (linear or rotational). Or, the subject may be relatively frozen in an instant while the background around it is blurred – in photography this is done by panning the camera to follow the subject while the exposure is made.

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  • Placement can help show or frame motion. A moving subject placed in the first third of an image will have room to run. A moving subject placed in the last third may look like it’s about ready to hit the edge of the image: this placement is used if distance already traveled is of interest and could be emphasized to advantage. A moving subject that has already partially or mostly left the frame can show extreme speed, and/or the moment left in the wake of its passage.

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  • Direction can influence the perception of speed. Objects moving from left to right may have a sense of moving faster to those whose language is read from left to right (e.g. English). Likewise, objects moving down or at a downward slant can seem speedier than those moving up, as in nature it is more work and usually slower to climb.

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  • Motion lines and afterimages can also be used to indicate motion – these techniques are common in graphic narrative works. Motion lines trail from near the back of the moving element in the direction of the path it has just traveled: the longer the lines, the more the motion and speed are emphasized. Afterimages are the remembered or left-behind glimpses of something as it moves. A subject can be depicted in several places within the same picture, showing moments along the path of its passage as well as the passage of time. The afterimages can fade as they get further away from the present subject, and may only be the outlines of the front half of the subject in various poses it has gone through in moving: they can also get farther apart as they go back in time, and closer together as they approach the current instant. Afterimages can be used in conjunction with motion lines or on their own.

Giacomo Balla

Giacomo Balla

Videos and animations can show actual movement. Jewelry, ceramics and other three-dimensional work can have parts that are meant to be opened or otherwise moved, creating a physical engagement between the viewer and the work, and giving the viewer something to explore and discover. Artwork that moves by itself in part or in whole, powered by natural forces (wind, tide, light, etc.) or self-propelled, and in which the motion itself is used as an artistic element, is called kinetic art (see many great examples here). Other works that change and move over time, growing, eroding or decaying, are more ephemeral in nature.

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Rhythm is the repetition or alternation of motifs (art elements such as lines/shapes/colors/textures) often with defined intervals between them. Rhythm can create a sense of movement, and can establish pattern and texture. There are many different kinds of rhythm, often defined by the feeling it evokes when looking at it.

  • Regular: A regular rhythm occurs when the intervals between the elements, and often the elements themselves, are similar in size or length.

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  • Flowing: A flowing rhythm gives a sense of movement, and is often more organic in nature.

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  • Progressive: A progressive rhythm shows a sequence of forms through a progression of steps.

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  • Alternating: An alternating rhythm consists of successive motifs, which continue to appear in a regular distinct order.

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Balance in art refers to the sense of distribution of perceived visual weights that offset one another. We feel more comfortable–and therefore find it more pleasing–when the parts of an artwork seem to balance each other. Imbalance gives us an unsettled feeling, and that is something that for most artists is not the desired effect. Some artists, however, deliberately disturb our sense of balance.

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This portrait of a Zen master is solid and balanced, with a strong presence and sense of permanence. Zen practice places a strong emphasis on one’s teacher. This sculpture accentuates the value of the Zen priest in the strength of its balance.

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In contrast, this sculpture almost appears off balance, as if it might tip over at any moment because of the twist of the body and backward leaning stance. This gives it a heightened sense of movement and suggests a dancing motion. Indian art reflects the value of prana, or the breath of life, which can be seen in the animated quality of its sculptures.

Symetrical and Asymmetrical Balance

There are two types of balance: symmetrical and asymmetrical. In symmetrical balance, if an imaginary line is drawn through the center of the work, both sides are exactly the same, and balanced in that way. In asymmetrical balance, the two sides are not identical, but differ from one another. However, the elements are arranged so that there is a sense of balance.

In the illustrations below, both examples use the exact same objects. The one on the left, however, is symmetrical, identical or nearly identical on each side. The one on the right balances the objects asymmetrically. Both sides are different, yet arranged in such a way that they feel balanced.

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Examples of symmetrical balance

Symmetrical balance is used to convey a sense of formality, order, rationality, and permanence. Consider for each of the examples below, why would the artist want to use symmetrical balance?

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Asymmetrical Balance

Asymmetrical balance often has more variety, visual interest, and liveliness.

Asymmetrical balance can be achieved by using some of the following principles:


  • a large form is heavier than a smaller form
  • dark values are heavier than light values
  • a textured form is heavier than a smooth form
  • a complex form is heavier than a simple form
  • two or more smaller forms balance one large form
  • a smaller darker form balances a larger lighter form
  • objects toward the edge or corner of the composition appear heavier
  • intense colors are heavier than muted colors

Examples of asymmetrical balance in art

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Japanese art is known for elegant asymmetry that is perfectly balanced. Here, the mountain on the right is balanced on the left by empty space, the close proximity of the travelers, and their movement away from the mountain.

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Mary Cassatt was an Impressionist painter and printmaker. She was strongly influenced by Japanese art and was a master at creating asymmetrically balanced compositions. Notice how she balances strong forms with space and placement of elements in the composition.

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The building is placed off center, to the left, but is balanced by the dramatic angle of the diving board, and its projection into the viewer’s space.


Logo Design Evaluation

There are six universal attributes of a great Logo Design:

1) Is it practical?

Can it be printed on scalable sizes without being fuzzy? Will it work in black and white format as well as in color? Some logos designs become incomprehensible when reproduced in newspaper ads or when sent through a fax machine. Try blowing it up and reducing the logo to determine its readability at different sizes.

2) Is it distinctive?

A logo design needs to be unique and effective, simplicity is key. A design idea doesn’t need to be unique to the world, just distinctive enough so you can market your target audience.

3) Is it graphic?

You shouldn’t have to explain to people what message you are portraying in your logo design. An effective logo design will communicate purely in graphic terms to the right brain hemisphere, and doesn’t depend on verbal intellectual interpretation. The choice of fonts, shape and color should effectively communicate the essence of the company.

4) Is it appropriate?

Is the design relevant to your business? Is it consistent with the personality and tone you wish to convey about your business? The content has to be right! An otherwise great logo will fail if the message expressed is at odds with management intentions.

5) Is it simple?

Simplicity of design makes a logo easier for customers to remember and recognize. A great logo will contain only one graphic idea, or one gimmick. Thus if there’s a symbol, the accompanying name should be plain and unadorned. If it is a wordmark, one idea or device should make it special — like the stripes in IBM. The more unique the name, the simpler the graphics can be. Think clear contrast and simple shapes, with limited colors and tones. But be sure not to make it too simple that it is boring and unimaginative!

6) Does it convey ONE message?

Great designs try to express no more than one attribute and support a single aspect of positioning.

Use this checklist to avoid common problems with logos:

  • Is it too trendy?

Think of the future and avoid being too trendy. A good logo will last your company 15 years and give your customers a chance to burn the image of your logo into their brains.

  • If the logo uses words or letters, are they recognizable?

You shouldn’t have to explain or decipher the logo for people.

  • Does it arouse any unwanted associations?

What you intended as stepping stones might come across to others as looking like animal droppings. If you get this kind of honest feedback, pay attention.

  • Are the colors appropriate?

Colors are powerful. Different colors have different associates and can have predictable effects on your audience. Understanding color associations is imperative!

  • Do you and others classmates you have shown like the logo enough to use it enthusiastically?

If not, return to the drawing board.

Types of Logos

There are three basic types of logos, which can be used alone or combined within one design:

  • Illustrative logos (a logo which evidently defines what you do)

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  • Graphic logos (a logo that include a graphic, frequently a concept, of what you do)

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  • Font-based logos (a text action which represent you)

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Simplicity is very imperative – Fancy ornamental fonts are not pleasing. Whether unaided or collective with graphic rudiments the text in a logo must be distinct, even in small sizes.

Color needs to be considered, once a form for the logo has been defined. Also color for a logo should remain simple. One can always get fancy with the web version, but a good logo must work well in one color and gradients of that color.

Contrast is another powerful concept in the creation of logos – Contrasting size, color, fonts; textures are common- to create visual interest.

A logo should be simple and abstract, not complicated or confusing, at the same time expressing the necessary information about the company.