Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12


The Lesson


Composition Basics

Madonna and Child with St.John the Baptist and a Saint, detail of the background waterside city

Credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Artists often structure their compositions in particular ways in order to convey a sense of harmony in the picture. How do artists go about communicating stability and equilibrium through the organization of their paintings? Why might an artist choose to structure a painting in a way that conveys an asymetrical impression? In this lesson students will be investigating the use of symmetry and balance in painting, and how it is used by artists to convey information about the contents of the painting.

Students will use the viewing experiences of the activities in the first lesson of this curriculum unit, Composition Basics as the basis for discussing some additional compositional techniques found in the images in this activity. The activities in this lesson provide a brief overview of a few techniques used by artists to guide their audience through their paintings. Some of these examples overlap with other important elements that students should be aware of when viewing works of art, such as color and line.

Guiding Questions

  • What are symmetry and balance, and how do they affect works of art?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify symmetry and balance in the composition of a variety of art works, and how these elements work to make the painting successful as a painting
  • Explain how the artist's use of symmetry and balance work to guide the viewer's eye to important components of the image
  • Discuss ways in which the use of symmetry and balance within a painting affects the tone of the painting, or communicates information or emotional content to the viewer

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the curriculum unit overview and this lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Note: All diagrams, line drawings, and questions for this lesson are available for students to download directly through the Student LaunchPad. You should read through the Student LaunchPad in preparation for teaching this lesson.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Mirror, Mirror: Symmetry in Painting

Symmetry is an element that is often used in paintings, although it is not always obvious at first glance. Paintings which exhibit a basic symmetry generally present a well-balanced and harmonious composition. In this activity students will view examples of paintings that will help them to recognize symmetry, even when it is not immediately apparent.

You may wish to begin this activity by discussing the definition of symmetry in the visual arts with students:

  • Symmetry refers to the correspondence in size, shape, and relative position of elements within the picture plane. These elements are found on opposite sides of a dividing line or median point, usually, but not always, located at the central axis of the painting.

Symmetrical balance implies symmetry that appears as a mirror image. Symmetrically balanced paintings will have their focal point at the center of the composition, with equal visual weight on either side of the central focal point. Have students view the following painting, which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Ask students to identify the focal point of the painting. Next, ask them to look for objects and figures that resemble one another. Where are they located in the picture? Can they find pairs of objects or figures that sit on either side of the central focal point? You may wish to use this drawing as an aid to discussing symmetry in this image. Students should mark the focal point on this drawing and mark paired elements.

The upper portion of this painting exhibits an immediately recognizable symmetry. The placement and number of figures on either side of the Virgin Mary are nearly mirror images-for every angel on the left side of the painting there is another angel on the right side. But does symmetry in art always appear as a mirror image?

Divide the class into small groups. Assign half of the groups to view one of the following paintings, and the other groups to view the other. Both of the following images are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The National Gallery of Art:

Ask students to identify similar objects or figures within the composition of this work. How do these objects relate to one another within the composition? Are they on opposite sides of the painting? On the same side? Once they have had a chance to examine the painting, ask students to work together to answer the following question:

  • Does the painting exhibit elements of symmetry? Explain your answer.

If some groups believe the composition of the painting they are examining is symmetrical while others believe it is not, have one group representing each side of this question argue their position. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the idea of symmetry in relation to Benton's and Avercamp's paintings.

Students assigned to the Benton image should recognize that while this image does not present as strictly an ordered mirrored composition as that found in the Bergognone image, students should not have difficulty in identifying the symmetry represented by the two mountains which appear on either side of the central peak. While there are differences in the foreground of the image- such as the shape of the lake and the placement of the two riders- students should also be able to find a rough symmetry in the two green slopes and two stands of trees. Students should remember that the correspondence between objects, figures, and landscape elements does not need to be exact.

For the students assigned to the Avercamp painting, they will see that unlike the Bergognone image—or even the Benton image—students may not find the symmetrical elements of this watercolor's composition immediately obvious. Many of the symmetrical elements found in this image are distanced from each other by the use of techniques such as atmospheric perspective (objects in the distance are painted in lighter shades with less clear details), giving the impression that some features of the landscape or figures are located far away from the viewer. Despite the placement of objects and figures at different positions within the imagined distance from the viewer, it is still possible to find symmetrical elements within Avercamp's painting.

As students view this image you may wish to direct their attention first to the two towers in the image-not only the one on the left, which is referenced in the title, but also the second tower, placed in the distance, on the right hand side of the picture plane. The two structures resemble each other in their shape and architectural style, and while the second tower is located at a distance within the field of the image, that resemblance creates a kind of symmetry within the frame of the picture. Students may also note the two row boats in the image, the first tied to the shore in the foreground, and the second being rowed with two passengers in the middle ground. Again, one appears close to the viewer, and one at a distance, but students will recognize that the objects are of one kind, and that they are even placed facing each other, making them resemble mirrored images.

Students may look at the ship that is moored in the waters before the distant tower and attempt to find something in the foreground which can be paired with it. They may note the appearance of a second ship in the further distance; however, astute observers may also note the resemblance between the ship's masts and the cross planted at the top of the rise in the foreground. They might also note the similarity between the shape of the ship's hull and the shape of the rise itself. Finally, they might note the greater correspondence between the ship on the right and the tower with the rise and tower on the left than between the more distant ship and any other geographic elements.

Once each group has had a chance to examine either the Benton or the Avercamp have the class gather together again where each group will present and discuss their findings.

Activity 2. Balancing Acts

After completing the previous activity students might wonder why artists would include symmetrical elements in the composition of their art works. One of the most important reasons is found in the pursuit of balance or equilibrium.

Students may recall learning about triangular compositions in an earlier lesson from this curriculum unit, Composition Basics. In that lesson students learned that a triangle is often chosen as the overall shape of a painting's composition because it lends a sense of stability and balance. Compositions that are well balanced are often visually harmonious and pleasing to the eye. Students should remember that the visual arts played a very important role in society -- particularly before the invention of the camera- and presenting a pleasing representation of a scene or person was often a significant goal of the artist and the work of art.

Other important components that work together to create a sense of balance in a work of art include color (such as keeping all of the tones and saturation of a painting's color within a certain range) and proportion (keeping the relative size of objects and figures within the range of what we normally see). In the following activity students will be concentrating on balance within the composition of a painting.

Begin by having students return to or look again at the following image from Lesson 1, available from The National Gallery of Art:

If you are teaching this lesson plan as part of the curriculum unit Composition in the Painting: Everything in its right place students will recognize this image from the previous lesson plan, Composition Basic. Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Have students begin by analyzing or reviewing the elements of the composition they have already learned about, such as the overall shape of the composition. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the elements of the composition. Have students work together to answer the following questions:

  • Do you see an overall shape within the composition? Explain what shape you see and where important figures, objects, or elements within the composition make up and where they fall within that guiding shape. Why do you think the artist has placed the important components of the composition where he has placed them?
  • What elements of symmetry can you find in this image? Explain your answer.

Students should be able to identify the triangular composition of de Conegliano's painting, as well as the rough symmetry of the two saints. Once students have answered these questions ask them to work together to form hypotheses on why the artist might have chosen to introduce these elements into the composition of his painting. What might he been attempting to achieve? Ask groups to share their ideas. In Conegliano's painting, the artist was striving to achieve balance in his composition. Students should be able to identify the sense of balance that is created in Conegliano's painting by the combination of symmetry and the triangular shape of the composition. As was discussed in the previous lesson plan, Composition Basics, pyramid-shaped compositions lend a sense of solidity, and of being firmly grounded in a painting. Students might also focus on the symmetry in the painting and imagine a balance (scale), such as those that often symbolize the law or justice. The symmetrical layout of the image will lend the impression to the painting that, were it being weighed in a set of scales, both sides would be of similar weight. At first it might appear that balance and symmetry are the same thing when viewing paintings such as Conegliano's, where the symmetrical layout is an important element in creating visual balance. However, symmetry and balance are not necessarily synonymous. There are different kinds of symmetry, or symmetrical balance found in works of art. The three types demonstrated in this lesson are: symmetrical balance; approximate symmetrical balance; and asymmetrical balance.

Students will recall Bergognone's image of The Assumption of the Virgin. Students viewed this painting in the first Activity. This painting provides an example of symmetrical balance, in which the weight on the right and the left sides of the painting are equal and the focal point of the painting sits exactly at the center. Next, they should think of the Benton image they viewed in the course of that activity. In this case, the Benton provides an example of approximate symmetrical balance, in which the weight of the left and right sides are roughly equal to each other, and the focal point is at the center of the image.

Have students return to the following image, which they have already seen the previous activity.

Does this painting exhibit symmetry? Students will recall their examination of symmetry in this painting from the previous activity. Is this painting balanced? Some students might answer yes, while others might say no, and both will be right! The symmetry in the painting does lend a certain balance to the painting: for each object there is a match, making each a visual pair. Each visual pair should bring to mind the pair of trays which hang from the scale. However, keeping to the metaphor of the scales, in Avercamp's painting both members of each pair do not "weigh" the same.

Ask students to work together to explain why they aren't equally "weighted."

Students should be able to identify a number of factors in their assessments. Some of the most important of these factors include:

  • the unequal size of the two towers
  • the difference in clarity (the tower on the right is rendered less clearly in order to convey the sense that it is located in the distance)
  • the level of detail that is included in the rendering of each tower

Students may also note the differences in color or color saturation, which is also an important factor in creating balance in a painting. Avercamp's image provides an example of asymmetrical balance, in which the focal point is located on one or the other side of the image rather than at the center, and balance is achieved through means other than straight symmetry.


Divide the class into four similarly sized groups. Distribute the following images, which are available from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The National Gallery of Art, to the class, giving one image from this list to each of the groups:

Each group should examine the image they have been given, working together to find and elaborate upon elements of symmetry and balance in their image. Each group should present their findings on the image to the rest of the class. If you have time in your class, you might give one of the following images to each group in addition to the paintings listed above. Have each group investigate elements of symmetry and balance in both of the images which they receive, and then compare and contrast the use of symmetry and balance in the two pictures.

You may wish to have students write a brief explanation of their findings to hand in at the close of this lesson.

Extending The Lesson

You may wish to extend the lesson by assigning a short research project for your students using the reviewed internet resources available through EDSITEment. Have students search from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Modern Art's Art Safari, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and The Art Institute of Chicago to find one example each of: a symmetrical composition; an approximately symmetrical composition; and an asymmetrically balanced composition. Students should write at least one paragraph for each image that they find explaining why it is an example of one of these three elements.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Visual art analysis
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)


Student Resources