Understanding Proportion in Art: A Guiding Line for Artists

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When discussing art, the concept of ‘proportion’ might conjure images of meticulously measured drawings and symmetrical faces from classic paintings. However, proportion in art is not just about adhering to strict sizes and ratios. It’s about the harmonious relationships and resonating balance that the artist creates in their art.

Below, we’ll dive further into the significance of proportion in art, exploring its definition and exploring various examples of it being applied. In addition, you’ll learn how to use it in your own work with effectiveness! First, let’s start with looking at what proportion means in the context of creating art.

What is Proportion in Art, Really?

Artists sometimes skim over the term ‘proportion’ without fully grasping its depth and its practical impact on artmaking. Proportion in art is a subtle play of dimensions, where every line and curve works together with the others, ensuring that the final creation feels ‘right’. It is proportion that creates a strong likeness in portrait painting and makes an object feel geometrically solid.

In this drawing sketch by Ingres you can see how grid lines are used to capture proper proportions in the figure drawing.

Art without proportion

Imagine a world devoid of proportion in art, where the Mona Lisa’s smile stretches beyond reason, or where the heads of Raphael’s cherubs perilously dwarf their bodies. Proportion is the silent guardian that maintains the inherent believability of art, which, in turn, allows us to immerse ourselves fully in the story a piece wishes to tell.

Proportion Beyond Realism

Art can be created with a very different kind of proportion. Here we see an imagine of an arm coming through the clouds holding a paper airplane. The arm is clearly entirely out of proportion and too large.

Though proportion in art isn’t just about emulating the physical world; it’s a flexible tool that enables artists to bend reality to convey their messages. From the larger-than-life figures in religious art, symbolizing grandeur and solemnity, to the endearingly distorted features of caricatures, provoking humor and critique — proportion in art is a versatile guide that can lead to verisimilitude or venture into the realms of the surreal.

Examples of Proportion in Art History

To truly understand the nuances of proportion in art, it helps to look at some illustrative examples:

The Vitruvian Man

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci is a prime example of realist symmetrical proportions in art.

Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic proportions of the human figure, known as the ‘Vitruvian Man,’ is a case study in perfect symmetry. This illustration, inscribed in a circle and a square, sought to capture the ideal proportions of the human body in alignment with the cosmos and mathematical order.

Many of the old master artists were very concerned with creating figures with ideal proportions. Vitruvian man is a quintessential example that captures the aspiration toward perfection and the ideal. Although the definition of “ideal” would change depending on the time period.

Proportion in Surrealist Art

Surrealist sculpture by Salvador Dali. Surrealist art uses proportion in a very different way from realist art. In the sculpture above by Salvador Dali we can see how elements are much larger in and of a different shape than other things

Salvador Dali’s melting clocks in ‘The Nobility of Time’ are not just a rebellion against proportion; they’re a full-scale assault on the notion of time and solidity. Dali’s use of unrealistic proportion creates a surreal, dreamlike landscape that has both captivated and puzzled viewers.

All art which distorts reality are prime examples of the art of proportion, used in a different way. Instead of basing proportions on the natural world, it creates a new type of proportion based on the artist’s own design.

Ingres and Distorted Anatomy

Ingres is known to have commonly created pronounced anatomical distortions in his paintings. This grisaille painting of his above is no exception. Notice how the hip area of the figure is far too wide when compared to the waist and rest of the body.

Ingres is a great example of a ‘realist’ classical artist who also created anatomical distortions in his work. One of such distortions can be seen in the painting above. Often, these distortions would be to serve a certain kind of ‘ideal’. Thus, the goal was not to create the dimensions exactly as they are in real life, but rather on what serves the aesthetic nature of the painting.

Mastering Proportion in Your own Art

It’s important for an artist to understand not only what proportion in art is but how to effectively use it to convey their artistic vision. Whether you’re an aspiring realist painter or prefer to work abstract, here are a few insights to help you wield the tool of proportion more confidently in your art.

Comparing is the golden rule of proportion

To achieve correct proportions in your painting and or drawing it is necessary to compare parts of your subject to one another. Proportion in art is like a spiderweb. When everything is in proportion then it is connected together. Once something is out of proportion then another part will be off and out of proportion as well.

Notice the straight plumb line coming down in the drawing. Degas used this to be able to measure the proportions of the figure dressed in the ballet costume.

So, in order for you your proportions to be solid you have to continually compare all elements to one another. This task requires a lot of measuring – something that you can see in the Degas drawing above with the plumb line.

Measuring to achieve accurate proportions

Measuring is an indispensable tool when it comes to creating accurate proportions in your artwork. This meticulous process involves gauging the distances and dimensions between various parts of your subject, ensuring each element is rendered with precision. Without accurate measurement, the balance and realism of your work could be compromised, leading to a final product that feels disjointed or unrealistic.

Just like in the degas drawing above you can see how a plumb line can help to see how the different parts of the image align. Notice how you can see that the very left edge of the ball aligns with the right top edge of the cone.

By taking the time to measure, artists are able to maintain consistency throughout their piece, whether it be the distance between the eyes in a portrait or the relative size of shadows in a landscape. This discipline of measuring not only aids in creating a visually harmonious piece but also strengthens the artist’s observational skills, making it a crucial practice for anyone looking to enhance their art’s proportion and realism.

Useful measuring tools for accurate proportions

Tools are extremely helpful and recommended when it comes to creating accurate proportions in art. One of the best measuring tools is a simple straight wooden stick. It works by holding the straight stick in front of you and aligning it with your still life. You can then view what areas fall along the straight line. You can also measure distances between objects with it.

There are a number of tools that are helpful for measuring proportion in art. You can create your own plumb line with a weight and string. Lifting it up allows you to be able to see what elements line up with one another. A simple wood stick can do the same thing. It is just important that the wood stick is as straight as possible.

Another simple and easy tool is a plumb line. You can make one yourself by attaching a weight to a string. The resulting straight line line allows you to easily tell what areas align with one another.

You can find my list of other recommended artist tools and supplies, here!

Why Proportion Matters in Art

To create art that resonates with the human experience, one must understand proportion as a guiding force in the creation of a painting. Whether it’s to achieve lifelike realism, stir up a painting with distortion, or painting something abstract that defies convention, proportion is a skill that every artist must learn how to use well.

Proportion has been very important in all of art. Whether it is very realist or otherwise, proportion plays a major role. Notice in this significant religious painting above by Veronese, how every part of the painting relates to the rest. Proportion has a lot to do with comparing every part of the painting with one another.

The Legacy of Proportion in Art History

From the sculpted serenity of Greek statues to the unsettling paintings of the modern era, proportion has remained an artist’s compass, silently guiding hands and minds towards the eternal quest for beauty and meaning.

In our pursuit of artistic excellence, of why and how we create, we must continually ask ourselves: How do the sizes, the ratios, and spatial relationships speak to the bigger picture in our art? The answer lies in understanding and mastering the silent but resonant principle of proportion. It is the omnipresent element that shapes our creative world — not with an ironclad grip, but with an artful touch that moves us and connects us as audience and creators.

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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    8 thoughts on “Understanding Proportion in Art: A Guiding Line for Artists”

    1. E B Lancellotti

      You always have the most coherent and poetic perspective on all things Art. I appreciate that!


    2. I learned the importance of proportion by trying to draw a face from a photograph. If any part of the face was out of proportion, the face I drew did not look like the face in the photo.

    3. Thank you, Elisabeth, for this fascinating article on proportion. Proportion is quite an elusive property to capture well, and it is helpful to understand that proportion inheres in the relationships between elements of an object as well as between distinct objects. Also, something I had not been introduced to before is the ways artists may manipulate or distort proportion for artistic effect. Thank you for your wonderful articles!

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