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What is Proportion in Art? (Explained with Examples)

Proportion in art refers to the relationship between the different sizes of elements and the general composition of those elements in an artwork.

Basically, it deals with how large or small items are in a work of art when compared to one another.

Learning how to see and replicate proportion in your art is one of the first things you should focus on and is strongly recommended as part of our Top 15 Drawing Tips for Beginners.

When creating a work of art from a reference image, if you feel like your drawing doesn’t look anything like your reference image, odds are your proportions may be not quite right  – or your placement is a bit off.

Related: If you are interested in the other Drawing Fundamentals – Click Here
There are several different types of proportion in art such as:

  • realistic proportion
  • unrealistic proportion
  • hierarchical proportion

I will discuss these more in detail later so keep reading!

Table of Contents

    Why is Proportion Important in Drawing

    Proportion is important in drawing because it directly affects how realistic or unrealistic your drawing will look.

    If you draw the head of a figure too small or too large when compared to the rest of the body, your eyes will notice it immediately and sense that something is not right. Unless you’re trying to create a caricature or apply a certain art style, it’s vital to keep the correct proportion in mind if you want your drawings to look real.

    Related: Interested in other drawing basics for beginners? – Check out our top drawing skills to focus on

    Understanding proportion and choosing the right dimensions for your real-life drawing, figure, or portrait drawing will enable you to create realistic artwork that is both balanced and pleasing to the eye. 

    Principles of Art: Proportion

    Proportion is a principle of art that refers to the relationship of sizes and placement between each element of art. When done correctly, it can give your artwork a sense of harmony.

    Bad proportion either creates chaos or makes your art look dull, so when drawing, it’s important to keep proportion in mind.

    Proportion in art refers to:

    • The height, width, and depth of each element compared to each other
    • The size of a specific area compared to the size of another area
    • The relation of each element’s size
    • The space and distance between each element

    When dealing with proportion, the most basic rule is to group elements or features that are similar or related to each other. For instance, the features of the face, parts of the anatomy, etc. It’s fairly obvious they are all in relation to one another, however, if you were to add something that was out of place it would create an imbalance.

    It’s important to know how to keep the elements of your drawings in harmony. Making everything equal in size makes it boring and making them all different, with no relation to each other, creates disorder. Try to keep the relationship of each element in mind.

    Why Placement is Important

    The placement of elements in your drawing is important because it creates symmetry and helps make the important subjects or parts of your drawing stand out.

    Usually, beginner artists, when starting out, just plop their main subject on a canvas without considering placement and proportion. While there is nothing wrong with a drawing where your subject is at the very center, it can be a bit lackluster.

    Utilizing correct placement in your drawing can give it more life and help your main subject pop. On the other hand, incorrect placement can make your drawing feel disorganized, which can be very difficult to look at sometimes.

    The placement of objects is also what creates perspective and perspective helps your drawings be more interesting. Perspective can give your drawings the illusion of depth and proper placement of elements creates perspective.

    If you place an element wrong while you’re trying to achieve perspective, it may come off as unrealistic. So it’s important to think about the placement of objects when drawing.

    For a brief explanation of perspective, have a quick look at this video:

    Perspective Drawing

    Compositional Proportion

    Composition in art deals with the arrangement of elements and different parts of your drawing. It can be seen in different art forms as well like music or literature.

    Compositional proportion refers to utilizing proportion as a basis for arranging elements of a drawing in an aesthetically pleasing way.

    For there to be a relationship between elements, they must be in one composition. This makes it easier to compare and get accurate proportions.

    A composition can mean the overall artwork itself or a specific part of the artwork. For instance, you’re drawing a green field with a lone farmhouse in the distance. The drawing itself counts as a composition but the corner where the lone house sits counts as a composition as well.

    Art is made of different compositions, and having a basic understanding of proportion allows you to make sure those compositions fit well together.

    There are three types of proportions:

    • Realistic Proportions
    • Unrealistic Proportions
    • Hierarchical Proportion

    Realistic Proportions

    Realistic proportions, as its name suggests, deal with the scales and sizes of a composition based on realistic measures. For instance, if you want to draw a realistic representation of a body or a human face, your basis for its proportions will be the measures you observe on real-life humans.

    This applies to everything, be it animals or buildings. Because it is derived from reality, realistic proportions often limit you in drawing as one inaccurately sized element is enough to ruin your art.

    That’s not to say realism isn’t creative or that using realistic proportions takes away your creativity, there are many ways to add creativity to reality, this is just to say that using reality as a basis for proportion puts you in a strict guideline that leaves little to no room for mistakes.

    Unrealistic Proportions

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have unrealistic proportions. Unlike realistic proportions, this type of proportion grants a bit more creative liberty as its measures aren’t based on reality.

    These measures are often overexaggerated or underexaggerated depending on the tone the artist is trying to portray. An example would be drawing a large head with a small body or giant paws on a tiny cat.

    This type of proportion is popularly used in cartoons or drawing caricatures. They’re not meant to represent reality at all but rather to send a message or place an emphasis on something.

    It’s also just a fun way of drawing. As I said, this grants artists more freedom than realistic proportions.

    That said, despite being unrealistic, it’s still rooted in realism and each element must still be in harmony with the other. Meaning if you overexaggerate an element in comparison to the others, it can still make your drawing feel off. This is why it is often suggested to artists to study realistic proportions even if the art they want to make has nothing to do with realism.

    Hierarchical Proportion

    Hierarchical proportion is more of a strategy than it is a type of proportion. It’s a mix of realistic and unrealistic proportions.

    Basically, a hierarchical proportion means drawing each element of a composition in a hierarchy to emphasize the most important subjects of a drawing. It’s a technique to make the main subject stand out.

    It still uses realistic proportions to represent the different elements of a drawing but overall, it uses unrealistic proportions.

    Suppose you were drawing a queen and her royal knights. The most important subject of that drawing is most obviously the queen. Using hierarchical proportions, you would draw her larger than her knights to emphasize her power and importance.

    The knights would then either be average or small in size to represent that they are in a lower position. If you were to add subjects, you would draw them smaller in size.

    You’ll often see this technique in artworks during the dark ages, especially in Egyptian paintings and sculptures.

    How to Draw Proportions

    Proportions of Figures

    The proportions of figures can be quite tricky as the human body comes in different shapes. There’s no one size fits all, however, artists follow a general set of proportions for drawing figures where they use 1 head as a unit of measurement.

    To begin with, a figure is roughly 7.5 or 8 heads in size. If you take your figure’s head and stack it up 7.5 or 8 times, that should be how tall your figure is.

    From the head to the shoulder, it should be 1.5 heads in measurement. From the chin to the pelvis, it should be around 3 heads. And lastly, from the pelvis to the feet, it should be between 3.5 and 4 heads in size.

    Of course, these proportions vary depending on the height of your figure or the size of your figure. This is just the general rule most artists follow. You also don’t have to measure in heads. If you find a unit that’s much easier to follow along than heads, then I implore you to use that instead (and share your secrets).

    Proportions of Portraits

    The proportion used on the human face is a lot more complicated. Once again, the facial features vary, but there’s a general set of proportions artists follow.

    I discussed this in detail in one of my other articles and you can follow along there: Facial Proportions for Drawing – Beginner’s Guide

    But basically,

    EyesThe eyes are slightly above the middle of your face.
    The distance between both eyes is roughly a third eye
    between them. The distance from one eye to the side of your face
    is just about half an eye.
    NoseThe nose is halfway between your eyes and chin.
    MouthSlightly below the nose. The edges of the mouth line up
    with the inner edge of your eyes.
    EarsThe bottom of the ears is in line with the bottom of the nose.
    The top lines up with the corner of your eyes.
    Different proportions of the face

    Proportion Art Examples

    Realistic proportion

    Title: Landscape with Cattle. Date: 1804. Institution: Rijksmuseum. Provider: Rijksmuseum. Providing Country: Netherlands

    This is an example of realistic proportions used in a composition. This painting shows two people by a riverside next to some cattle. None of the elements in this painting is exaggerated or toned down, they are depicted as they are.

    Unrealistic proportion

    A Digital Painting of Gamora from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

    This is an example of unrealistic proportions. While the features are still based on reality, it is exaggerated in order to make them look more cartoonish, which is what unrealistic proportions are often used for.

    The Narmer Palette – Early Dynastic Period of Egypt, 31st century BC

    This stone carving shows hierarchical proportions. The most important figure is sculpted on a larger scale than the rest of the subjects in order to highlight the figure’s importance.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What Does Proportion Mean in Art?

    Proportion in art means the relationship between elements of a drawing in terms of their scale and placement that make up an artistic composition.

    Each element of a drawing is drawn in connection with each other. Proportion determines the style of your artwork, whether it is realistic or not. It is also what gives your drawing a sense of harmony and balance.

    Without proper proportion and placement, an art piece would look chaotic.

    What Are the Types of Proportion in Art?

    There are three types of proportion in art. Realistic, unrealistic, and hierarchical.

    Realistic proportion deals with measurements based on reality. That could mean figures, facial features, objects, etc. It isn’t exaggerated or toned down for artistic effect, it simply depicts reality as it is.

    This type of proportion gives drawings a realistic feel, hence the name. Its measurement is drawn from observable characteristics within the real world.

    Unrealistic proportion is the opposite. Features using this type of proportion will often be drawn larger or smaller than it actually is to give the drawing a style or to represent a message. This is often used in cartoons or caricatures where the style or message is more important than the representation of reality itself.

    Hierarchical proportion gives us a hierarchy by making important subjects stand out by drawing them in a more prominent scale than the rest of the elements. This proportion is meant to highlight the main subject which, back when it was most popularly used in the Dark Ages, was often royalty.

    What Is the Difference Between Placement, Scale, and Proportion in Art?

    Placement in art refers to where each element of the art is drawn. That could mean the corner, the sides, or the center. Placement is used to help make your artwork look more aesthetically pleasing.

    It is also used to make certain elements stand out like a figure or a house. Proper placement makes your art coherent whereas improper placement makes it look disorganized. Placement also creates perspective, depending on where you put your elements.

    Scale means the overall size of a drawing or of certain elements in a drawing, whether it is large or small.

    Proportion is about the relationship between the scale and placement of each element. If you take the placement and the measurement of an element and compared it with the rest of the elements within the composition, that is proportion.

    However, if you leave it as it is and take away the rest, just one singular element with nothing to compare to, then proportion will no longer be in play. It’ll be just one object.

    If you drew a square, then it is simply a square, with no proportions or placement whatsoever. But if you suddenly add a triangle and two more squares and drew them in relation to the first square, then there is proportion. The sizes of those additional shapes will determine the scale (say you make the triangle a little bigger and the two additional squares smaller).

    Where you put those shapes (suppose you put the triangle on top of the square and the two tinier squares inside) then that will be its placement.

    That is all. I hope this article helped you in understanding proportion in art. Thanks for reading!

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