Guide on drawing proportions

As is common knowledge, portraiture is the representation of a human being’s features, such as the face, head and shoulders or the whole body. However it is necessary when representing the features of the human figure to understand how perception plays an important theme in interpretation of figurative drawing.

Although drawing from life remains the main way of exploring techniques such as proportion and perspective, arguably, in order to master them, it may be necessary to put aside our worry about producing aesthetically pleasing images of immediate and impetuous drawing, rather focus on the academic reproduction of reality before you can achieve a freer and more personal style.

When drawing the human figure, as is the case for all drawings from life, understanding how we interpret perspectives and utilizing this in our drawing is important to create an image that represents spatial depth. Looking at the basic principles of drawing the head for example, in order to draw a picture in perceptive, the object must be reduced in size in accordance with the distance they are from the observer. The correct size of each object in perspective is obtained by means of observing receding/vanishing lines.

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While we could go in to great deal regarding the principles of vanishing lines, the underlining principle of vanishing points tells us they only exist when parallel lines appear to recede into the distance. In subjects such as the human figure, we are not always able to find straight edges to act as guidelines to vanishing points. These can be called zero-point perspective scenes. To create depth and distance in these scenes, there are a number of techniques we can use:

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  • Scale: objects become progressively smaller as they recede.

  • Detail: things become more indistinct in the distance and shapes become fuzzy and merge into one another.

  • Mark making: use line thickness and drawing pressure to create depth – lines become finer and more delicate as they recede into the distance.

  • Tone/value: the amount of darkness or contrast becomes less as things get further away.

Yet it can be argued the use of this principle when drawing the human figure, our understanding of perspective is based entirely on sight and experience. Observing the life model allows the artist to develop their basic knowledge of perspective to represent spatial distance, from this the artist can understand and draw perspective using his intuition.

 However, there are still elements that can trip us up, especially where objects are foreshortened, appearing to recede into the picture plane. Our prior knowledge when working with this type of subject seems to override what we see, and we start drawing what we think we know. In this case a basic understanding of proportion and measurement can be helpful to the artist. This is because to make an accurate drawing that creates an illusion of depth, a system of measuring what you see, enables the artist to understand the proportion of objects and the distances between things.

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For many artists, simply using a pencil is a tried and tested method for gaging the accuracy of the drawing at any time. Using the aforementioned method, the nude figure can be broken down into a series of simple but accurately proportioned geometric shapes, until you have established the correct relationship between the body parts included in your drawing. Ultimately a basic understanding of perspective and measuring proportion are the most important things to consider when tackling any sort of drawing, and although initially quite a bit of effort is needed to follow the principles of measurement, proportion and scale, with frequent use and practice, most things can be done by eye.