Getting the proportions of each element of your artwork correct is vital to create a realistic looking drawing or painting. A successful illustration has each shape drawn in the correct size in proportion to every other shape in the drawing. Proportions can be one of the hardest skills for beginners to develop. Luckily there are a few tricks that you can use to help you to make those judgements about the size of your shapes.
The first step to getting the proportions correct is careful observation.
Remember that your brain will try and trick you!
It already has preconceptions on the size relationships of objects, however those preconceptions can be deceiving and lead you in the wrong direction with your artwork. Your mind tends to place more emphasis on the important features and lead you to believe that those features should be drawn larger to emphasise them. For example, when drawing a face, most beginners will draw the eyes too big in relation to the size of the head. Similarly, most beginners will draw a persons hands too small. It is because our brain perceives our hands as being small in comparison to the rest of the body. Because we ‘know’ that our hands are small, we tend to draw them that way, often too small. Your brain tricks you without you even realizing it and you end up with a drawing that looks weird but you aren’t sure why. Did you know that your hands (including fingers) are roughly the same length as your forearm?
One way that we can learn how to determine the relative size of a shape is to measure it and compare that measurement with other shapes. I don’t mean that we need to do math to work it out, the process is actually quite simple. You can use your pencil as a measuring stick by using your thumb to slide up and down the side of the pencil. Align the tip of the pencil with one side of the shape and use your thumb to measure to the other side of the shape. You can then use that measurement as a way of comparing the size of other shapes (and gaps between the shapes) to help determine how big each shape should be drawn. Do this with each shape to determine which shapes are of similar size.
Should I use a grid?
Many people use a grid drawn over the page to compare placement and size of each shape. Grids can be very useful in learning to draw. It gives clues to drawing the correct proportions as well as line length, direction and placement on the page. A grid is drawn over the photo that you are copying and a blank grid is drawn on your page that you can use to see where the lines should intersect with the grid. Whilst there are good benefits of using the grid method and I encourage you to try it out, I suggest that you use it sparingly. It is easy to build up a dependence on using this method to do any drawing. If you rely too heavy on this method, I believe that it inhibits you from developing the skills of judgement that are required for drawing. Eventually you want to be able to make the required judgements without aids as much as possible. Use a grid as a guide if you are a beginner and need a little extra help to see your proportions or if you are having trouble with a particular section of drawing, but try and wean yourself off the method as soon as you can. A better idea would be to try and draw without the grid to start with, then put the grid on top to see where your shapes need to be corrected, that way you are learning to make the required judgements as well as learning how to evaluate where corrections should be made. You will get much more satisfaction when you do a good drawing without the use of a grid, you won’t have that voice in the back of your head telling you that you cheated!
Lining up your shapes
Here’s the method that I use a lot while drawing. To get the proportions correct, the placement of lines and shapes on your page must also be correct… they are all linked together. To work out where a line should be positioned, have a look at other shapes and lines around it on your reference photo to get an idea of where it should go. In particular find an obvious part of the shape that you are drawing (eg, it might be a corner, or the left hand edge of the shape, or some other recognizable part of the shape). Now look in a vertical direction and see if any other shapes, edges, lines or corners line up with it. If they do, or at least come very close to it, then we now know where that other shape should be drawn. Do the same thing horizontally and see if any shapes line up. Whenever you start any new line, look to see what else lines up with it in a vertical and/or horizontal direction. If lines on your drawing don’t match the alignment in your reference photo, then you know that your proportions must be wrong and so long as you are drawing lightly as described in my previous post, you can rub it out and move the lines. The more you do this horizontal and vertical check, the more you will start to notice the relationships between all of the shapes and enables you to draw any shape in proportion to the surrounding shapes.
What is your favourite method of working out proportions?
Perhaps you have another method that is working for you? I would love to hear from you by posting a comment below. Let me know how you are going and which way is working for you. Remember to hit the like button if you found this tip helpful and I thank you for your support, you are awesome and happy drawing!