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PROPORTION: The Principles of Design

A Guide for Teachers

Proportion is a principle of design that most people hear about when talking about anatomy. While this is definitely part of proportion, it isn’t all of it! There are actually far more things to think about when working with proportion, and it can easily change how your artwork is perceived by an audience. So, without further ado, let’s learn all about how to apply good proportions to your artwork!

Not a fan of reading? No worries – we have a short and sweet video all about PROPORTION: the principle of design that gives a fun and quick rundown of the principle!

What is Proportion in art?

Golden Ratio in Famous Artwork
This is the golden ratio -- an example of traditional proportion within composition!

Proportion refers to the relationship and ratio between one part of an artwork and another part of an artwork. This relationship compares sizes, shapes and quantities, whether that be the size of objects, the amount of a colour, the shapes within a figure, so on and so forth. With that said, you can think of proportion almost like an extension of balance!

Good proportions create harmony within a piece; it’s like fitting puzzle pieces together to see how different elements can be placed together in order to evoke a certain mood, idea, style, etc.! But how do we create good proportions within our artwork?

1. Place similar things together.

Empress Theodora and Members of Her Court (c. 547)

Similarity is the idea that things that are related will automatically be grouped together. Proximity is the idea that things that are closer together will automatically be grouped. A combination of these two will allow for good proportion, but it isn’t always necessary.

Like most things in art, the “rules” can be bent and toyed with. Focal points within a scene that are similar aren’t necessarily always grouped together, but when placed apart they tend to follow some kind of compositional rule in order to feel balanced.

You can see this idea of grouping within the piece Empress Theodora and Members of Her Court. Within ancient artwork, it was common to group important figures and have them as focal points in order to emphasize their status. This pattern is no different in this piece – Theodora is front and center with the rest of her court, all of them grouped together and placed in order of their importance to one another. This creates emphasis within proportion, and hones in on what’s important within the art piece!

2. Create proportionate focal points.

The Dentist by Gerard van Honthorst

If all parts of a design or artwork are equal, it becomes monotonous, and a viewer will get bored really quickly. Think of a checkerboard — that’s a nice and satisfying pattern, but it isn’t necessarily anything extremely interesting. When we see a focal point in an art piece, it tends to take up less space compared to what surrounds them. This creates contrast another principle of design! However, if this ratio of focal point to everything else is too large or too similar, it’ll feel unbalanced. This is how proportion comes into play!

The Dentist by Gerard van Honthorst is an excellent example of a proportionate focal point. In this majorly dark piece, there’s a spot of light where a candle shines onto a man’s face. Because of how concentrated the light is on the man’s face, you’d think that that’s the only focal point, which would be disproportionate. However, because the light slowly fades, you get this effect of a blended focal point as well. This creates a spiral-like focal point that coils into the man’s face, and leads the eye to take in more of the story, allowing the focal point to remain proportional.

3. Don’t arrange your elements mathematically.

Fruit on a Tablecloth with a Fruitdish by Georges Braque

Traditionally, some naturalists, designers and artists would disagree with this point. They’d point towards the “80-20” rule, or the “golden ratio.” This compositional idea is very mathematical in nature, and while not necessarily incorrect, there’s a slightly more intuitive way to think of your proportions.

When arranging elements in a composition, perfect fractions (½,. ⅓, ¼, etc.) can become very monotonous as well. Generally, it’s better to feel around and get an approximation of what you want rather than worry about perfection. Notice that I didn’t mention a ratio when talking about how to place a focal point proportionally – this is because that ratio changes within every piece, and you shouldn’t be worrying about exactness anyway! A piece becomes far more dynamic when it isn’t precise.

Fruit on a Tablecloth with a Fruitdish by Georges Braque was painted during the cubist era, which experimented with a lot of geometry within their artwork. However, despite all that geometry, they didn’t really use any math to create their pieces. Such is the same with this piece – it’s an approximation of the rule of thirds, and an approximation of a proportionate focal point within the space. Without these perfect ratios, the piece still feels very proportionate and interesting to look at!

4. Create harmony within your artwork!

Anatomical Stylization and Exaggerated Proportions

Adventure Time (left) and Avatar: The Last Airbender (right)

Creating harmony within your artwork makes things automatically feel proportional, since it’s quite literally the act of making things “fit together.” For example, human anatomy! Making sure all the elements within the human figure fit together correctly is an easy way to create good proportion and good harmony. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your proportions need to be realistic – they just need to make sense for the style presented.

Compare the animated shows Adventure Time and Avatar for example. Both shows are stylized in a way, however Adventure Time leans on a more western and highly exaggerated style, whereas Avatar leans slightly more on the side of realism with its blend of Japanese and western cartooning.

This doesn’t make either show more or less correct – Adventure Time just happens to follow different conventional rules and styles compared to Avatar. If you were to take a character from Avatar and place them in Adventure Time, they’d feel incorrect and misplaced. The same applies if you reversed the roles. Creating harmony within proportions isn’t necessarily about being as close to life as possible, it’s more so about following the rules you give yourself for your artwork!

Is there a formula for good proportions?

Proportions are hard to teach because of how much guesswork and rules you need to create as the artist. There isn’t a surefire formula – it’s something you just slowly get better at with practice. Nature is a good example of this. It doesn’t follow a specific structure or formula – it grows naturally, but is still an excellent example of proportions, like the human body or flowers! Over time it’ll feel like second nature, so keep practicing and challenging yourself with different compositions, angles, and proportional rules!

Teacher Resources

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centered around proportions and the principles of design, visit these quick and easy resources!

Human Proportions Video Art Lesson - Free Figure Drawing Tester Course

10 Principles of Design Visual Handout

If you’d like more worksheets related to the elements and principles of art, check out our teachers pay teachers page, where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this one can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we’ve covered all of the elements of art.

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