Dec 5, 2016

The 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions

One of the most valuable lessons I learned at art school was the 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions. With just 4 actions, you can draw absolutely anything under the sun… with the correct proportions! Yes, I'm being serious.

Before I get into the lesson, I want to thank those who answered my question "What is your biggest struggle with figure painting?" Your reply was a huge help to me as I'm writing this series of art lessons on painting the figure. I can't reply to every email, but be assured that I read your answer at least twice and am carefully considering it as a topic for a lesson on figure painting. And if you haven't answered that question yet, please feel free to do so by sending your answer to

OK, now for those 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions that will enable you to correctly draw absolutely anything (yes, even the human figure)…

  1. Compare distances
  2. Copy angles
  3. Check alignments
  4. Consider negative shapes

Now I'll demonstrate each one…

Note: In the following illustrations, I measure
the proportions of a painting. However, in real life,
I would measure the proportions of my subject first,
and then measure my painting to ensure the proportions
of my painting matched the proportions of my subject.

1. Compare Distances

A. Hold out your brush handle (or pencil, etc.) against your subject. Close 1 eye so you don't see double.

Choose any 2 points on your subject. Mark off the distance between these two points using the tip of your brush handle and the tip of your thumb. In example "A," I've marked off the distance between the top of the girl's hair and the bottom of her chin.

B. Now, see if this distance compares to any other distance in your subject. In example "B," I've discovered that the distance between the top of the girl's head and the bottom of her chin equals the distance between the bottom of her chin and the bottom of the bowl.

Why this is awesome
Now that I've found where the bottom of the bowl goes,
I will be much less likely to make her arms too long or
too short as I draw them between the head and the bowl.
Continuously comparing distances like this will
help you achieve correct proportions, no matter
your subject's shape or size.

2. Copy Angles

Compare a horizontal or vertical brush handle to an angle in your subject to determine how much the angle is tilted. In this example, a horizontal brush handle makes it much easier to tell how much the girl's eyes are tilted.

3. Check Alignments

Use your brush handle like a plumb line to find 2 points that align to each other. In this example, I've discovered that the corner of the girl's mouth (A) is directly below the edge of her eye socket (B). Finding this unexpected alignment greatly helped me to draw the tilt of her head correctly!

4. Consider Negative Shapes

Let's say I've been drawing and re-drawing the arm, and it still doesn't look right. But then, I shift my focus and look at the negative shape–that triangular shape of air between the crook of her arm and her side. I focus on drawing that shape correctly, and suddenly—viola! Her arm looks accurate too. Often, correctly drawing a negative shape will automatically improve a positive shape.

Now, I know I said there are just 4 Actions for Accurate  Proportions, but there's kind of 1 more–the gesture line. I'll talk about that next time in "Creating Figures That Look Dynamic, Not Stiff."

Did you find this lesson valuable? You can have lessons like this one delivered directly to your inbox when you sign up for our Email Newsletter below (Be sure to check "Free art lessons").

Until next time,

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  1. Thanks. That helps me. Also, should the drawing surface be a size that is in proportion to what you're actually seeing?

  2. Great stuff and good reminders even if you've been painting forever!

  3. It's great Adam. Thanks a ton for sharing.