Understanding Proportion in Art

Proportion, Scale, and Balance Affect Perception

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo. Scan © Mark Harden, used by permission

​Proportion and scale are principles of art that describe the size, location, or amount of one element in relation to another. They have a great deal to do with the overall harmony of an individual piece and our perception of the art.

As a fundamental element in artistic work, proportion and scale are quite complex. There are also many different ways that they're used by artists.

Proportion and Scale in Art

Scale is used in art to describe the size of one object in relation to another, each object is often referred to as a whole.

 Proportion has a very similar definition but tends to refer to the relative size of parts within a whole. In this case, the whole can be a single object like a person's face or the entire artwork as in a landscape.

For example, if you're painting a portrait of a dog and a person, the dog should be at the correct scale in relation to the person. The person's body (and the dog's as well) should be in a proportion to what we can recognize as a human being.

Essentially, scale and proportion help the viewer make sense of the artwork. If something seems off, then it can be disturbing because it's unfamiliar. Yet, artists can use this to their advantage as well.

Some artists purposely distort proportions to give the work a certain feel or to relay a message. The photomontage work of Hannah Höch is a great example. Much of her work is a commentary on issues and she blatantly plays with scale and proportion to emphasize her point.

That said, there is a fine line between poor execution in proportion and the purposeful distortion of proportion.

Proportion, Scale, and Balance

Proportion and scale help give a piece of art balance. We instinctively have a sense of balance (that's how we can stand up straight) and that relates to our visual experience as well.

Balance can be symmetrical (formal balance) or asymmetrical (informal balance) and proportion and scale are key to our perception of balance.

Symmetrical balance arranges objects or elements so they are evenly weighted, such as your nose in the center of your eyes. Asymmetrical balance means that objects are placed to one side or another. In a portrait, for instance, you might draw a person slightly off-center and have them look toward the middle. This weights the drawing to the side and offers visual interest.

Proportion and Beauty

Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" (ca. 1490) is a perfect example of proportion in the human body. This is that familiar drawing of the naked man within a rectangle that is within a circle. His arms are outstretched and his legs are shown both together and spread out.

Da Vinci used this figure as a study of proportions of the body. His precise representation examined what people thought was the perfect male body at the time. We see this perfection in Michelangelo's "David" statue as well. In this case, the artist used classic Greek mathematics to sculpt a perfectly proportioned body.

The perception of beautiful proportions has changed over the ages. In the Renaissance, human figures tend to be plump and healthy (not obese by any means), particularly the women because it implied fertility.

Over time, the shape of the "perfect" human body changed to the point where we are today when fashion models are very lean. In earlier times, this would have been a sign of sickness.

The proportion of the face is another concern for artists. People are naturally attracted to symmetry in facial features, so artists tend toward perfectly spaced eyes in relation to the nose and a properly sized mouth. Even if those features aren't symmetrical in reality, an artist can correct that to a certain extent while maintaining a likeness of the person.

Artists learn this from the very beginning with tutorials in a properly proportioned face. Concepts like the Golden Ratio also guide our perception of beauty and in how the proportion, scale, and balance of elements make a subject or the entire piece more attractive.

And yet, perfect proportions are not the only source of beauty. As Francis Bacon put it, "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."

Scale and Perspective

Scale affects our perception of perspective as well. A painting feels three-dimensional if objects are correctly scaled against one another in relation to the viewpoint.

In a landscape, for example, the scale between a mountain in the distance and a tree in the foreground should reflect the perspective of the viewer. The tree is not, in reality, as big as the mountain, but because it's closer to the viewer, it appears much larger. If the tree and mountain were their realistic sizes, the painting would lack depth, which is one thing that makes great landscapes.

The Scale of Art Itself

There is also something to be said about the scale (or size) of an entire piece of art. When speaking of scale in this sense, we naturally use our body as the reference point.

An object that can fit in our hands but includes delicate, intricate carvings can have as much of an impact as a painting that's 8-foot tall. Our perception is shaped by how large or small something is compared to ourselves.

For this reason, we tend to marvel more at works that are at the extreme of either range. It's also why many pieces of art fall within a certain range of 1 to 4 feet. These sizes are comfortable for us, they neither overwhelm our space nor get lost in it.