Proportions of the Human Figure

Relative Proportions of the Body

figure drawing
Irina Ivanova/Flickr

A common problem in figure drawing is getting everything in proportion. While there are lots of subtle differences between individuals, human proportions fit within a fairly standard range, though artists have historically looked for idealized standards against which the rest of us don't always measure up! In figure drawing, the basic unit of measurement is the 'head', which is the distance from the top of the head to the chin.

This handy unit of measurement is reasonably standard and has long been used by artists to establish the proportions of the human figure.

The Proportions Typically Used in Figure Drawing

  • An average person is generally 7-and-a-half heads tall (including the head).
  • An ideal figure, used when aiming for an impression of nobility or grace, is drawn at 8 heads tall.
  • heroic figure, used in the heroic for the depiction of gods and superheroes, is eight-and-a-half heads tall (beware of creating a 'pinhead!') Most of the additional length comes from a bigger chest and longer legs.

For most figures, the standard proportions are a safe bet, and lightly placing your seven horizontals at the very outset can be a helpful way to ensure your figure will fit on the page. Then more careful measurements can be taken according to your individual subject. Remember that these proportions are for a basic standing figure, and changes in pose will affect the height.

How to Measure Proportions of the Figure

Have you ever wondered what artists are actually doing when they peer at something over an outstretched pencil-top? Now you know: they are measuring up the model (or object). Ok, so a pencil-top is a pretty rough measure, but it is an immense help in getting down the proportions of your subject.

Using this method, it is important to stand in the same place, and to keep your head as still as possible when measuring, and to extend the arm fully with elbow straight, each time a measurement is made. You should not be too close to the model.

Remember that the basic unit in figure drawing is the model's head, from top to chin. Holding your pencil in a fist with the thumb upwards, and arm stretched out fully, close your non-master eye and align the top of your pencil with the top of the model's head, and slide your thumb down the pencil until it aligns with the model's chin. There you have your basic unit of measurement on the pencil. Repeat this step whenever necessary.

Now, to find how many heads tall your model is, drop your hand slightly so that the top of the pencil is at the chin. Observe carefully the point on the figure that aligns with your thumb - this should be roughly below the breastbone. (2 heads - you count the head itself). Drop the top of the pencil to that point, and so on, down to the feet.

To place these measurements on the paper, simply make seven equally spaced horizontal lines down the paper. The actual distance doesn't matter, so long as they are even. You are scaling the observed information to fit the page.

Your top division will be the head. As you begin to draw the rest of the figure, check the placement of key points against your head measurements. The armpit begins just above the second head line, the hips at the third, for example. Naturally, this will vary depending on the body shape and pose of the model. The head unit can also be used to check the size and relative placement of other parts of the body, as demonstrated by the red lines in the diagram above. Use the 'scale' you have established with the height to judge the correct distance on the paper. In this example, the wrist is one head-unit away from the body.

How to Measuring Angles in the Figure

Estimating angles against convenient verticals is a useful way of checking that the direction of lines within the pose are accurate. Sometimes existing features - a doorway behind the model, and the edge of the paper - provide this reference.

An alternative method, handy for smaller detail within the page, is using two pencils as a sort of protractor. This is an excellent way of minimizing error and ensuring a correctly proportioned figure.

Hold them both in the one hand as shown in the example, arm outstretched, such that one pencil is vertical. Use a door frame or corner to check if need be. Viewing the model behind the pencils, move the second pencil so it is aligned with whatever body part needs to be located. Then, being careful not to move the pencils in relation to each other, line them up against your drawing, extending an imaginary line from the angled pencil to draw the required line. This method is particularly useful for correct alignment of the limbs. Of course, you can also use it to check the size of non-vertical angles - such as a bent leg.

If you find this method useful, a handy measuring tool can be constructed by using a split pin to hinge two strips of the strong card together.