Proportion in art

Proportion in Art

Proportion is an important principle of art and design; it is defined as the ratio of the dimensions of one element to another within a composition, or the relative size of the parts of a whole.

Proportion in art can be used to create balance and harmony in a composition. From the earliest works of art to today’s digital media, proportion has been an essential part of the creation of aesthetically pleasing designs.

In this guide, learn what proportion is, how it can affect a composition and how to create accurate proportions in a design.

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What is Proportion in Art?

In summary, proportion is the comparison of the relative size of the parts of a whole. The parts could be elements like the eyes or nose and the whole could be a face. Alternatively, the parts could be the subjects or objects within a painting and the whole could be the entire composition of the artwork. Specifically though, proportion is used to determine the ratio between these parts. Proportion lets artists compare the different elements of a subject or object relative to each other and to the ‘whole’ that is being measured.

Leonardo da Vinci: Study on the proportions of head and eyes

Proportion in art can refer to the proportions of the parts of the individual subjects and objects within the composition. For example, the relative size of the eyes, compared to the rest of the face. Where the eye is the ‘part’ and the face is the ‘whole’. The actual size of the whole doesn’t have to be known in order to create accurate proportions, only the ratios of the parts compared to the whole need to be known. For instance, a single eye is about 1/5 of the width of a face and sits around the halfway point up from the chin. You could say that the ratio of the width of the eye to the face is 1:5.

Compositional proportion

George Inness: Sunset

Compositional proportion refers to the relative size of elements within a composition of an artwork. In other words, the composition of the artwork is considered a whole and the elements that fit into the composition can be considered the parts. For example, the sky in this painting by George Inness takes up half of the canvas, so the ratio of the sky to land is 1:1. We don’t need to know the actual measurements of the sky or sea to compare them, only their size compared to each other.

Examples of proportion in art

Michelangelo: David

When we look at the example of Michelangelo’s David, the proportions of the sculpture appear harmonious and balanced due to the accuracy. The size of the head compared to the body resembles a true human figure. However, this provides contrast with the scale of the statue. The statue stands at a 5.17 metres. Relative to the size of the average person, it’s almost three times as large. So the scale of David is large and the proportions are standard.

Using proportion to plan a composition

When planning a composition, the artist must first decide whether what they are drawing or painting is realistic or stylised. Proportions of art that are unrealistic can still remain consistent within the realms of that particular artwork.

Aside from designing a composition to be in proportion, in order to achieve realism and accuracy, artists can carefully plan where they place elements in order to create aesthetically pleasing arrangements. Artists can capture a sense of scale by using proportions in a composition.

Golden Proportion

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first to use a mathematical formula or ratio to achieve proportion in his artworks. This became known as the Golden Proportion. The golden proportion is an irrational number, which when used in art creates a perfect balance and harmony between the elements. It’s identified by the Greek letter Phi Φ.

Renaissance Art
Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa

The golden ratio has been used extensively in art and design throughout history. From Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it is still commonly used in art today.

Proportion in Figures

Leonardo da Vinci: The proportions of the human figure (The Vitruvian Man)

Figures are common subjects in art. Artists must consider both their individual proportions and how they fit within a composition.

There are various systems of measurement that portrait artists abide by when drawing figures accurately. For example, the length of the arm span should be roughly the same as the person’s height. Also, eyes should be placed at roughly half of the way between the chin and the top of the head.

Albrecht Durer: Studies on the Proportions of the Female Body

The proportions of a figure can be altered in order to create a desired effect, such as making a caricature. However, it is important to remember that altering proportions too much can begin to look unrealistic and distorted.

Types of Proportion

There are several different types of proportion that can be used in art and design, each with its own purpose.

John Singer Sargent: Madame X

Standard proportion is when all elements are equal in size or scale. This type of proportion is used in many different art styles, including realism and has been used throughout history. John Singer Sargent’s Madame X displays standard proportion.

Detail from Palette of Narmer 3150-3125 BCE. | CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Hierarchical proportion is when proportion is use to depict a hierarchy within an image. The proportions of different elements can have connotations to social status and depict social classes through art. This type of proportion was heavily used in Ancient Egyptian art and in Medieval times to show the importance of different figures and relationships between figures within an image.

Francis Picabia: Carnaval

Exaggerated proportion is when elements are larger or smaller than normal for a specific effect. This is often used in cartoon or comic book art, to emphasise certain features or characteristics of a character. This surreal painting by Picabia has large eyes and angular shaped heads, which appears exaggerated and out of proportion.

Altered proportion is when the size of certain elements is changed to create irregular scales and measurements, so that the figures and objects do not have a realistic proportional relationship to one another. Rene Magritte used proportion in his work to create contrast, emphasis and to explore the surreal.

Proportion and Realism

Classical Realism Art Movement
D. Jeffrey Mims: Jessica

The use of proportion helps to create a sense of realism in art. Even though art may not necessarily mimic real life, it often strives to do so, and the use of proportion is key in achieving this goal. It helps to create a sense of realism by providing elements with placement, and relative size that make them look more believable.

To achieve an accurate representation of a figure or scene, the proportions must be drawn with realistic ratios. For example, the relative measurements of a head compared to a body, should appear the same in life as it does on the canvas. This means drawing the figure with the same ratios as seen in life, for example, the ratio of an average adult’s head to their body is around 1:8.

In addition to creating a sense of realism in art, proportion also helps to create a sense of scale. By using proportional measurements within an artwork’s composition, artists can help viewers understand the relative size of objects and figures within the composition.

Measuring proportion in art

There are a number of techniques that artists can apply to ensure that they achieve proper proportions. One example is sighting. This is where artists measure the size of elements using a measurement tool, like a pencil. To sight and measure a reference, sit in one fixed spot and extend your arm with your pencil and measure it against your view of your reference. Then mark on your pencil the placement of the main features of the reference. Transfer these measurements to the drawing. This is a great way to compare the sizes and shape of different elements within a drawing accurately.

Another technique for measuring proportion is the use of grids. Grids are used by artists to provide an organised structure to their work and help them achieve accuracy when drawing. To create a grid, draw a grid over your reference photo or drawing. Then draw a grid with the same proportions on your new canvas. This method allows you to scale up the reference image onto a new canvas. Use the grid lines as reference points to place details in the correct position and make them accurate in size.

Principles of Design: Proportion

Proportion is one of the principles of design. The other principles of art and design are balance, emphasis, harmony, scale, contrast, movement, rhythm, pattern and unity. Many of the design principles are intertwined and the use of one principle in a particular way will affect the others. For instance, proportion relates to how well a design works as a whole by providing visual balance and harmony between different elements. Artists can also create contrast or emphasis in a design by altering the proportions of a figure, or drawing one subject out of proportion compared to the rest of the image

Proportion and Scale

Scale and proportion in art

Scale is the size of an object, in relation to another object. This is typically the subjects within an artwork compared to the real size of that object in life. Or the size of an artwork in comparison to the viewer. A large scale artwork will be big in size, whilst a small scale artwork will be small and detailed.

The main difference between scale and proportion, is that scale is the comparison of two whole separate objects when the size of the objects is known. Whereas you don’t need to know the size of the objects or parts of the objects to measure the proportions, only the relationship between the two.

Edgar Payne: Arizona Mesa

Artists create the illusion of size and scale within a composition. The figures in this painting by Edgar Payne occupy a smaller proportion of the canvas compared to the mountain. This gives the viewer a sense of the size and scale of the mountain. If the artwork was ‘to scale’, all the parts would be exactly the right size in relation to one another. These parts would accurately reflect the known measurements of the mountain and figures in life.

To achieve realistic depth and scale in cityscapes, artists will use linear perspective. This involves drawing a horizon line, a vanishing point and having all buildings and objects in the image converge to that point. This creates the illusion of buildings receding into the distance.

Proportion and balance

Proportion can be used to help create a sense of balance. A balanced artwork is when elements are evenly distributed across the composition, so that it feels visually weighted in all directions. This helps ensure that all parts of the image are given equal attention and no one element dominates the other elements.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper

An example of this is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ painting, where the figures are evenly spaced out across the composition in a symmetrical formation. This creates an aesthetically pleasing balance and makes it easier to focus on each individual figure within the painting. Da Vinci also used the linear perspective technique to create a sense of depth and scale.

Why is proportion important in art?

Depending on the proportions of a subject or object compared to the composition as a whole, it will tell the viewer important information about its placement within the image. This includes the distance from the viewer, its height and width. Viewers can also determine whether the subject has been painted in a realistic style from the proportions in the image. Artists use the elements of art, which are the building blocks of a design to create the sensation of proportion. With a combination of line, colour, texture, value, shape, form and space, artists can simulation proportion, scale, balance and perspective to create realism in their work.


The use of proportion in art and design is an essential element for creating eye-catching compositions. It helps to create balance, unity and harmony, while also providing a sense of realism and depth. Proportion can be used to vary the size and scale of elements within a composition. This allows the artist to focus attention on certain elements or create movement. Understanding how to use proportion effectively is integral for creating beautiful artworks that draw the viewer’s eye.