Scale in Art

Scale in Art: Definition and Guide

Scale is a principle of art that is defined as the size of an artwork. We often compare the scale of an artwork to the size of an average person. So a large scale artwork is one that is larger than life!

Scale plays an important role in the visual impact of artworks. This is because it can create a sense of awe and monumentality or evoke intimacy and familiarity.

In this article, we will explain what scale is, including the difference between proportion and scale. Also learn how to create a sense of scale in your compositions.

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What is scale in art?

Scale in art refers to the size or dimensions of an artwork compared to its surroundings. It also relates to how particular figures or objects can appear realistic or ‘to scale’ when compared with the figures or objects in life that they are representing. However, to know the scale of objects within an image and how their sizes relate to one another, you will need to know the true measurements of the object in real life settings to compare it.

Proportion vs scale

Proportion is the ratio of one part in relation to another part, relative to a whole. While scale is an exact measurement of an object, relative to another object.

Michelangelo: David

To give an example of scale, Michelangelo’s David is 17ft in size. So the statue is exactly three times the height of an average man. This means that the statue of David was scaled up to be three times the size of the reference figure. The scale of the sculpture is large, but it is in proportion, because the features accurately represent the proportions of human features.

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

An example of proportion in art is in this image of the measurements of a face by da Vinci. The face (whole) is, on average, five eyes (parts) wide. So the width of an eye compared to the width of a face has the ratio 1:5.

Scale and proportion in art

Both these principles in art include comparing the size of one object to another, however, scale requires the measurements to be known. Whereas proportion only requires the ratios of the relative sizes to be known.

By using proportion in an artwork, artists can create the impression of accurate scales, even if the original measurements of the objects in life are not known. For example an artist can infer that one building is roughly double the size compared to another. This gives the buildings a ratio of 2:1. By using these proportions in a drawing, the artist creates an appearance of accurate scale.

Large scale art

Large scale art is an artwork that has been created to a larger than life size. This type of artwork allows for greater detail and it can be used to make a powerful statement or to evoke strong emotions. Monumental sculptures, large canvases and interactive installations are all examples of large scale art.

Pointillism Art Movement
Georges Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

An example of large scale art is Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’. This is a pointillism artwork, Seurat applied thousands upon thousands of small dots of paint to create colour transitions in the artwork. The canvas stands at 7′ by 10′ tall, so you can see all the tiny dots of paint up close at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Monumental scale

Monumental scale sculpture

Monumental scale refers to artwork or sculptures that are so large they can be viewed as landmarks or instillations. This type of artwork is often created with the intention of making a statement with its size, to create a sense of immersion for the viewer.

Small scale art

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring | CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Small scale art, on the other hand, is artwork that has been created to a smaller size than life. This type of artwork can be used to create intimate and personal works as it allows for more subtle details and evokes feelings of familiarity or closeness. The viewer has to closely study the work to soak up the individual elements. Miniature sculptures, small canvases and pocket-sized installations are all examples of small scale art.

An example of a famous painting that is relatively small in scale is Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’. This painting is only about 17 inches high. This small painting creates a powerful and intimate atmosphere, making it an excellent example of how scale can be used to evoke emotion.

Types of scale in art

When it comes to scale, there are three main types that can be used in artwork: actual, relative and representative. Actual scale is when the artwork has been created to match the true size of its subject matter, for example a life-sized sculpture. Relative scale is when the artwork reflects the relative size of its subjects and representative scale is when an artist employs proportions to reflect accurate scales in their work, even if they are not working from measurements of the subject matter.

Drawing to scale

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Architectural decoration

One type of art that can only truly be drawn accurately when a scale is used is architectural drawings. Architects will use a set scale in order to accurately recreate the measurements of their designs and make sure that all of its elements fit together correctly.

How to create a sense of scale in a composition

To create the appearance of scale in a composition, you should use compositional proportion. For example, if you were painting a person next to a building, the building may be triple the height of the person. So you would draw the figure and the building with a ratio of 1:3. This helps create the sense of scale.

To improve accuracy in drawing proportions, consider using the grid method. The grid method is where the artist divides up the reference image into smaller areas, so that they can more easily measure, shrink or enlarge their composition accordingly. Then they will scale up the grid onto a canvas, and transfer details, using the grid lines as reference points.

Principles of design: scale

Scale can be used to create contrast, emphasis and balance within a composition. Use scale to create these effects by choosing a large canvas, for impact, or a small canvas to create a sense of subtlety.

The other principles of design are: rhythm, unity, balance, proportion, emphasis, contrast, repetition, harmony and movement. These principles all work together to create an aesthetically pleasing artwork.

Contrast and emphasis with scale

Proportion can be used to emphasise certain elements in a composition by making the scale appear larger than the surrounding elements. Scale can be used to create impact and focuses the viewer’s eye on certain elements in your artwork.


Scale can be used creatively in many different ways to evoke strong emotions, create contrast and emphasis, and to help draw attention to certain elements of a composition. Understanding the different types of scale, how to draw to scale, and how it relates to the principles of design will help you create more effective artwork.