Distance and Proportions -- Measuring Like An Artist Drawing Lesson.

If art were like most subjects, a drawing lesson might consist of us measuring distances and the proportions of the things we are painting with a tape measure or a yard stick. In most cases, using these devices is very impractical for the kinds of subjects an artist wants to paint.

So, what are we to do?

Before I answer that let me take a step back. Let me first establish what I mean when I say, "measuring…..the proportions of the things we are painting... "

Measuring proportions means two things:

First, in any drawing lesson measuring proportions means finding the distance relationships between one part of an object and other parts of the same object. For instance, if I wanted to do an accurate depiction of a race horse, I’d want to make sure the horse in my painting was the right height in relation to the length of its body.

If I didn’t pay attention to getting its proportions correct, I could end up painting a horse that looked more like a giraffe.

Second, measuring proportions can also mean finding the distance relationships between one object (or part of it) and a different object.

For instance, suppose I am outside doing a painting of Uncle Burt’s barn. Suppose also that in the dandelion-studded grass between me and the barn stands a musk ox.

It is a slightly surreal musk ox, because Uncle Burt has tie-dyed its coat various shades of lavender and blue.

I won’t speculate as to why Uncle Burt has done this; I will just say that I might want to include this unique musk ox in my painting.

Ideally, I would be able to correctly see the proportions and shape of the musk ox and accurately draw them. Also ideally, I would be able to correctly see the proportions of the musk ox compared to the barn and draw both the appropriate size.

By appropriate size I mean I don’t want to mistakenly draw the musk ox too big so that it looks like a hairy elephant standing near the barn. Nor do I want to mistakenly draw it too small, so it looks like a dog with horns.

Especially in the beginning years of painting, before you have trained your eyes to see proportions and distances well, you need a method of quickly checking your proportions to make sure they are correct. Even artists with years of experience have times when they need to check what they have drawn, because the drawing doesn’t look quite right.

This drawing lesson is how you do it.

A Visual Method of Measuring

I mentioned earlier that using a tape measure or yard stick to measure the proportions of the actual object is usually impractical. It is doubly so in this case, because this musk ox is very, very disgruntled by its recent color change.

So, if I want to measure the proportions of the musk ox or anything else, I use a visual method to get the approximate proportions.

In this drawing lesson, I take my pencil or my paint brush (or something similar) and hold it at arms length.

It must be held at arm’s length, because if your arm is bent (and I’ve seen people do this), you can measure something five times and get five different measurements. It is difficult to get the exact same bend in your arm every time, so keep your arm straight.

So, to get the approximate size relationship between the musk ox and Uncle Burt’s barn, I might start by measuring the musk ox’s height from the bottom of its hoof to the top of its shoulder.

Holding my pencil and keeping my arm straight and my head still, I close one eye and visually position the top of my pencil in line with the top of the musk ox’s shoulder and then slide my hand down to position the top of my thumbnail in line with the bottom of its hoof.

I can then use this distance to measure how far above the musk ox’s shoulder the top of the barn is.

Keeping my fingers and thumb where they are on the pencil, I raise my arm vertically until the top of my pencil is visually in line with top of the barn.

At this point I can see the top of my thumbnail is still above the musk ox’s shoulder. So, I visually estimate the spot on the barn where the top my thumbnail is positioned and move my arm down so the top of the pencil stops where the top of my thumbnail had been.

In this example, let’s say the top of the barn is about 1½ "musk ox heights" above its shoulder.

I can then turn my wrist so the pencil is horizontal and use the "musk ox height" measurement to determine how wide the barn is. Let’s say I find it is about three "musk ox heights" wide.

I can also use this height measurement to determine the approximate proportions of the musk ox itself.

Whatever size painting I am doing, I make sure the musk ox and the barn correspond to the approximate proportions I just measured.

Working From a Photograph

If I am working from a photograph, I can again use my pencil or I can use a pencil and piece of paper to measure.

For this example, I will use my pencil. I lay the pencil on the photograph and align the end of the pencil at one end of the distance I want to measure. I then grasp the pencil so the end my thumbnail or the end of my forefinger marks the other end of the distance I am measuring.

I can use this distance, as I did the musk ox height, to compare with anything else in the photograph.

If using a pencil to measure on a photograph doesn’t seem practical, I can use the edge of a piece of paper instead.

I just draw marks on the paper’s edge to indicate the distance I am measuring. I can then move the paper anywhere else in the photograph to compare this distance with whatever I else I want to measure.

While the explanation in this art lesson may seem long, using these procedures can be done in just a few seconds and they are very helpful in teaching you to see proportions.

These methods of measuring are also very useful to check the proportions in your drawing or painting when something seems a little off and you can’t quite see what’s wrong.

Training yourself to use them gets you one step closer to being an artist.

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