Distance and Proportion – Measuring Like an Artist

You want to create successful art. You want to create exciting art that a viewer will be drawn to and admire.

Well, in order to create exciting art, what you draw or paint needs to accurately depict your subject. By that I mean everything in your art needs to be the right size, the right shape and be in the right place.

It takes a bit of practice to teach your eyes to see sizes and shapes and positions correctly.

And if art were like other subjects, you would find the right size, shape and position of things with a tape measure or a yard stick.

In most cases, these tools aren't that useful for the kinds of things that artists want to draw or paint.

So, artists have developed a different method for measuring distance and proportion using tools they have readily at hand.

A Visual Method of Measuring

These tools that most artists have are things like pencils and paintbrushes. Tools that can easily be used to visually measure distance and proportion.

As you can see in the photographs below this process is accomplished by holding the pencil or paintbrush (or something similar) in your hand and stretching your arm out straight.

The pencil or paintbrush 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.

You visually align the end of the pencil with one end of the distance you want to measure and slide your hand along the pencil until the tip of your thumb visually aligns with the other end of that same distance.

To give you a practical example of how this is done, let's say you wanted to draw or paint this scene in Ireland.

Now remember you aren't trying to find the exact size of the house; you are trying to find its proportions.

For instance, to find what proportion the front of the house is compared to its side, you would turn your hand so the pencil is horizontal. You might then choose to measure the width of the side of the house first.

(Since I'm right-handed this explanation will be from that perspective. If you are left-handed, you would probably reverse the steps I'm about to explain.)

You visually align the end of your pencil (keeping your arm straight) with one corner of the side wall and slide your hand along the pencil until the tip of your thumb visually aligns with the other corner of that wall.

Keeping your hand where it is on the pencil, you can now estimate the width of the front of the house. You do this by moving your hand horizontally so the end of the pencil visually aligns with the left edge of the house front, and you take notice of the spot where the tip of your thumb tip is on the house.

Keeping that spot in mind, you then move your hand horizontally until the end of your pencil now aligns with that spot where the tip of your thumb had been. In this position you can see that the right corner of the house front is almost midway between your thumb tip and the end of the pencil.

What this means is: the width of the house front is almost 1½ times the width of the house side. Those are the proportions you would use to draw the house in your art.

You might also make other measurements, like determining how high the roof is compared to the height of the front of the house.

Whatever measurements you choose to make, you transfer those proportions to your art.

For addtional tips and information about measuring and proportion, watch the video below.

  • Learn the easiest, most effective place on your subject to start measuring.
  • Learn how to measure proportions on a photograph without using a pencil.
  • Learn shortcuts discovered during 40+ years in art that make measuring faster and easier.
  • Learn how to make sure everything is in the right place without having to measure.
  • and much more...

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