Proportion is Relative

Let’s start with my “child’s play” for today, a design created with different shapes and based on my understanding of PROPORTION as a necessary element in art.

I like viewing this in the upright position. Somehow, to me, it just feels right this way. That, in itself, relates to the idea of proportion because typically we don’t give any thought to the relative sizes of various object — unless something is clearly wrong or out-of-proportion.

For me, proportion is a somewhat challenging concept to use in pure design. Who’s to say that any one object is too big or too small? They’re only simple shapes on a white background, not real objects that have specific, standard, knowable sizes.

Essentially in art, proportion only comes into play when we compare one object — whose size we know — with another — whose size we also know. I’m notorious for drawing things out of proportion. As I learn better “sighting” and “measuring” techniques, I’m getting things closer to proper proportions. That’s good.

With “pure design”, however, the concept of proportion isn’t quite so simple because it is all relative. The best way to understand proportion as a design element, I think, is to view it not necessarily as a fundamental principle, but to see it instead as a tool. It’s another aspect of creating emphasis in a design, a way of saying “Look here!”

Graphic designers use proportion to suggest importance, drawing a viewer’s attention to specific items in an advertisement or promotional message. Again, it’s a tool more than an underlying element that must be present.

Proportion, of course, is vitally important in life-drawing or figure-drawing, and our human brains will immediately pick up anything that’s off-kilter. Artists spend considerable time learning the “correct” proportions of the human body, usually viewed as a number of “heads” — that being a good unit of measurement.

Even here, though, there’s room for question and even for disagreement. Standards have changed over the years, and various artists have used different proportional scales in their work.

Proportions of the human body also vary with age. The proportions of a toddler’s body are different from those of an older child, which are different from those of an adolescent, which are different from an adult, which are different from the body proportions of my elderly generation.

All of which is interesting to know, good to apply in figure drawing, but relatively meaningless in terms of pure design. Again, who’s to say that any of the circles in my illustration today are “too big” or “too small”? We really can’t judge because there is no standard to which we can compare these circles. There is no “right” or “wrong” size, so while some are definitely larger than others, every size is still acceptable.

It’s the same with my rectangles and triangles. Different sizes. Different orientations. Some are even overlapping. But we can’t judge proportions because these are only cut-out shapes. They don’t represent real objects, therefore they have no “accepted” sizes.

And what about my organic, somewhat tree-like shape? Is it out of proportion? Well, compared to what? The point here is that without a standard for comparison, we can’t determine proper proportions or create out-of-proportion designs.


For the most part, yes. There is one aspect of proportion, however, that is applicable to even simple designs and illustrations like the one I put together this morning. Again, it is relative. Everything about proportion is relative, you see. The aspect I’m speaking of is fitting — does the shape fit the space?

  • Too many shapes crowded together in a small space can feel out of proportion
  • Too few shapes in too large an area can also feel out of proportion

This aspect relates back to balance and also to harmony since it’s often suggested that we group similar shapes together. This was the approach I took this morning as I moved my cut-out shapes around. I grouped circles together, I grouped triangular shapes together, I put rectangles together, and then to set it all off, I added my weird organic shape.

I think my shapes “fit together” reasonably well, and in doing so, I think I’ve achieved balance and harmony, too. The organic shape is what I perceive as the focal point or point of emphasis in the design, and I think I made good choices regarding the colors and patterns of the individual pieces.

It was a difficult concept to understand and work with, but I think — once again — my child’s play has served me well and has given me a much greater appreciation for the principles of design.



  1. it is interesting that even though the proportions are given in photography, you can effectively change them with the use of different lenses, and arrive at interesting results. Wide angle lenses, for example, tend to distort the nearest object and make it larger. And that’s why few people actually look good in cellphone selfies.

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    1. Interesting, yes! I remember once trying to photograph tall buildings in Chicago with a Pentax 35 mm. So much distortion! And not being a real photographer — only a mere tourist — there was nothing I could do about it. I settled for taking pictures on the pigeons in the park. 🙂

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      1. Some people can… not me. LOL. My distorted photos just looked distorted. I’ll leave the photography to experts like you.


  2. oddly, a few years back i discovered several books i had bought on figure drawing over the years showed some interesting perspectives. They weren’t the average /basic figure drawing tomes. One was about fashion illustration, another about drawing cartoon villains and super heroes and another was about drawing fairies and other mythical creatures. Proportion in the cartoon drawings, for example, was directly related to how the character was perceived in that certain aspects of even the face were visually read as “good guy” or “bad guy”. In the fashion illustrations , the bodies were elongated to almost inhuman proportions so that the clothing could be shaped and wrapped etc around the figures more exquisitely. And in the fairy/mythical critter book it was discussed how the use of certain shapes ( triangles, stars, hexagons, etc) suggested certain aspects visually related to particular beings( example round suggests gnomes, triangle suggests pixies, fairies usually are associated with star shapes, and so on).

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    1. That’s so interesting! Yes, I’ve noticed how “fashion illustrations” always use elongated proportions. I always wanted to be a fashion designer (back in high school) but since I couldn’t draw, I never pursued the interest. How fun it must have been to read about the cartoon creatures and the mythological creatures! I don’t think I’ll ever do much with “fantasy”, but I do have fun drawing cartoon characters with our young grandsons. Do you remember the name of the book? I’d like to look it up.


      1. ok “fashion Illustration ( inspiration and technique) by Anna Kiper—“draw and paint the realm of the faerie” by ed Org—- and “how to draw those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics” by Frank Mclaughlin and Mike Gold

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      2. Thank you! These all sound very interesting. I’m going to check our library system and see if any are available. I’ll check Amazon, too, for used copies. These would be fun reading!

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