This month's art tip is geared towards helping you focus on the fundamentals. In this case, drawing—and more specifically, proportions.
Many artists struggle with drawing and it can be difficult to find help in getting the tools they need to improve their drawing skills. I'm often blown away by the number of artists that are unaware of measuring. Measuring is part of learning to see as an artist. An artist must see in very literal terms and not let the brain’s learned biases get in the way. A great example is if you asked an adult how tall a man is that is standing off in the distance, they would most likely take a guess at his height; “Oh, he’s about 6’2” I would guess.” As an artist, you can’t think that way! Think like a very young child. If you ask a very young child how tall that same man is, they might give you his height by sticking out their hand and placing him between their first finger and thumb and exclaim; “He’s this tall!” That’s how an artist needs to think and see—as literal as one can, and measuring is an integral part of learning to see this way.
Measuring is a key component in getting proportions correct in your drawing. I'm sure you've seen the cliché of an artist holding their thumb, pencil, brush, or whatever, out in front of their subject. I can tell you they aren't checking wind direction — they're measuring. Measuring works like this (I'll use figure drawing as my example)... Let's say you're painting from a live model. On your substrate you first establish a baseline to work from. The head is the most common use of measurement in figure drawing and makes a good baseline to from which to work. I first draw a very loose shape on my substrate that represents the head of my model.
Then, using whatever tool I'm drawing with as a measuring stick, I close one eye, stick out my tool, and using my thumb to mark off a unit of measurement, I measure the height of my model's head. Then, I step off how many of my model's heads it takes to equal the height of his or her entire body. I count the number (let's say she or he was 7 heads tall) and then I measure the shape I drew for a head on my substrate and mark off 7 heads. I now have a fairly accurate estimate of the height of my model — and I've been able to get that same height/head ratio down on my substrate.
This process of measuring works for everything you draw. If I was doing a portrait, I could use the model's eye or nose as the standard of measurement. I.e., my model's head is 4 and a half noses in height and 3 wide.
Measuring is great for judging foreshortening. For example, if your model is sitting with his or her legs coming out towards you, using their head to measure how long their legs should appear works excellent — something you may misjudge without measuring. You'd be surprised just how many heads it may take to equal the length of a pair of legs coming out at you. That's a strange phrase, but you get the point.
When I'm painting in plein air, I often use a stone or tree or something else prominent in the image, as my unit of measurement. For example, I might be painting a scene where I want the mountain to be the dominate subject — towering over everything else. I can use a tree as my unit of measurement to see just how tall the mountain should be in relation to my trees. Is the mountain in my image 4 trees tall or is it 3? In landscape painting you can get away with less proportional accuracy because you may want to exaggerate certain elements in a scene and it will still look right. In drawing and painting living beings, people or animals, you don’t have as much room to play if you want them to remain believable. This is why measuring, and getting the proportions correct through measuring, is so important.
I hope you found this tip useful. And as always, have fun drawing and painting!