Proportion archive

Thursday 28 August 2008

A good sense of proportion is essential, explains OH Boyd

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In many ways, the human figure is probably the most difficult project we carvers will attempt. So often I have seen a beautifully carved piece of work that has taken hours to achieve, ruined by the proportions being wrong as a result of a basic lack of observation or understanding.

The reason for this is because we are very familiar with the human figure; we know for instance when it is damaged or something is threatening in its stance, or it has amorous intent, is sad or friendly etc.

We are skilled body readers and because of this, we do tend to take our knowledge for granted because of that continuing and ongoing familiarity that is being used to assess people's attitude to us, rather than for general aesthetic effect.

Body language

The kind of analysis we have to apply as carvers is far different to the standards we apply as admirers of beauty and readers of body language. As artists, we have to learn to re-examine and evaluate the human figure, and look dispassionately at it as a simple object to be drawn like any other.

Students often say, "I can draw landscapes and still life, but am no use at figure work". This is because of that lack of understanding of what we actually see as opposed to what we perceive about ourselves, but once we learn to do this, our work will benefit greatly.

Sometimes the fact it is a figure can be inhibiting, as some people cannot see beyond the sexual aspects of nudity to the beauty and grace contained within it. I always have difficulty when this approach is viewed by students; I point out that a clothed figure can often be ten times sexier than an undraped one.

As a portrait artist in the two-dimensional world of chalk and charcoal, as well as the three-dimensional world of wood, there are simple rules of proportion that I try to convey to my students to help with this. As stated, get that right first and the rest will follow.

The stick figure

To help with our understanding of proportions, I will use the stick figure as an example. It is capable of being used to examine the effects of movement and action in an extraordinarily simple and proportionate way.

This principle is capable of being developed further by 'padding out' to bring it to a more realistic and recognisable form.

Exaggerating proportions

As an artist who works in all dimensions, I sometimes play with these proportions to gain a particular effect. Last year I drew a series of elfin figures as an exercise in line and form in ink. Some of these designs worked well for greetings cards, and others were fantastical and are yet to be applied.

When I carved the 'Sunflower Elf' in collaboration with Joey Richardson (Woodcarving September/October, issue 92, page 40), it occurred to me that there was probably a three-dimensional aspect to the drawings that could work if the proprtions were exaggerated, so I carved another elf using these principles. The result is the 'Chanel Elf' (see photo above ).

On this figure, I have grossly exaggerated the size of the limbs to gain what to me is a beautiful, elegant line that gives movement and flow to the figure. In life she would of course, be an odd shaped girl, but if we think that high-heeled shoes are meant to give the same impression, then maybe it is not quite so odd.


This deliberate playing with the proportions of the human figure has always been used by artists - particularly caricaturists - to gain particular effect and emphasis to say something extra. This is body language directed by the artist - a form of choreography. It is done in a seemingly simple way; for example, a thickening of the figure conveys strength or power, whereas narrowing suggests frailty or innocence, a drooping figure seems to be sad, a skipping one happy, etc.

These principles of exaggeration can easily be seen in the comic genre such as Superman. The man of steel was an important figure to me because as a boy, I copied drawings of him, thus learning the pen and ink techniques that have carried throughout my life as an artist. I have transferred these principles to all the mediums I use today. The beauty and joy of a flowing, undulating line that has life and vibrancy, thrills me still.


If any student still has problems with proportion, I am more than happy to expand these principles, but I hope this will be of help as a simple guide as far as the human figure is concerned.

As with any subject, we can take it as far as we wish to go, but this article is meant to help carvers solve a fundamental error in what appears to be a problem area for many of us.

The human face has proportionate principles also, and I will be happy to expand them as applied to carvers too. It is the understanding and manipulation of these proportions that bring us to a likeness of an individual, so they too are of great importance to us.

Woodworkers Institute

Tagged In:

OH Boyd , anatomy , Proportion , Figure

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"As an artist who works in all dimensions, I sometimes play with these proportions to gain a particular effect"