Building your own Canon of Proportion
It’s very common to draw a figure, and know that something looks… wrong, but not be able to tell *what*. Having a juicy set of “ideal” proportions can help you course-correct when your instincts lead you astray. Beginners can use ready-made sets of rules, but as you become more attuned to exactly how you want your figures to look, it can be helpful to generate your own.
Step 1: Learn a few existing canons of proportion. Try using them to measure real people, to measure art you like, and to measure your own art. See what happens if you take one of your own drawings, and adjust it to match the system you’re studying. See what rules make sense, and are easy to use, and which rules are confusing, or hard to see.
Proko has a couple great videos on different systems of proportion; here’s one system I think is particularly effective (but lots and lots of people use Loomis’ system and other skull-to-chin systems to great effect):
Step 2: Gather a number of references of figures whose proportions you like. If you want realism, you should use photos. If you want to make superhero comics, find panels that especially speak to you, instead. Ditto anime, Egyptian sculpture, whatever. If you’d like to draw people who are fat, or exceptionally tall, or very muscular, be sure to add them to the mix. We’re trying to capture your artistic ideals, not anyone else’s. You’re looking for two kids of figures: first, neutral figures, standing up straight, facing forward or directly to the side, with arms out of the way. These figures make it easy to see the proportions. Second, you’re looking for dynamic poses. These figures will help you test if your canon is useful.
Step 3: Start looking for shapes and distances that are easy to identify. Classic examples are the distance from top of the head to the chin, from the base of the hand to the elbow, the width of the hips. However, it can be extremely helpful to take a page from Robert Beverly Hale’s book, and use volumes instead of lines when you measure. Use the cube that contains various parts of the body – like Hale uses the cranial mass. You could also use a clenched fist, or the volume of the hips.
Step 4: Start looking for relationships. Move your chosen measures around each of your neutral reference figures, looking for structural points in the figure that are simple, whole-number ratios of your measurement. When you think you’ve found a good match (“the width of the rib cage is the length of the forearm”), start testing it out on the dynamic poses. Still seems reasonable? Great! Be sure to make note of when the measurement is a little too big, or a little too small, and see what effect that has on the way the figure looks.
A canon is just a big collection of these rules. So make it as simple or as complex as you feel comfortable with! Feel free to get creative with your comparisons, too. IIRC, Polyklietos mentions that if you draw a square with each side being the length of the hand, the diagonal of that square is the length of the forearm (from pit of elbow to base of palm). Any relationship that’s easy to see and to measure is fair game – find what works for you. Mine existing canons for good rules, but test them. Don’t blindly believe anything – there are plenty that won’t quite suit your tastes. Pay specific. attention to areas you struggle with the most! I tend to draw people’s hands much too small – so I keep a number of rules around that I can use to verify when I’ve done it right.
Step 5: Draw it out. This is the fun part, because you get to play at being Da Vinci. Draw a good, clean, neutral figure, and note out all the relationships you discovered. If you can, find geometric, visual ways to show the relationship off (like the stacked squares in the video above, or like the Vitruvian Man’s circle-in-a-square). That will make it easier to remember.
It will probably take you several tries to draw out a figure that *you* think looks right *and* that has measurements that are easy to remember – so don’t fall too much in love with your first attempt. In the worst case, you’ll spend a few hours studying the figure, improving your instincts. In the best case, artists of the future will busy themselves trying to learn the secrets of YOUR system of proportion.
If you do this exercise, post your results! Knowledge shared is knowledge multiplied!