sweeney32 (sweeney32) wrote,

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The proportion of man

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This has been coming on for a long time.

One of the things I try to reinforce in some of my tutorials is proportion. How to keep the proportion that nature intended. In graphics and video software, it seems like there is some confusion about how to do this, so some of my tutorials (hey, many of my tutorials) try to clear up the confusion. Because, like I said, it's what nature intended. It's what we see when we look at people on the street. We see it in our films, TV programs, and in photography. When the proportions of visual things are messed up, it can be distracting and disturbing. It can cloud the "message" of the artwork—the proportion flaws may become the focus, instead of the meaning of the work.

Artistic rules about proportion

The above image (Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man) shows some idealized proportions of the human body. It's used for educational purposes, for the benefit of artists who want to understand human proportion so their own artwork will look natural and believable to viewers.

But I suppose that if someone wanted to interpret it a different way, Da Vinci is saying that an artist who uses radically different proportions of man (or just making their own as they go along) is not doing it correctly, or rather, "not as seen in nature." And perhaps some tender-hearted souls would find that "offensive," because it says that there is a right and wrong way, and in some people's minds, that is "negative" and "critical."

Well, I'm sorry, but with some things (like proportions) there is a right and a wrong.

No, it's NOT just a matter of opinion.

This is an argument I've heard before (I mention it in some of my video tutorials). That the rules of proportion are only a "matter of opinion." No, the rules I talk about here are not opinion, they are about math. If a person is 5 feet 6 inches tall, this is not a "matter of opinion," this is a fact. If a photograph is tweaked so the person's proportions are no longer that of someone who is 5 feet 6 inches tall and with average build, but someone who is much taller and skinnier, or much shorter and fatter, this photograph is not just expressing a "matter of opinion" that can be neither deemed correct or incorrect—it is inaccurately representing the proportions of that 5 foot 6 inch person.

In Divine Proportion.

Anyone who has taken a figure drawing class already knows about this.


The picture on the far left is in "divine proportion."

You'll see the orange lines going down the figure. The first set of lines at the very top of the picture mark off the height of the head. Then each set of lines goes down the figure, at a "head's height." In this particular pose, the man (the divine Richard Armitage, of course) is "seven heads high." (Had he been standing perfectly upright instead of leaning, he'd probably be more like 7-1/2 heads or even 8 heads high, which is pretty standard for a tall man.)

The bright green lines (going across his shoulder, and through his waist, and the upper arm) are also each marking off a "head's height."

Artists use these measurements when drawing figures (or anything else) to retain the proportions present in nature. They measure off the "head's height" (for example) and then see, "How many 'heads high' is the upper arm? How many 'heads across' are the shoulders?" and so forth and so on.

The other two photos (middle and right) show that while the figure is still seven "heads high," that the bright green lines (measuring other parts of the body, like the width of his hips) are now no longer in the same spot. The shoulders in the middle photo are almost only "one head" in width, where with the "in proportion" photo, the shoulders are wider than that. And look at the width of the shoulders in the far right photo!

These are both examples of a human figure out of proportion. The difference should (hopefully) be obvious. But even if it isn't, a person can double check the proportions by measuring and comparing the "heads heights" on a questionable image to those on an image which is known to be in "divine proportion."

There. More than you really ever needed to know about proportion! LOL.

Artistic License.

Through the years artists have learned the rules of proportion, then broken them to suit their own purposes. The above painting by Henri Matisse is a perfect example. No, it's not entirely anatomically correct, it is tweaked and distorted, the colors are not actually true to nature either. But it's likely that Matisse had some familiarity with drawing, color theory, and proportion, as well as the various "rules" of these disciplines. And he broke them to suit his own vision. He tweaked what is seen in nature, but with an understanding of what he was doing.

Other artworks defy the rules of proportion even more radically, but generally, the artist was aware of this and also aware that the audience was seeing the distortions, and this for whatever reason was the intention of the artist. Audience reaction might have been positive, or negative (often a combination of both) and the artist was prepared for this as well.

When it's unintentional.

But the same thing isn't necessarily happening when proportion gets "tweaked" (read, messed up) with Photoshop graphics and videos. It's happening because the artist isn't familiar with the software or how to prepare the graphics or clips. The resulting proportional mistakes look like unintentional mistakes—because that's what they are. The artist doesn't know they're happening, or if they do, they don't know how to prevent them. And most artists (no, almost all ) would prefer to have full knowledge or control over how the proportions were represented, if they only knew how.

And with software, it's relatively simple. In Photoshop, it's holding down the shift key as you drag a corner of your graphic to resize. In video, it's a little more complicated, but basically, it's knowing if your source footage is widescreen, fullscreen, and then matching those settings as you edit and export your video. It's not like learning a whole new language, or brain surgery.

To have more freedom.

Da Vinci made his proportion illustration to demonstrate the "rules" of human proportion. Other artists (like Matisse) broke the rules, but with some awareness that the rules existed. It's almost always a good thing to be exposed to some of these fundamental "rules," even if we don't intend to use them in our work. Knowledge is power and gives us more choice. It allows us as artists to more freely get the results we want, instead of having "unintentional" results that we aren't even aware are happening, and which may in some cases be distracting to the audience.

Expressing yourself.

If an artist has no interest in what the audience views, or their reaction, then the artist should please only themselves. And so they can follow, or ignore, or remain in ignorance of any or all of the artistic "rules" that are floating out there. There are times when this is truly a good thing and the only thing that matters.

But when an artist creates work with the intention of sharing it with others and hopes to get positive feedback, then they need to be aware of what their audience sees, what they might find confusing, distracting, unpleasant . . . and then the artist must decide if this is the reaction they want.

It doesn't matter how new (or advanced) you are.

It doesn't matter if you have a degree in art, or you just started messing around with Photoshop yesterday. If you intend to show your work to others, you must prepare yourself for their reaction. Don't expect them to overlook a distorted image, just because you can't bestir yourself to hold down the shift key and drag a corner as you resize in Photoshop. Because it's so easy to remember this keyboard shortcut, anyone, at any skill level, should be able to grasp the concept immediately.

In the case of avoiding video distortion, it may require a bit of a learning curve and some possible trial-and-error for some, but most video aspect ratio issues are not too advanced for newbies to grasp, as long as they faithfully follow the appropriate tutorials.

That's it! It's really that simple.

Apparently some people struggle with this concept, and for that I am sorry. But I'm not sorry for sharing the tidbits of info about how to keep things in proportion. I don't believe it's a bad thing to write tutorials which help enable artists to have more control over their software and get the results they want. And I don't care if this seems "offensive" to some, because it implies that a photographic representation of a 5 foot 6 inch person of average build should look like a 5 foot 6 inch person of average build, unless the artist has some specific reason to change those proportions (and does it realizing that the audience will see that the proportions are changed).

If being made aware of rules and coping with viewer feedback seem unpleasant or unwelcome for some people, perhaps the time is not right for them to display their work in public, and that is fine. Not everyone is ready to put themselves "out there" right away.
Tags: aspect ratio, proportion, rant
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I'm glad you found it enlightening! Yes, that is the interesting thing about distortion in Photoshop, and part of the reason why it looks so "weird." You can especially notice it when a photo at a different angle (like 3/4 angle) because the perspective gets distorted as well.


October 12 2009, 18:33:05 UTC 9 years ago Edited:  October 12 2009, 18:34:09 UTC

A well thought out explanation. I do not think in anyway are you trying to curb peoples creativity. By all means if they want to make the people in their graphics look like Martians from outer space, then by all means do, rainbow coloured even, if they wish, but do not make them look like they have been stretched out by a steamroller. When it comes to proportions, especially in video editing and graphics programs, they are only going to look good in the correct aspect ratio,.

I have had to learn this, especially where it comes to videos, graphics I grasped a lot easier and from the start where proportion was concerned. I have seen so many examples of images 2 & 3 around the net, and they do not look good.
I know, I know, I see a lot of those graphics too, spikesbint (hence the tutorial! :D ). The thing that gets me is that it is so easy to avoid it, with the shift key and drag corner. Anyone can remember to do it once they're told how. So I don't know why more people don't know about it (or why they refuse to use the shift key + drag once they're told about it). It's so incredibly simple.