Proportion in Art and Design - Understanding the Definition

January 4, 2017

How would you define proportion in art? First thing that comes to mind is Golden Ratio, Divine Section, or Golden Proportion - these are some of the terms used to describe one of the most famous examples of proportion in art. Considered the ideal one, Golden Ratio is defined through precise mathematical equation in which a line divided into two parts where the longer part (a) divided by the smaller part (b) is equal to the sum of (a) + (b) divided by (a), and both equal 1.618.[1] Although it is said that human brain is wired to prefer images and objects that use Golden Ratio, in art and design this often boils down to aesthetics. Harmony and proportion in art are important elements to create visually pleasing works, and were used in artistic practices since the Egyptian Pyramids. Proportion was also studied by ancient Greeks who looked in nature for examples of ideal beauty. They theorized that proportion found in nature should also be applied in architecture, music and art in order to achieve beautiful results. However, aesthetic ideal of beauty is not the only principle guiding proportion in art. Proportion is often manipulated in different ways regarding the message an artist is trying to convey. Being visually pleasing seems less important today when visual practitioners engage with a wide range of themes, often requiring distortions and manipulations of reality for the most effective results.

Proportion in art and design in relation to scale size in drawing
Otto Boll - Helix. Image via

So, What Is Proportion in Art Exactly?

When talking about our human endeavors in the domain of art practice, can we have one exact definition of proportion in art? Proportion in art can be defined as the relation based on size between parts or objects within a composition. It should not be confused with scale, which defines relation between different artworks and their sizes. Proportion is one of the principles of art and design that organizes and arranges their structural elements, together with balance, unity, rhythm, and emphasis.[2] The relationship between parts is the main issue in proportion, which is often discussed in terms of context and used standards. Human body is considered the universal standard measurement. Perhaps the ideal proportion of human body represented in art is Michelangelo’s David. In this sculpture, small proportional distortions applied in order to emphasize the youthfulness and power of the figure achieve the effect of an ideal human form. As Francis Bacon stated in his essay Of Beauty: "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."[3]

What is proportion in art in a small size drawing can be seen as a  visual relationship
Left: Michelangelo - David, 1501-1504. Image via / Right: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Image via

Proportion in Art in Relation to the Human Body

Discussing proportion in art where human body is defined as a universal measurement would not be complete without a brief look at how this measurement changed through history and how it affected our aesthetic judgments. Different historical periods had their notions of what is considered beautiful and how to achieve it through formal representation. Human figure, or more precisely the female one, went through significant changes when its proportion is considered. From overemphasized female attributes as in prehistoric figurines such as Venus of Willedorf, to more balanced examples of proportion in art of medieval figures, the representation of female body seemed to reflect the broader social aspects and practices of a given time. Medieval figures with large hips and bellies, as in Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, were later substituted by emphasized waistlines. Much heavier figures than what is standard today were ideal of the 17th century as seen in paintings by Rubens, and were linked with good economic and social standing. In the 20th century this standard definition of proportion in art changed significantly over decades, and the male body was put under more scrutiny than ever. While female bodies grow slender in fashion industry, male, on the other hand, went through exaggerated muscular phase, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as its main representative. Varying forms that inhabit modern and contemporary art as in Lucian Freud works, come in proportions that often surpass the physicality of the subjects, and strive to emphasize precarious humanity lurking behind each of them.

What is proportion in art and how is it different from size and scale drawing
Lucian Freud - Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995. Image via

Architectural Proportions from Greek Drawing to Nazis

As in other visual forms, proportion in architecture is one of its pivotal elements that define each building tradition. Mathematical relations that guide traditions differ, but a few ratios are repeated and used consistently such as whole number rations or incommensurable ratios. While in paintings the goal is not always harmony and balance, in architecture such elements often have the utmost importance. Greek classical architectural orders relied on proportion rather than on measured models, and architectural design was decided on column diameters and arcade widths.[4] The ideal that was propagated from Pythagoreans is that proportions should be related to the general and formulaic standards, and as seen from the ancient Greek temples, this rule was closely followed. Architectural endeavors from the Middle Ages show increased interest in harmony and balance of its numerous details, followed by the Renaissance buildings as well. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome shows monumentality of interior proportions that humble the visitors addressing their insignificance in spiritual order of things. This was later exploited in totalitarian regimes, where humbleness before the transcendental is substituted with the fear before the authoritarian power. Nazis created a series of buildings that were supposed to glorify their superiority. They applied exaggerated proportions and scales to achieve this, as in Zeppelinfeld, the Nazi party rally grounds designed by Albert Speer and based on the Pergamon Altar in Nuremburg.

Proportion in art can be used in drawing to size and scale
Albert Speer - Zeppelinfeld, main tribune. Image via

Contemporary Art - How Is It Proportioned?

Skipping through certain periods, such as Renaissance, Baroque, and Classicism where proportions mostly corresponded with Golden Ratio as in Leonardo’s works, modern and contemporary times saw changes in proportional relations based on different political and social roles art assumed. Although well-proportioned and balanced works still stand out in the aesthetic effect they produce, tipping works out of balance of proportional relations correspondent with universal measurement produce works of unique visual power and significance. Sarah Lucas’s works often show body parts dismembered from the rest of the body, and regularly include forms that resemble human figures with exaggerated parts as in Deep Cream Maradona, and its skyward-reaching penis. Exploring the links between bawdy and abject, Lucas reaches for custard color in order to swing us into good mood in spite of the murky undertones of her sculpture.[5] Experiments with proportion in contemporary art does not end with the human figure and exaggerations of its parts, but also include a more metaphysical exploration of presence and absence through manipulations of sizes, materials and space. Otto Boll’s Helix comes as a good example to conclude this review of proportion in art. His sculpture made of 3mm strips of steel sharpened at tips entwines the space in its materiality that at the same time seems to dissolve and disappear. Presence and void are negotiated through the proportion of the sculpture that is large enough to consume the space, but also thin and fragile to disappear in it.

Editors’ Tip: The Geometry of Art and Life

Is everything chaos and chance, or is there order, harmony, and proportion in human life, nature, and the finest art? Can one find a natural aesthetic that corresponds to a universal order? If so, what importance can it have for the scientist, artist, or layman? What is the "true" significance of the triangle, rectangle, spiral, and other geometric shapes? These are but a few of the questions that Professor Matila Ghyka deals with in this fascinating book. The author believes that there are such things as "The Mathematics of Life" and "The Mathematics of Art," and that the two coincide. Using simple mathematical formulas, most as basic as Pythagoras' theorem and requiring only a very limited knowledge of mathematics, Professor Ghyka shows the fascinating relationships between geometry, aesthetics, nature, and the human body.


  1. Gross R., (2015), What Is The Golden Ratio? What You Need to Know and How To Use It, [January 3, 2017]
  2. Anonymous, Principles of Art and Design, [January 3, 2017]
  3. Bacon F., Essays, Civil and Moral, [January 3, 2017]
  4. Anonymous, Proportion and Scale, [January 3, 2017]
  5. Searle A., (2015), Sarah Lucas at Venice Biennale review – pervery and pleasure in a sea of custard, [January 3, 2017]

Featured images: Sarah Lucas - Deep Cream Maradona, 2015. Image via; Leonardo da Vinci - Vitruvian Man. Image via; St. Peter's Basilica, interior. Image via; Piet Mondrian - Tableau I. Images via Widewalls archive. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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Lucian Freud
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