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Nsio explains: Understanding Proportions

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By Nsio   |   
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© 2014 - 2020 Nsio
EDIT: I noticed I had one layer off. Activated it

Tenth tutorial already. I've been drawing these quite a lot already.

While the anatomy is important when drawing human characters, it's not as important as the proportions. In fact, you can get quite far without knowing very much about true anatomy.

When I started drawing, I started with the proportions rather than anatomy. I wanted to be able to draw human characters quickly, so studying the proportions was far more faster than studying anatomical details. I tried studying anatomy as well, but I quickly realized that I didn't have the understanding to truly get what was going on in there. I didn't see the big picture so to say. Knowing how to draw details is useless if I can't draw several details together to form a good drawing. Thus I started from the general body proportions instead.

Now that I have got the proportions pretty much in place, I have started to understand the anatomy much better as well. I began to see the connectivity of the individual details. Now it's juts about studying these details one by one and adding them in my drawings.

Symmetry and Scale
What do "proportions" actually mean? I understand proportions as A.) the relativity of the object's dimensions and B.) the relation between group of objects in regard of position, orientation, size, shape, scale etc. Let's say, I draw two cubes, one big and one small. Because they are cubes, the proportions are the same, only the scale is different. On top of that, each side of the cube has exactly the same proportions. The space between the two cubes also have it's proportions depending on the positioning of the cubes (so called negative space). If I stretch or otherwise manipulate one of the cubes, their proportions won't be the same anymore (obviously).

Same things apply with humans and individual body parts.

Before we delve deeper into human proportions, it's good to remember that simply put, we are very symmetric beings. One could probably argue that saying that we are symmetric isn't true. Probably this person is considering word "symmetry" as being perfectly symmetric. This is not what I'm after. There is still certain symmetry that needs to be taken account. For example, drawing a character with differing arm or leg lengths or sizes is unlikely intentional or desirable. If that's the case, then fine, but then it needs to be drawn justified so that there is no question about the intention.

We have (generally) two eyes, two ears, two arms and two legs which are located roughly equally far away from the center line of our body. We also have one nose, one mouth, one neck, one navel and one certain place pretty much along the center line of our body. This is pretty obvious, yet very often ignored in the drawings of beginners. It's unlikely intentional, because actually seeing the relative positioning of these elements, yet alone drawing them correctly isn't that simple.

When I'm drawing human figures, I look for reference points and middle lines/points. If the element isn't positioned on any of these, I start looking for offset points in relation to the points I mentioned. Since I've been drawing so long, I have developed a sense of "area of approximation". That said, I can tell that something ought to be located within certain area. With some elements I can tell the exact position, while with others the area is much larger, thus requiring more efforts to find the correct placement. Anyway, this area of approximation works only when there are something as a reference. For example, I first need to draw the head before I can place one of the eyes in it's approximate place. Once I'm happy with it's position, I look for the area of approximation of the other eye. I know that the eyes are symmetrically positioned, so I can use the first eye and center line as a reference to position the eye in it's place.

This is of course a lot harder when the object isn't seen directly from the front anymore. Even if the object is seen from other viewing angle than directly from the front, it retains it's symmetry. This requires understanding about three dimensional nature of our world.

Basic Body Proportions
Here I tried to draw female and male characters next to each others to illustrate the difference between the two. Note that these probably aren't absolutely right. These are based on my current understanding and I can't say that they are completely devoid of my personal preferences or views about female and male bodies. Anyway, they get the job done for the time being.

I already made a short tutorial about using heads as a measure. It's pretty handy when deciding the intended proportions for the characters. To put it shortly, the number of heads you stack on top of each other determines the proportions of the body. A regular adult human is around 7 heads tall. It's good to note that a "head height" isn't anything specific measure, but the relation of the character's size of the head to the character's height. That said, characters can have different "head height" but still have the same physical height. Here I have drawn both characters 7 heads tall, but the male character is slightly taller, because his head is slightly bigger than that of a female. I wanted to keep the "head height" the same so that the similarities and differences between the genders are easier to see.

In general, female body is more delicate and curvy than male body. The body fat makes the shapes smooth and round. Male bodies are more robust and heavier, and the shapes are more angular and muscles are more visible. The biggest difference between female and male characters is probably the silhouette of the torso. The center of the body mass tend to be around the pelvis with females while males have broader shoulders and have the center of the body mass higher around the chest. You can think that if the bodies were simplified into triangles, the sharp point would point upwards with female body (depicting wide hips) and downwards with male body (depicting wide shoulders).

There are as many body typesas there are humans in the world, so the proportions here are just to give a general idea. It's good to note that if you draw the character with different "head height" than 7 heads, the rules shown here can't be used directly. I usually prefer drawing my characters 5-6 heads tall. Once you get familiar with basic bodies, you can start exaggerating and varying the bodies. By the way, I tried drawing various body types with solid color instead of lines. It turned out pretty fun, so you may give it a try as well. I found that it was easier to see the shapes as solid colors. I really like the alien :D

Where are you looking at?
If you want to get the proportions right, you need to look your drawing a lot. In fact, when you draw a body part, you should be looking around for reference points rather than look at the tip of the pen. As I said before, I'm looking for reference points. For example, if I have already drawn one arm, I look it while I draw the other arm in order to get proportions same. If you want that the arms and legs have proportions that fit the torso, you need to see the torso at any given time.

This is why I recommend practicing traditionally. When you draw your character on paper, you can see it fully all the time. On PC screen it's often hard to see the whole drawing due to screen limitations. I myself have noticed that I tend to draw really long legs when I draw on tablet. That's because I can't see the upper body while I draw the legs. This is the most common issue I need to fix on my drawings. So, if you still intend to draw on tablet, zoom out every now and then and check that everything is fine.

If you have a tendency to draw the body or parts of it too long or fat, try drawing the total opposite. The way to practice proportions is to try out the extremes: the right proportions are somewhere between. I'm doing this a lot when I practice. If you work digitally, make sure that you are using the native resolution of your screen. Wrong screen ratio can make your drawings look skewed unintentionally.

Drawing a Character

Okay, this is pretty much "draw some circles, then draw the rest of the ****ing owl".

I often drew these kind of practices where I drew the guidelines for 5-6 heads tall character and then I drew her from the front, side and behind. The guidelines helped in checking that each depictions of the character had the same height and proportions. It's really useful practice, so I recommend trying it. It's also good for practicing three dimensional thinking when you need to think how things would look from different directions. If you want more challenge, try drawing your character from above and below by using the front, side and behind views as a reference.

If you don't want to draw the horizontal guidelines, it's fine too. Just mark the heads with short line so that you can see where you are going as you draw. Note that I have marked the point of the crotch. If you like longer legs, position the crotch along the higher point. Note that you need to scale the torso appropriately a bit smaller (this also augments the longer legs). Since I prefer a bit shorter proportions, I tend to draw the legs shorter, thus I use the lower mark.

Once you have drawn the head, draw the torso up to the crotch. Draw one of the arms simplified for now, because you might need to tweak the body proportions. This way you can A).avoid spending too much time on the arm(s), risking losing it while fixing the proportions and B). draw the arm(s) by using fixed torso as a reference. This is just to safe effort, feel to draw the arms first if you want to.

Then draw one of the legs, either one will do. At this point you already have pretty good preview about the body proportions. If you find that the body or parts of it looks too thin/long=>fatten or shorten the corresponding body part. If it looks too fat =>lengthen or narrow the corresponding body part. If you work digitally, you can use the lasso tool to move parts or free transform to scale or skew body parts. Choose the appropriate method according the body proportions to keep the scale of the body parts fitting. If you lengthen a fat body part, you can make it look thin, but it also becomes larger. Similarly, if you shorten a slim body prat, you can make it look fatter, but it also becomes smaller.

Once you are happy, draw the rest of the elements. Now that the body won't likely change as much anymore, it's safer to draw the arms (especially if they go over the torso). Remember to use already drawn elements as your reference points. If you draw your character directly from the front and you work digitally, you may also mirror the body parts, or even whole body. It's good to note though that when you are practicing, it's better to draw everything yourself and leave the efficiency for serious drawings.

When you are done with the sketch, draw the final lineart. Digital artist have it easy with the layers. Remember that your goal isn't to copy your sketch. Refine your drawing when ever you feel it's appropriate.

That's all for now, I hope you enjoy this part of the "Nsio Explains" :)
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Comments143
anonymous's avatar
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Rogerartrat's avatar
RogerartratNew Deviant

thank you. :)

GGkev's avatar
GGkevHobbyist General Artist
Thank you so much!
gusolsan's avatar
gusolsanProfessional General Artist
Excellent tutorial!
Naughty-b-Nature's avatar
Naughty-b-NatureHobbyist Traditional Artist
Yes! Another missing link. Heart  I need those to get the picture right.

Now the fog is clearing up and I see what I did wrong in my own drawings. I´m sure I´ll find more in your other tutorials as well.
My biggest problem is to line up the eyes in a face and express emotions.  Nod  I draw a nose as a guide where other artists don´t and sometimes it looks stupid.

But this is a nice way of learning! Thanks again! 
BlackKusanagi's avatar
BlackKusanagiHobbyist General Artist
Very awesome explanation!
SwordTiger8888's avatar
 very useful!
TheNervousMedic's avatar
TheNervousMedicHobbyist General Artist
ISeeThatXenomorphOverThere >.>
takio12's avatar
Question on the hips. Do the curves start at the end of the torso?
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
I have noticed that at least with curvy girls, that's the case. So the widest part of the body is around the level of the scrotch.
DarkLored123's avatar
DarkLored123Hobbyist Digital Artist
I have a question regarding proportions between different age groups, do I necessarily have to use heads as a measure when it comes to doing proportions? Since I already memorized the general landmarks of the human body and relation of the torso to the legs I can pretty much replicate a correctly proportional human figure but it is inconsistent and varies from drawing to drawing. How does the head relate to the proportions of a character as you get closer to a child or a teenager? The thing is when I use heads as a measure I find it hard to fit the character inside the head measurement and the landmarks don't match that unit of measurements so it surpasses the amount of heads I wanted for that certain character, is there any tips you can give regarding that? 

Thank you.
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
Using heads as a measure is just a simple method, you could use eye or nose for the same purpose if you wanted. It's up to you to find the perfect proportional measure for your needs, but the head is just so common and easy to use that I don't think it's necessary to complicate things.

In classical art the idealistic human is 8 heads tall only because most prominent landmarks are evenly distributed (i.e. full heads apart from each other). So for example the legs are 4 heads tall which is half of the full height, knees are at 2 heads height etc. If you draw a character that's 7 heads, then everything scales down slightly and will no longer follow full head measure (the legs would be 3,5 heads in height). With 6 heads proportions some landmarks will coincide because 6 and 8 are divisible between each other. That said, the legs would be 3 heads in height, which is half of the full 6 heads height. So you will need to work with fractions of heads in some areas. It becomes simple math. 

If you draw traditionally, you can actually measure the head of the character and use maths to find the exact position for the landmarks (as long as you draw the character from the front, behind or sides).

I don't usually try to match the proportions exactly at full heads. It's supposed to be a general guide to get the proportions in place so that it looks believable (in this example the shorter girl is 5.8 heads tall). I rarely use the head for the arms though. I first check the proportions of the torso and then use its landmarks to construct the arms.  It's good to note that if you fail with the proportions of the head you are using as a measure (for example, if it's vertically too elongated), then the rest of the body will also suffer from this mistake because the mistake multiplies.

When you are drawing very young characters, then you also need to note that their bodies don't follow adult character proportions. So you can't scale down a 8 heads tall character to 5 heads (using the original 8 heads tall character head as a measure) with 1:1 ratio, because then the character would just be smaller and still have adult proportions (imagine a pixie like Tinker Bell). On very young character the landmarks also are in slightly different places and the torso is proportionally larger in comparison to the arms and legs for example.

Then there are idealistic and exaggerated body proportions that bend the realism for attaining certain kind of look. For example, you could draw the torso proportionally smaller to give more room for longer legs, so two characters with 6 heads proportions but differently scaled torso look very different.
Maestro-Tomy's avatar
Maestro-TomyHobbyist General Artist
7 head proportion for female body and 7.5 head proportion for male body became my standard when it comes to human body drawing. But it's their decision on how will they set up the proportion of the human body when they draw it, so there's no such thing as universal standard. I saw some artist draw their character in 5 head proportion, 8 head proportion, even 4 head proportion, but these are just example.
adam-ant2's avatar
This is quite a helpful walkthrough you've made here, Nsio.
I especially like the silhouettes on part two.
TheHunter280's avatar
TheHunter280Student Traditional Artist
The hips of the man model are too wide which make him look more like Toutankhamon than an average man, even IRL I've never seen a man having hips as large as his shoulders unless if he's obese (Fat doesn't count).
Your tutoriel isn't the best for starter, it help but this is an error I want to point because people tend to make man's hips too wide (Majorly women), as a quite experimented drawer and freak I know my shits.
Take it with a grain of salt
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
I know. I haven't practiced drawning male characters enough. Not only that, this is one of the weakest tutorials of mine in general.
TheHunter280's avatar
TheHunter280Student Traditional Artist
Fair enough, at least you know your shits
smaugthegreat108's avatar
smaugthegreat108Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I learned anatomy and proportions over time. taught myself mostly from trial, error, and seeing other work, I still do have issues with tiny feet and sideviews doe. trying to get better with those
kepchuck's avatar
Thank you, I am trying to draw humans for the first time and your guide is so useful and smart:3
Kariru851's avatar
Can I download this please??
Albinosumpreme10987's avatar
Albinosumpreme10987Student Traditional Artist
awesome
dcofjapan's avatar
dcofjapanStudent Traditional Artist
erg I'm so bad at eyes. even though I know it's wrong I draw it again. and it's wrong again xD i.imgur.com/rfXroLQ.png
DravenSin's avatar
DravenSinHobbyist Traditional Artist
Nsio, I just have to say that your tutorials have helped IMMENSELY. Just two months ago I could barely draw stick figures without messing something up, but ever since I've found your tutorials (along with others' tutorials and examples, of course, but yours helped the most.) I've grown so much it's crazy. It's mindblowing. I can't believe how much I've improved, it's just... Crazy. (I haven't uploaded any recent drawings though.) Anyone who's reading this and wants to be an artist, but is discouraged by their current level and drawings, just keep going. Keep going, keep going, keep going. I promise you will improve. Maybe some of you faster than others, but you W I L L get better, especially if you study. Have patience, and the 'skill' of drawing will come to you.

Just be sure to identify your weak points and study them 2× harder. An easy trick to do that is to download a photo editing app or something and use the 'flip image' option, it tricks your mind into seeing your product as a fresh pair of eyes. If that doesn't work, ask someone.

Identify, study, and don't be afraid to change a work of yours that you might have worked on for hours, but you feel as if something looks wrong. Some 'sacrifices' must be given to improve.

DON'T EVER GIVE UP.
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
Hey, good to hear you are getting the knack of it! It has a snowball effect, so things will only get easier and faster to learn as time goes :)
whattha's avatar
I did enjoy it. I do have a minor issue or two with this.
anonymous's avatar
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