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Design in Art: Scale and Proportion

Author: Lucy Lamp

What is scale and proportion?

Scale and proportion in art are both concerned with size.

Scale refers to the size of an object (a whole) in relationship to another object (another whole). In art  the size relationship between an object and the human body is significant.  In experiencing the scale of an artwork we tend to compare its size to the size of our own bodies.

Proportion refers to the relative size of parts of a whole (elements within an object). We often think of porportions in terms of size relationships within the human body.



Michelangelo's David: powerful in size; ideal in proportion

Michelangelo   David    1501-4

marble, 13' 5" H

Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, Italy

Michelangelo's sculpture David  represents the Renaissance emphasis on the ideal, based on the ancient Greek model of the ideal: rationality reflected in the portrayal of perfection in the human body.

This image is an excellent illustration of both scale and proportion in art.

The scale of this overwhelming figure is larger than life: over 13 feet tall. In addition it is placed on a pedestal taller than the average human, so that the sculpture towers far above the viewer. This gives it a sense of godlike grandeur.

The proportions within the body are based on an ancient Greek mathematical system which is meant to define perfection in the human body.

Ironically, this powerful representation of perfection is based on the biblcal story of David, a small, humble shepherd boy who defeated the giant Goliath with one slingshot. This makes it an effective expression of the ideology of the Renaissance: mankind in alls its humility raised to the ideals of rationality, order, and  scientific objectivity.



Scale  in art

An artwork has a physical size; when referring to an artwork's size, we use the term scale. Scale is more than simply the object's size, however. It is the size of the art object in relation to another object. The relative size of the artwork is always compared to the size of the human body--life-sized, miniature, enormous--are all terms that use the human body as a size reference.


Larger-than-life scale


Chuck Close: realism in an unreal scale

Chuck Close  Mark  1978 - 1979 (detail at right of eye)

acrylic on canvas, constructed from a series of airbrushed layers that imitate CMYK color printing

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,



Chuck Close  Lucas (1986 - 1987)

Oil and pencil on canvas

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. Detail at right.

Digital photographs by User:Postdlf, 11-11-06.

Chuck Close is a photorealist painter. Photorealism, a movement that began as a reaction to minimalism and abstract expressionism--both of which ecshewed realism as high art--involves the use of photography to create an image so realistic in detail that it can be mistaken for a photograph. Close revolutionalized photorealism by expaanding the scale of his work to an enormous size.

He is also known for devising a complex and ordered system that enabled him to create portraits with exacting realsim in such a massive scale. In the two details above you can see the difference before and atfer he began using that  system. and get a sense of the difference in the effect the system created.  With the new system the subject is unrecgnizable up close, which results in a different effect  at a further distance.

Close's approach to portraiture was to not only make his subjects massive in size, but to represent them in an extremely realistic and forthright manner, including their flaws.




Spoonbridge and Cherry: ordinary object as monument

Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen  Spoonbridge and Cherry 1985-1988

overall 354 x 618 x 162 inches

Description: a large spoon with a cherry suspended on the rim. Water exits the cherry from both ends of the black cherry stem. Sculpture weighs approximately 7000 lbs.

Minneaqpolis Sculpture Garden

Collection Walker Art Center; Gift of Frederick R. Weisman in honor of his parents, William and Mary Weisman, 1988© Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen Accession Number: 1988.385 Rights: © Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Artists as quoted on Minneapolis Sculpture Garden website:

Claes: "Very often I am sitting at dinner and I take out my notebook. I get very inspired when I eat, for some reason."
Coosje: "One of the things that sculptors who work in an urban surrounding think of is scale, the object in comparison to the other things in the surroundings--buildings, the highway, the Cathedral, lantern posts, anything."--Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen create sculptures of ordinary objects--a clothespin and a tube of lipstick, for example--in a monumental scale, which causes us to see these ordinary objects in a completely different way. The sculptures also become iconic representations of the specific cities they were designed for. Consider how the enormous scale of both the Close portraits and the Oldenburg/van Bruggen sculptures changes the meaning of and our relationship to ordianry objects and people.




The Great Wall of China: scale as expression of power

The Great Wall of China, near Beijing in July 2006, a section of Mutianyu.

photo by Nicolas M. Perrault Universal Public Domain dedication

Great Wall of China Traditional Chinese 長城 Simplified Chinese 长城 Literal meaning long fortress

UNESCO World Heritage Site

alternative Chinese name Traditional Chinese 萬里長城 Simplified Chinese 万里长城 Literal meaning The long wall of 10,000 Li

The Great Wall of China was built of stone and earthen fortifications in the northern part of the Chinese empire, as protection  against intrusions by nomadic groups. Building of the wall dates back to the 5th century BCE. According to the most comprehensive archaeological survey,  the entire Wall, with all of its branches, stretches for 8,851.8 km (5,500.3 mi). The scale of the Wall is obvious, how does it fit within the category of art?  Notice the directional force created in the photograph as the Wall stretches off into the distance.




Traditional Chinese Jade Sculpture: the scale of humans in the world

Artist Unknown  Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Poets at the Lan T'ing Pavilion  1784
Light green jade
22 1/2 x 38 3/8 in. (57.15 x 97.47 cm)

Minneapolis Institute of Arts   The John R. Van Derlip Fund and Gift of the Thomas Barlow Walker Foundation

From , website of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: "This mountain, apparently the largest piece of historic carved jade outside of China, was commissioned in 1784 by the Ch'ien-lung emperor (1736-95) whose own poem appears carved on the backside. The front displays a longer verse, the Lan T'ing Su ("Prelude to the Orchid Pavilion"), a famous poem composed in 353 by Wang Hsi-chi, perhaps the greatest calligrapher of the Far East. The occasion for the poem is illustrated by this jade carving, a literary gathering of poets and scholars organized by Wang at Lan-t'ing, the Orchid Pavilion. Several literati can be seen writing, drinking wine, and collating texts near the Orchid Pavilion at the foot of Mt. Hui-chi."

detail of Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Poets at the Lan T'ing Pavilion

In this detail of the sculpture you can see the fine detail of the carving. Note the representation of the size of humans in comparison to the surrounding landscape. Miniscule in scale compared to the landscape, it reveals the traditional Chinese view of mankind as small and insignificant in relation to the natural world. The people in this carving almost appear to be part of the landscape rather than dominating it.




Hokusai and the Great Wave

Katsushika Hokusai The Great Wave off Kanagawac. 1829–32

color woodcut25.7 cm × 37.8 cm (10.1 in × 14.9 in)

 first print in the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji

Copies of the print are in many Western collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum in London, and in Claude Monet's house in Giverny, France


The Great Wave off Kanagawa  神奈川沖浪裏 also known as The Great Wave  is a familiar print to many of us. This is one print from Hokusai's famous series of prints of views of Mount Fuji, seen at various seasons, times of day, and viewpoints. There are actually three series, collectively known as "One Hundred View of Mt. Fuji". In this print the human presence is tiny in the face of the wave. In fact, even the mountain in the distance appears dwarfed by the sheer size of the threatening wave.

Shazia Sikhander:  contemporary art informed by the tradition of the Persian miniature
Mu'in Musavvir  Abu'l Qasim FirdausShahnama (The Book of Kings)1666–67
iIllustrated manuscript, folio
Ink, opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper
13.56 in. high 8.75 in. wide (34.5 cm high 22.2 cm wide

Metropolitan Museum of Art   Gift of Richard Ettinghausen, 1975   Accession Number1975.192.25
Above is an example of the traditional art of Persian miniature painting. it is a tradition that artists today still carry on. It takes years of training to learn the technique. Compare this traditional example with the work of contemporary artist Shazia Sikhander in the two examples below.
Sikhander spent years being trained in the art of miniature painting.  The examples shown below are executed in the traditional manner, but with contemporary subject matter, which reconsiders the meaning and cultural considerations behind the tradition. In the context of the tradition, Sikhander's work is controversial and asks challenging questions. In this way she uses a long standing and ancient tradtion to ask contemporary questions relevant to the present day.  Sikhander also creates large scale paintings and installations of translucent layers of paintings.

Shahzia Sikander, Ready to Leave, 1997.
Transparent and opaque watercolor, tea water, and graphite on marbled paper, 9 7/8 × 7 9/16 in. (25.1 × 19.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Drawing Committee  97.83.3
Shahzia Sikander, Reinventing the Dislocation, 1997.
Watercolor, gouache, tea water, and charcoal on board, 13 × 9 5/16 in. (33 × 23.7 cm).
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Drawing Committee  97.83.4
Joseph Cornell: an intimate world
Joseph Cornell  Cassiopeia 1   c. 1960  
Construction, 9 7/8 x 14 7/8 x 3 3/4 in;
Estate of Joseph Cornell

Photograph by Mark Harden.© 04 Aug 2002
Thanks to the BMW Foundation, the WebMuseum mirrors, partners and contributors for their support.

Joseph Cornell Untitled (Dieppe) c. 1958,

Museum of Modern Art, (New York City).



Joseph Cornell was a sculptor and an avant-garde filmaker, influenced by the Surrealist movement. He is best known for his assemblages, sculptures which consist of a combination of three-dimensional found objects collected, arranged, and connected in some way. Assemblage is similar to collage, but it is three-dimensional. Cornell was a pioneer in the art of assemblage.

Cornell combined and placed his objects in small scale box constructions. The effect is that of a miniature world full of magic and possibilities. Although the scale of the boxes is small, the world within the box is as large as the imagination makes it. In Cassiopeia 1, for example, one can imagine an entire solar system. Within the boxes the objects relate in some way but remain suggestions rather than narratives. Cornell leaves it to the viewer to fill in the gaps.



Proportion in Art

Proportion is the relative size of parts within a whole. The human body is an effective example of the design principle.


Proportions of the human body as a reflection of cultural ideology

Leonardo da Vinci Vitruvian Man (1487).

Galleria dell' Accademia,Venice


This famous drawing is based on the geometrically calculated ideal human proportions described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De Architectura.  According to Vitruvius the human figure was the primary source of proportion used in Classical orders of architecture.



Michelangelo   David  1501-4
marble, 13' 5" H  Carrara marble
Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, italy

image source Ignorance Abroad, weblog

This detail of the face of Michelangelo's David  shows the geometrically calculated proportions described by Vitruvius, which Michelangelo used in all of his figural sculptures. It has come to represent the ideal of human proportions.



Roman, Late Empire  Constantine the Great   head from a colossal statue,  ca. 313-315 C.E.
Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, Italy
image source AICT/Allan T. Kohl

Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and is well known for establishing the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople, which became the Byzantine Empire. Constantine's conversion eventually resulted in the split of the Roman Empire. The Western section of the empire became centered in Rome.

With the acceptance of what was then seen as a cult--Christianity--and its increasing influence and power, representation of the human figure changed dramatically. The emphasis on the ideal human body as an expression of the divine shifted into a view of the divine as separate from the human body, and the human body as a symbol of imperfection and an embodiment of sin.

For this reason the human body was no longer represented in geometrically calculated proportions, but purposefully exagerrated in order to emphasize the spiritual as apart from the body. It would remain this way throughout the Middle Ages, until the Renaissance in Europe--a rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman ideology-- embraced a return to the mathematically calculated system of representing the human body.

In the head of Constantine, above, you can clearly see this shift in proportion in comparison to the head of Michelangelo's David. In the sculpture of Constantine the eyes are emphasized--much larger in size than in an actual human face--and the forehead is dramatically shortened. How do these aspects reflect an emphasis on the spiritual rather than the physical?

The one thing that remains true to the classical world is the large scale of the sculpture. In this way, the grandeur of the emperor is expressed, combined with the new embrace of the spiritual as defined in Christianity.


The Tetrarchs, porphyry sculpture sacked from the Byzantine Philadelphion palace in 1204

Approximate size 4' 3"

Treasury of St. Marks, Venice


This portrait sculpture of the four tetrarchs--Roman emperors--that ruled the Western Roman empire during the third century CE shows the continuing influence of Christianity in the representation of the human figure. Compare the proportions of these figures to the proportions of the Vitruvian man, or Michelangelo's David. Notice also that the scale of the sculptures is much smaller.  This is typical of sculpture during the Middle Ages. In addition, the sculpture is wedged onto the corner of St. Mark's Cathedral, thus becoming part of the architecture rather than a free-standing sculpture.




Hannah Hoch in Weimar Germany:

purposeful alteration of human proportion to make a political statement

Hannah Hoch  Equilibre (Balance) 1925

Photomontage With Collage And Watercolor 30.5 x 20.3 cm

  Collection Institut Für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart

© 1996 Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Nv Bild-Kunst, Bonn

image source The Photomontages of Hannah Höch , essays by Peter Boswell, Maria Makela, Carolyn Lanchner

Published by Walker Art Center, Vineland Pl. Minneapolis, Minnesota 55403

Hannah Hoch  Hochfinanz (High Finance) 1923

Photomontage With Collage 36 x 31 cm

Courtesy: Galerie Berinson, Berlin   image source

From  a review of The Photomontages of Hannah Höch: "Hannah Höch, an artist mostly known as the sole female member of the Berlin DADA movement, was a pioneer of photomontage. The complex imagery of her montage work explores her fragmented life as a woman within a male dominated art movement and pre-war and post-war society in Germany. "

Weimar Germany--the period during the two world wars--was a time of political upheaval and severe post war problems. This included dealing with monumental losses in human life, economic turmoil, labor strikes, the abdication of the Kaiser, shaky allegiance to the new Republic, a strict postwar Treaty with the Allies, lack of unity, and twenty different coalition governments. These problems and the lack of solid political ledership led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.

Within this period Hannah Hoch created numerous artworks and developed the art of photomontage. Using this method she was able to piece together elements from different sources and alter the scale of objects in the composition as well as proportions within the human body.  Consider how this alteration in proportion related to the historical period in which she was working.




Perfect Proportion: The Golden Ratio, the Golden Mean, or Fibonacci's Spiral


A Fibonacci spiral which approximates the golden spiral, using Fibonacci sequence square sizes up to 34. 

image by user Dicklyon  17 March 2008(2008-03-17)


Woodcut from the Divina Proportione, Luca Pacioli 1509, Venice, depicting the golden proportion as it applies to the human face.


The golden ratio is a mathematical proportion based on pi  (1.618033988749895...) and is used to define aesthetically pleasing proportions in art and architecture.

It can be derived with a number of geometric constructions, each of which divides a line segment at the unique point where the ratio of the whole line to the large segment is the same as the ratio of the large segment to the small segment.

The ratio is found in within all of the natural world; and is clearly illustrated in the spiral of a chambered nautilus.


The ratio is found in all proportions of the human body, from the hands and feet, to the face, to the body as a whole. The ratio has been analyzed in terms of what is considered beautiful in human faces and found that the more closely proportions of the face follow this ratio, the more beautiful it is considered to be.

The ratio has been used for centuries, by the ancient Egyptians in the pyramids, ancient civilizations in the construction of temples, Renaissance artists (who called it  the Divine Proportion), and is still used to create a sense of beauty, harmony and balance in art.