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Perspective: Measuring the Human Form

Lesson #2

The Ideal Proportions Of The Human Figure

The figures to the right (12 13 14) show the male figure standing at attention, seen from the front, the side, and the back, proportioned according to the eight-head canon.

First note the overall proportions, comparing the height with the width, in fig.12 as seen from the front. You will see that it is; eight heads high by two heads wide.

By drawing a rectangle that measures eight units long by two units wide, we will have a "box" that will enclose an ideally proportioned human figure. Now carefully study the following basic points, which are automatically determined by the dividing lines or modules of the canon. Notice that I have numbered the modules respectively, from 1 to 8, in order to identify more rapidly the following dimensions and positions:

  • The level of the shoulders coincides with subdivision "A", which is situated a third of the way down module 2.
  • The nipples coincide exactly with the dividing line of module 2.
  • The navel is just below dividing line 3.
  • Both elbows are situated almost level with the waist, just above the navel.
  • The pubis is in the exact center of the body, coinciding with the dividing line of module 4.
  • The wrists are level with the pubis.
  • The extended hand is the same length as the face.
  • The total length of the arm from the top of the shoulder to the fingertips is equal to three and a half modules.
  • The most prominent part of the knee, the kneecap (see fig.13, the figure in profile), is just above module 6.

Also observe the following relationships, which are equally important for correctly representing and proportioning the male figure:

  • The space between the nipples is equal to one module (one head length).
  • By joining points "B" and "C", we obtain:
    • The position of the nipples.
    • The position of the ends of the collar bone, or the most prominent part of the shoulder.

Finally, observe the male figure standing at attention in profile (fig.13). In that position, the calves project beyond the vertical line drawn from the shoulder blades to below the buttocks (points D, E, and F). The points above are of the utmost importance. Study them closely and assimilate them, since they provide information that will be indispensable when you come to do your own figure drawings.

Canon-Block Perspective Of The Human Figure

Until now, we have taken for granted your knowledge of perspective, Horizon Line, and Vanishing Point, and although you may understand what they are it would be helpful to review the basic facts again very briefly.

The fundamental elements of perspective are the horizon line, which is situated at eye level when you are looking forward, and the viewpoint (VW) and the vanishing points (VP), at which the perpendicular and oblique lines converge (fig. A).

There are two basic types of perspective: parallel perspective, with only one vanishing point, and oblique perspective, with two vanishing points. Note that the rectangular solid is the ideal basic form with which to construct any body (fig.A).

Forget all you've heard about cylinders and cans, and imagine the figure encased within a parallel pipe, that is, a long, thin, rectangular block constructed to the proportions of the canon: eight modules high, two nodules wide, and almost one and a half modules deep. Put this block in perspective, and, of course, the dividing lines A, B, and C, and so on will converge at the vanishing point. Similarly, by putting the human figure in this box, we see that the lines or levels formed by the shoulders, nipples, elbows, hips, and so on down to the feet are seen in perspective (fig.B).

How To Place Several Figures In Perspective

The artist often has to draw several figures in relation to a given horizon in a single picture. When this need arises, the problem of perspective may be solved in the following manner:

When we draw a single figure, we've already seen that the perspective is resolved by means of the forms in the human figure, along with the application of the canon model as a guide to the lines and forms that converge on the horizon. But what happens when we include two or more figures?

When a painting or illustration has two or more figures in it, there is always a relationship of sizes based on proportions and perspective. But let me go further in explaining this interesting problem of perspective.

  • FIGURE 4. We are going to show, step by step, the problem of positioning various figures in different places in the same picture, all the time maintaining relationships of proportion and perspective that we have discussed. We start by sketching the horizon line. Afterwards, we must situate and proportion one of the figures (A) with our eye. The we determine the place where we will put another of the figures (B).
  • FIGURE 5. To find the height and proportions of the second figure, we have to sketch an oblique line from "A" to the vanishing point (VP 1) going through "B". Then, we draw another oblique line from the head of the first figure to "VP 1". Lastly, we draw the vertical line "D" between the two oblique lines at "B".
  • FIGURE 6. The vertical line "D" gives us the height of the second figure, "B". The proportions of "B" come from the oblique lines E, F, and G, starting from the neck, breasts, waist and knees of the first figure.
  • FIGURE 7. Supposing you need to place another figure "H" in the drawing. In order to find "H" at the same level as "B", all you have to do is draw the horizontals "I" and "J" to determine the height and proportions of the third figure.
  • FIGURE 8. We now want to locate another figure in the picture. What height and proportions should it have with respect to the others? Start by sketching an oblique line from "E" on figure "A" to any point along the horizon, in this case VP 2.
  • FIGURE 9. This line "K", allows us to obtain point "L". From there we draw vertical line "M", and obtain a new point, "N". (points "L" and "N" came from the oblique lines drawn from the first figure. see fig. 5).
  • FIGURE 10. Now, by joining VP 2 to "N" and continuing it to "O", we obtain the desired height "P". In order to determine the proportions of the fourth figure, all we need to do is project those drawn in the initial figure "A".
  • FIGURE 11. This is the solution. We can see the same formula works when applied to a picture with a low horizon or to a picture with a high horizon.

So there you have it. I hope that this will help those of you who often get the proportions and perspectives incorrect in your drawings. Often I have had students who rebel about the multiple person exercise. They contend that they have painted many, many paintings, none of which had multiple figures, and deem the whole thing a waste of time. Nothing could be further from the truth! The day will surely come when it will be necessary to do this and if you do not possess the knowledge, you will be lost. The ability of an artist is in direct relationship to the amount of knowledge he/she possess.

See you next time!