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Simplifying Proportions

By Kate Orr

If you have ever attempted to capture a person's likeness, whether through charcoal, paint, or clay, you have doubtlessly experienced the challenge presented. Too often, the resemblance seems to be more of a cousin or sibling than the person themselves. It may be excruciatingly close but missing some element that makes that person recognizable. Isn't it so frustrating?


Thankfully, in most cases the problem can be simply solved by correct proportions. When desiring to replicate specific proportions, it is immensely helpful to reframe ‘proportions’ as ‘shapes.’ Once you begin to look for specific shapes, your job becomes much easier than mysterious ‘proportions.’


First, look for the largest and most obvious shapes that you see; the basic light and shadow shapes, for example. Turn your surface and reference upside down, if possible, to help your brain see more objectively.

 Next, look for helpful markers, like eyebrow, pupil, underneath the nose, lips, jaw, and hairline. Compare and contrast these to each other. Generally faces are divided into rough thirds - hairline to brow, brow to bottom of nose, and nose to chin. Angles are also helpful. (The blue lines show simplified angles.)

 From there, I find it helpful to continue relating shapes/markers over the whole face, instead of only working on one section at a time. This way, I can see how it all relates to each other to avoid the catastrophe we've all encountered where we have successfully finished an eye - that is in the wrong place!


In the photo below, I've outlined some shapes that stand out to me. You can see larger shapes to small shapes. I'm constantly looking back and forth between my reference and art to see if the shapes match, and how they all relate to each other. (I.e. the white of the eye is a larger shape than the iris etc.)

You may notice that most of these shapes indicate plane changes! That's a subject for another article.


To recap, some key steps to simplify proportions are:


  1. Look for the largest & most obvious shapes.

  2. Compare shapes to each other for better accuracy.

  3. Look for angles to help organize your shapes and see structurally.

  4. Work over the whole face/figure simultaneously to avoid disproportionate areas.


 I hope you find these suggestions helpful! As always, advice is meant to empower and guide, not to paralyze or inhibit creativity. Use what you find to be helpful!

Paint Demo:



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