Top 5 Proportion Mistakes in Figure Drawing

Avoid the big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

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When your torso bends to one side, your ribcage will come down really close to your pelvis.

For some reason we are really reluctant to let the mid-section squash down this way. Making the mid-section too big and therefore elongating the whole torso is a classic issue, especially when the torso is bent to one side. It’s something I used to do all the time. Here are some of my old drawings as a beginner. I used to elongate the torso so often this way and I didn’t realise at all, I wasn’t even really thinking in terms of ribcage, mid-section and pelvis.

Here’s another example from a student from our course. You can see at this stage Mark already has a lot of fantastic skill in his drawings. He’s simplifying really well and he’s capturing dynamic angle changes really nicely. It’s just the mid-section hasn’t been allowed to squash, it’s too long. 

Look at the difference if we just cut the midsection down, bring the pelvis up closer to the ribcage. 

As time went on and I kept practising, these issues reduced because I worked on them, and now proportions aren’t a big concern for me even in a quick sketch like this with no time for measuring. You will find that proportion problems are the biggest concern early in your life drawing journey, but eventually proportions become fairly easy and instead you’re more concerned with other struggles like anatomy and gesture and design. To get past the proportion challenges, you’ve got to figure out these habits, and start dismantling them. So let’s go through these and you can think – do I do that?


2 Shrinking as you go down

Ok so this one has a huge impact if it affects you. I have had struggles with this and it’s super common in beginner drawings generally. An enlarged head, then a small pelvis and even smaller legs. In other words, the figure shrinks as you go down. 

Here both David on the left and Iola on the right did beautiful drawings, really lovely mark making and work with just a few tiny proportion issues. The heads are a little large relative to the ribcage and the pelvis a little small.. 

I spent about a minute to shift a few little proportion issues. There was so little to do. Shrink the head, enlarge the hips and pelvis and that was basically it because Iola and David had done all the hard work already. 

Now I’m going to change two references to mess up their proportions. One mess up is going to work much better than the other. So proportion mistakes aren’t made equal. There’s a lot of leeway for errors in this direction, and much less in this direction. So rather than being perfect, you just need to go wrong in the rigcht direction. That’s something I first learned from a wonderful figure artist called Steve Huston. 


Variation: Pelvis same width as ribcage on female models

So this one I’ve only started noticing recently but now I notice it all the time in people’s drawings. Female models tend to have a wider pelvis than ribcage. It’s really common to reduce that difference and have them the same width. I think it’s part of our tendency to draw people’s figures like they are two parallel lines going down each side. 


3 Small hands and feet

Just look at how my foot compares to my forearm, look at how big it is. How my hand compares to my forearm or my face. These are not little pincers attached to the end of my arms, these are big structures themselves, comparable in size to other parts of the limbs. 

And yet 75% of the drawings I look over from students, which often have good proportions elsewhere, have the hands and feet too small, often way too small.


So the other super simple adjustments I made to these drawings was just crudely enlarge the hands.

And by the way, this is another area where you don’t have to be perfect, but just go the other way, a little bit too big rather than too small. On these drawings I had the hands and feet too small on this one and too large on this one. For me, too large works a lot better, so it’s not about accuracy so much as going wrong the right way. 



4 Large, pushed out shoulders 

So this is an interesting one. Shoulders that stick out off the torso. So here are two drawings, one by Barbara and one by Mary. These were drawn as an initial assessment before our 20:20 course started. You can see the shoulders are sticking out in a slightly awkward way. The issue is less about proportions and more about structural understanding.

The deltoids, the muscles on the shoulders, are really big. The issue is that the shoulder structure doesn’t start on the sides of the torso, the shoulder structure starts here, in the middle of the collarbones. You have to think of shoulders as structures starting here and wrapping around the top of the ribcage. When you raise your shoulder or move it forward or back, it’s all pivoting from here. Then you realise that the deltoid starts here, about a third of the way in on the collarbone, and on the back it goes deep across the top of the shoulder blade. So in other words, yes it’s big, but it’s not a big thing stuck on the side of the torso, it’s a big thing that is deeply integrated into the torso and therefore doesn’t need to stick out that much. 

And by the way, check this out. During the course, Mary and Barbara worked really hard. Mary went from this, to working on her simplified framework – notice the simplifications she was putting right onto the references. It’s something we do in the course.

Then eventually, she became able to draw difficult figures confidently without any guidance or support. That’s because she worked really hard on just the few major things that make a big difference. 


Barbara went from this

to this, also working on her simplified frameworks. She kept practising really hard during the 6 weeks and getting better and better and understanding and simplifying the figure’s structure. Incredible progress and she even started to tackle quick sketches with her take on them.


5 Breasts too high

For some reason, we tend to think of the chest as being quite high up on the torso. I remember I always used to think the torso was chest, the below that, ribcage arch and below that, abs. So here you can sort of see my confusion there.

Here’s what you need to know. The abs start right under the chest. The chest comes down to the top of the ribcage arch and the abs start around that level too.

From here, the chest even slopes down further. And then on women, the breasts often will then hang lower still, unless the arms are raised or the person is lying down in which case they may rest differently. 



Bonus – Shrinking foreshortened limbs

And finally this one is super interesting. We all know that foreshortening is tricky at first. We don’t want to draw a long limb like a leg short. But from certain angles the shape we see will be shortened. So to deal with that, sometimes our brains will not just shorten the limb as we draw it, but shrink the whole thing. Here’s the key, foreshortened does not mean the limb is smaller, it’s just shorter. The mass, the volume of it is still there. So you still want to capture that mass with your lines around the form, even if you aren’t seeing its full length. 

There’s a lifetime of study in figure drawing, but to get really good results you don’t need to learn everything. You can progress rapidly if you identify the few things that make a big difference and then do focused, intelligent practice designed to help you master them. If you keep working on these simple adjustments consistently and over time, you will get better and better until your drawings are unrecognisable. For this video I dug out some of my old drawings. I say old, I mean maybe 4 or 5 years old or so – not that long ago. I couldn’t believe the change and it came from consistently working on the few things that really matter and that’s what this blog is all about. 

Avoid the big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

Get the free guide - 'Life Drawing Success'

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