Section 3 free article – Introduction to measurement techniques

Although not the ultimate aim of life drawing, getting the proportions of a figure right can help you achieve a life-like and natural drawing and avoid the ‘mutant’ look (which pervaded most of my early drawings). For some reason, being able to translate the lengths and distances you see in front of you onto the page is devilishly difficult. It seems more difficult than accurately drawing a shape or getting tone and shade right. You can draw limbs and features with great concentration, get each to a point you are happy with, take a step back and realise that the head should be three times further away from the shoulder and the leg should be half the length that it is.

This is where measurement techniques become important. You may have seen artists closing one eye, holding out a pencil at arm’s length in front of them, possibly sticking their tongue out and wondered what they’re up to. Below is an introductory tutorial on those techniques. We’ll go much more in-depth on measurement in future articles, but this is a good starting point.

Vertical and horizontal lines:

A good starting point is to see horizontal and vertical lines that help to position body parts in relation to one another. You can use an imaginary grid or plumb line to see which points of the body are on the same vertical and horizontal lines. This will differ for every pose. For example, you may notice that the edge of the left ear is on the same vertical line as the bend in the elbow, and the ankle. While drawing, it is useful to constantly reminding yourself of the vertical and horizontal lines that help you see the form of the body geometrically.

Choose a unit of measurement and start measuring:

You can then decide on a body part as a unit of measurement. The head is often used for this purpose. Once you have decided on your unit of measurement, you can sketch it out on the page. Lets say we’re using the head. You can now measure the horizontal and vertical length of the whole body by determining how many units (heads) those lengths are. These measurements can then be used to construct boundary lines for your drawing.

How to measure the model:

If you hold a pencil between your eye and the figure, you can measure the relative length of different parts of the model’s body. You can hold a finger nail (usually the thumb nail of the hand you’re holding the pencil with) against the pencil at the point that marks the length you are measuring. You then hold up the pencil, with thumbnail in the same place, to other parts of the figure and see how they compare to the length you have measured. You hold the pencil at arm’s length, with arm straight, to ensure that you keep the pencil at the same distance from your eye when making the measurements.

How to apply the measurements on the page:

Once you know the relative lengths and distances, you can ensure that your drawing conforms to them. You can again use the pencil and thumbnail, but on your page this time.

For more on how to get things in the right position and in proportion, plus the other skills that will accelerate your progress, have a look at our online course Draw Life Beautifully: The Foundation Skills of Life Drawing Every Student Should Have

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