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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 14 – proportion and scale



Proportion and scale both refer to size; large, small, and everything in between. As with so many design terms these words are used in a variety of ways. To create some distinction, I prefer to use proportion to refer to size relation within a composition, and scale to refer to size in comparison to a constant, often the human body (Bevlin 148).


The scale of a work of art itself is of major importance. For our comparison of what is large and what is small we could use almost anything. Everything could be compared to a dandelion flower; its of quite a constant size, so everything could be gauged in scale from that. But we actually gauge most of our scale comparisons to the human body. This can make scale quite a personal principle, as scale to a person 4′ 10″ tall and weighing 98 pounds will be quite different from a person 6′ 10″ and weighing 300 pounds.

When dealing with the actual scale of art, textbook illustration and projected slides are a very inadequate way to understand scale. Nearly always you are seeing an altered sense of scale. To see the Paleolithic stone carving, Woman of Willendorf, 4 1/2″ tall, projected across the lecture hall to a seven-foot height is a tremendous distortion. Likewise to see the great pyramids of Egypt in a three-inch photograph can in no way convey the awesome scale of the masses. The scale difference doesn’t have to be this dramatic to still be very important. I can remember the shock of my first museum viewing of a large painting by Caravaggio after having seen textbook reproductions and slide images of the same work.  The power of the larger-than-life figures could in no way be conveyed in reproductions.

Many small-scale works of art have a personal quality. They are meant to be viewed by a single person at a time, establishing a one-to-one relationship with the art and therefore the artist. Such works can create an intimate experience. Most of the works of Paul Klee have this quality. Often less than twelve inches wide, they are like jewels that invite you to study and enjoy them as a personal encounter. Other small-scale works overwhelm the viewer with the detail and skill involved in the execution on a small scale. Persian and Indian miniatures are fine examples with their luxuriant color, detail, precision and patterns. The viewer marvels at the tremendous control of brush and paint to create the smallest feature. Small-scale three-dimensional works can be very intriguing, again, many times due to the craftsmanship. In the 1970’s American Charles Simonds created sculpture that was often found on the streets of New York City’s ghettos. He would create tiny masonry dwellings, some crumbling, in the actual crumbling brick walls along street and alleys. These fragments of diminutive deteriorating culture set into an actually deteriorating community were extremely thought provoking works.

Large-scale art is often very attention demanding and rarely has the intimate quality that small-scale works can evoke. A large scale can overpower viewers, making them feel small. This effect has been utilized for millennia by religion and government. The tremendous Gothic cathedrals of the middle ages had the scale to overpower and uplift at the same time. Michelangelo’s great painting, Last Judgment, 44′ X 48,’ was said to have sent the church hierarchy trembling to their knees when it was unveiled. The architecture on Capital Hill in Washington DC exudes importance and power through repeated enormous scale.

A contemporary artist who works on a scale that would be admired by the ancient Egyptians is Hungarian-born, Christo. In his temporary projects he has wrapped buildings, put a curtain across a valley, built a nylon fence 18′ tall and 24 1/2 miles long, and surrounded eleven islands with 6 1/2 million square feet of pink plastic skirts. On the surface these sound like absurd exercises in scale, but, in fact, they are usually fascinating projects in terms of people, process and product. To fully appreciate the work requires a study of the documentation, preferably the films that have been made to show the entire process of his major undertakings.

The scale that a work is to be produced in is a serious consideration for a designer. Sometimes the scale is dictated by the purpose of the design. In most cases a chair is going to be made in a scale that is proportional to the human figure. At other times scale might be determined by budget. Working at large scale is expensive in nearly all media. Even considerations like storage and transportation enter into scale considerations. Does the artist have space to store large-scale works? Can the artist transport or afford to hire transportation for large-scale work? Ideally the artist should be able to make scale decisions on the aesthetic and expressive criteria of what will best suit the needs of the concept. Unfortunately, fiscal reality doesn’t always permit this.


It is human size that we compare other objects in our environment to, and the human body is a common consideration in proportion, the size differences within a composition.  Beginning drawing students soon realize that the body has certain basic proportions that must be mastered if the figures being drawn are to give an illusion of reality.  The trick is to get the proportion correct, the head the right size compared to the shoulders, the shoulders to the arms, the arms to the chest, the chest to the hips, the hips to the legs, the legs to the feet, and so on. As students mature in their skill, they realize that it is differences in proportion that make us individuals: a bigger nose, a shorter distance between the eyes, a higher forehead, narrower shoulders, broader hips, longer legs, bigger feet. Differences in proportion make us the physically unique creatures we are.

Proportion was a primary concern to a culture that had a major impact on the evolution of Western art: the classical Greeks. Their concern for proportion was expressed in what is called the golden mean. Aristotle explained the concept philosophically as the virtue that is the median between two vices, a concept with striking similarity to the Confucian “middle path” that was evolving at about the same time on the other side of the world.  Mathematically the Greeks called the concept the golden section, which could be expressed in the formula a:b = b:(a+b). (Bevlin 148).

This mathematical ratio was used in the floor plan for the most famous of Greek temples, the Parthenon. The golden section was just the beginning of the architects’ incredible planning in an attempt to create perfect proportions – perfect size relations within the structure. To achieve visual perfection the architects made a series of remarkable optical refinements in the construction. Some of these are: the temple platform is gently curved down from the center, the columns all slope inward, the columns bulge outward slightly two-fifths the way up the shaft, the entablature slants slightly inward, the columns appear to be regularly placed but the three at each corner are closer than the rest, and the center columns of the front and back are wider apart than those down the sides (Honour & Fleming 109). These remarkable physical variations in the structure were calculated to make the Parthenon appear perfectly proportioned and thus to compensate for our optical distortions. This immaculate attention to visual perception rather than simply mathematical formulas show the sensitivity and awareness of the Greek designers.

Another long-used device for establishing proportion in a composition is the grid. A grid is a system that divides a space using horizontal and vertical compartments. Usually this division is of equal spaces. The equal division of space gives the designer a standard by which to compare sizes and placement. Standardized grid sheets (or video grids) for layout are used by all commercial publications. This gives a controlled format the designer can plan in and around. Fine artists have also found many uses for the grid. In addition to structuring compositions, grids have been used for centuries to enlarge artwork. As an example, a preliminary drawing may have a one-inch grid drawn on it. If the artist wants to enlarge that drawing to a wall mural she/he can draw a one-foot grid on the wall and easily transfer the drawing maintaining the same proportion that is in the preliminary drawing. This would be a 1:12 ratio but the artist can create whatever ratio is needed to achieve the desired enlargement. Many contemporary artists have used grids as the basis of their work. Victor Vaserely, considered an Op (optical) artist, uses grids extensively in his work, commonly distorting the grids to create unusual optical effects.

Proportion and scale, when used to create harmonious size relations in a composition, can be considered design principles of unity; they help tie the work together. Proportion and scale can also be principles of variety if the designer decides to create conflicts of size within the work. A master at proportion and scale conflict was Belgian artist Rene Magritte. He created illusions of tremendously perplexing size relationships. Sometimes this confusion would be created in very simple ways – an apple would fill an entire room interior, a comb would be as large as a bed, a glass would be six feet tall, a bar of soap would be as large a wheelbarrow. Through his illusion of scale confusion Magritte makes us look at objects in entirely new ways.

Historically, artists have created scale distortions for very different reasons. In ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia their proud depiction of conquest, carnage, and pillage often show their rulers at least double the size of all other humans depicted. This use of scale to show importance was carried into the Christian tradition with many depiction of Christ and the Virgin during the Middle Ages, showing them as physically much larger than other people in the same composition.


The concepts of big and small have probably always fascinated people. Literature is full of examples. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has a super giant among a tiny population. Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland has Alice bouncing all around in scale, from normal to huge, to tiny, and back to normal. An interesting aspect of both these novels is that most people see them as children’s books, while the authors used scale in both as a tool for social commentary intended for adults.

In the 20th century, film has repeatedly used scale distortion to make points or simply amuse people. King Kong, The Incredible Voyage, and Honey, I Shrunk (and Blew Up) the Kids, and Jurassic Park (I-XX)are just a few films indicative of how fascinated people are with scale changes, especially when closely related to human scale.

Big and small are common factors in value judgments. A simplistic view is that bigger is better – bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger boats, bigger vacations, bigger TV’s, bigger stereos. Much of the “American Dream” has been based on the premise if something is larger, it is more satisfying and prestigious. Following this thinking we have ended up with big business, big government, big medicine, big insurance, big pollution, big garbage, and big problems. In 1973 German-British economist E. F. Schumacher wrote a book titled Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. One of Schumacher’s main points is that the scale of the economy has gotten out of hand and no longer relates to individual human scale. He encourages human scale technology that enables people globally to better their standard of living without destroying their environments. He advocates a decentralization to smaller units of economic activity that relate directly to people in local situations where individuals can be a meaningful part of the decision-making process. Schumacher’s philosophy of promoting the small scale as desirable is a difficult task after a centuries of the bigger-is-better attitude. But it is possible that a return to human scale is necessary to create a more equitable and sustainable state of human existence.

Project 13: Design Principles Book

Materials: 8” X 50” piece of white Stonehenge paper, two pieces of cover paper, two pieces of cover liner paper (these papers will be supplied), OPTIONS: graphite, black paper, magazine clippings, acrylic paint, brush & black ink (you may use as many different media as you like)

Objective: – to finely craft an accordian book with six useable pages

  1. to create six compositions using the same 6 to 8 shapes on each page. The shapes may be natural, idealized, abstract, geometric, non-objective, or a combination. The shapes may be created with any of the media mentioned above, but must be exactly the same size in each composition (use templates or tracings to maintain consistency). The shapes may touch each other and the edge of the composition but may not overlap in any circumstance. Use a ¾” border on all six compositions

  2. in your six compositions you must clearly and creatively illustrate the following design concepts:

  3. unity (extreme)

  4. variety (chaos)

  5. balance of unity and variety ( middle path)

  6. symmetrical composition

  7. asymmetrical composition

  8. emphasis by color

  9. emphasis by value

  10. emphasis by illusionary texture

  11. rhythmic movement

  12. secondary objectives encompass our semester of study: strong line quality and pattern where relevant, interesting positive and negative space throughout, strong value range, use of some Gestalt concepts, use of types of shape, interesting color mixing & use


  1. fold the 8” X 50” Stonehenge paper as demonstrated in class to form the eight paged book (two pages used for front & back cover)

  2. do a series of thumbnail sketches of your six compositions – plan how each of the design principles will be clearly illustrated in the compositions. One composition may show multiple concepts (i.e. symmetrical may also be extreme unity, etc.) – may be horizontal or vertical format – stay consistent throughout. Lightly line out a 3/4 “ border on all six compositions.

  3. begin your designs in any order you wish – you might plan a sequence that would work well when you page through the book. Cover the unused paper and completed designs as you work on compositions (care must be taken to keep the work clean and well crafted).

  4. when you have completed all six designs and are sure you have successfully and creatively illustrated all the concepts produce your finished front and back covers as demonstrated in class. Take your time and be careful.

  5. label the front cover with Design Principles Book and your name. You may create a computer generated label you can glue onto the cover (use heavy paper), paint the labeling on the cover, or ransom-note collage the label. You may also create an image that relates to your book for the cover and omit the label.

  6. create a typed list of how the principle concepts relate to each of your designs – make a list for each design 1-6. (put your name and project title at the top)

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