Scale & Proportion

Scale and proportion in art are both concerned with size.

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Scale refers to the size of an object (a whole) in relationship to another object (another whole). In art the size relationship between an object and the human body is significant. In experiencing the scale of an artwork we tend to compare its size to the size of our own bodies.

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Proportion refers to the relative size of parts of a whole (elements within an object). We often think of proportions in terms of size relationships within the human body.

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Scale in art

An artwork has a physical size; when referring to an artwork’s size, we use the term scale. Scale is more than simply the object’s size, however. It is the size of the art object in relation to another object. The relative size of the artwork is always compared to the size of the human body–life-sized, miniature, enormous–are all terms that use the human body as a size reference.

Larger-than-life scale

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Chuck Close is a photorealist painter. Photorealism, a movement that began as a reaction to minimalism and abstract expressionism–both of which eschewed realism as high art–involves the use of photography to create an image so realistic in detail that it can be mistaken for a photograph. Close revolutionized photorealism by expanding the scale of his work to an enormous size.

Close’s approach to portraiture was to not only make his subjects massive in size, but to represent them in an extremely realistic and forthright manner, including their flaws.

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Artists as quoted on Minneapolis Sculpture Garden website:

Claes Oldenburg: “Very often I am sitting at dinner and I take out my notebook. I get very inspired when I eat, for some reason.”

Coosje van Bruggen: “One of the things that sculptors who work in an urban surrounding think of is scale, the object in comparison to the other things in the surroundings–buildings, the highway, the Cathedral, lantern posts, anything.”–Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen create sculptures of ordinary objects–a clothespin and a tube of lipstick, for example–in a monumental scale, which causes us to see these ordinary objects in a completely different way. The sculptures also become iconic representations of the specific cities they were designed for. Consider how the enormous scale of both the Close portraits and the Oldenburg/van Bruggen sculptures changes the meaning of and our relationship to ordinary objects and people.

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Joseph Cornell combined and placed his objects in small scale box constructions. The effect is that of a miniature world full of magic and possibilities. Although the scale of the boxes is small, the world within the box is as large as the imagination makes it. In Cassiopeia 1, for example, one can imagine an entire solar system. Within the boxes the objects relate in some way but remain suggestions rather than narratives. Cornell leaves it to the viewer to fill in the gaps.



Proportion in Art

Proportion is the relative size of parts within a whole. The human body is an effective example of the design principle.

Proportions of the human body as a reflection of cultural ideology

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This famous drawing is based on the geometrically calculated ideal human proportions described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. According to Vitruvius the human figure was the primary source of proportion used in Classical orders of architecture.

Hannah Hoch in Weimar Germany:

purposeful alteration of human proportion to make a political statement

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Within this period Hannah Hoch created numerous artworks and developed the art of photomontage. Using this method she was able to piece together elements from different sources and alter the scale of objects in the composition as well as proportions within the human body. Consider how this alteration in proportion related to the historical period in which she was working.

Perfect Proportion: The Golden Ratio, the Golden Mean, or Fibonacci’s Spiral

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A Fibonacci spiral which approximates the golden spiral, using Fibonacci sequence square sizes up to 34. Image by user Dicklyon 17 March 2008

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Woodcut from the Divina Proportione, Luca Pacioli 1509, Venice, depicting the golden proportion as it applies to the human face.

The golden ratio is a mathematical proportion based on pi (1.618033988749895…) and is used to define aesthetically pleasing proportions in art and architecture.

It can be derived with a number of geometric constructions, each of which divides a line segment at the unique point where the ratio of the whole line to the large segment is the same as the ratio of the large segment to the small segment.

The ratio is found in within all of the natural world; and is clearly illustrated in the spiral of a chambered nautilus.

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The ratio is found in all proportions of the human body, from the hands and feet, to the face, to the body as a whole. The ratio has been analyzed in terms of what is considered beautiful in human faces and found that the more closely proportions of the face follow this ratio, the more beautiful it is considered to be.

The ratio has been used for centuries, by the ancient Egyptians in the pyramids, ancient civilizations in the construction of temples, Renaissance artists (who called it the Divine Proportion), and is still used to create a sense of beauty, harmony and balance in art.