Getting the proportions right is one of the most essential aspects of sketching. Yet, many artists struggle with it. It takes a lot of practice to train your eyes and draw proportions correctly without measuring them. Also, our eyes often deceive us. Mine do, anyways.
Whether you are a hardcore urban sketcher who only sketches on location or you define urban sketching more loosely as sketching any urban scene, not necessarily 'on location,' you can't deny that there is great value in sketching from reference photos. This type of sketching has immense potential for improving your technique. Plus, sometimes, it's the only way to draw urban scenes when it's freezing cold outside!
What do we mean by proportions?
Proportions refer to the size relationships between objects in your drawing: the size of a window compared to the height of the house or the length of the object compared to its width.
When we sketch from photos, we don't usually copy the exact measurements (you might have a small photo and a large sheet of paper, or vice versa). Instead, we copy the relationship between the sizes of the objects.
This is an important skill for you to have because it enables you to draw objects as close as possible to the original. After you've mastered the basics, you can play around with proportions and change them as you like.
I touch upon the topic of proportions in most of my urban sketching classes as well as in this month's topic in Brave Brushes Studio, my membership for artists. This photo comes from a lesson on measuring the proportions of buildings.
What tools can you use to measure proportions in sketching?
The only tool you need is the one you already have: your pencil. While some teachers suggest using a ruler and/or ruled paper to get the proportions right at the beginning, I believe that it is important not to rely on these props right from the start. Use your pencil!
Four tips for measuring proportions in sketching:
1. Use the back side of your pencil, not the tip. Your measurements will be more precise and the measuring process easier.
2. Start with the largest shapes. If you get them right, everything else will easily fall into place.
3. Observe the size relationships and experiment! Try using different parts of objects as measuring units.
4. Practice! Practice several times with one and the same photo. Practice with different photos and different kinds of objects.
Measuring proportions: a quick tutorial
Here's a short video that teaches you to measure and draw proportions using a tree trunk as a measuring unit. Enjoy! Actually, no, don't just enjoy. Practice!
Let me know in the comments or on Instagram how your trees turn out. If you post your sketch on Instagram, use the hashtag #juliahenze_tutorials and tag me @julia_henze so I can see your sketches!
Other resources you might find useful:
How to draw complicated objects: Youtube video on how to draw a column (Don't forget to like and subscribe!)
Beginner-friendly tutorial: How to Draw a House Font with Markers.
Step-by-step tutorial: Mixed-media Techniques in Urban Sketching.
Tutorial: Atmospheric Perspective in Urban Sketching.
Do you want to learn from me or get my feedback on your work?
Brave Brushes Studio is my membership for amateur artists and urban sketchers. It contains a resource library, weekly sketching lessons, live sketching sessions and Q&A events. It provides all the support you need on your sketching journey, gives you a trajectory you can follow and support of a friendly community of fellow sketchers (and myself). The doors are now closed but you can get on the waitlist.