PROPORTION, ORDER AND HARMONY

Proportion, Order, and Harmony are the core of the success and vitality of any art form.

This is true of all the Fine Arts, i.e., painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry. All things out of proportion are devoid of harmony. Though the subject of proportion is often associated with the human form, it is much more than that. Achieving the proper proportion through balance, rhythm, and harmony is the goal of discovering the universe’s natural order. Proper proportion is the foundation of the creative process.

From Ancient times until quiet recently there has been a healthy relationship between Philosophy, Art and Science. It disappeared for a thousand years during the Dark Ages 5thc to 15thc., and resurfaced during the Italian Renaissance.

The Measure of Man

All cultures and dynasties relied on standard units of measure to build their monumental artworks. Employing elaborate systems of measurement may be adequate for builders, but it is cumbersome in dealing with the human form. Referring to tables and charts and using mechanical measuring devices is alien to the creative process. They may be used afterward to determine accuracy, but using these arbitrary units of measure early on saps all the energy out of the drawing.

 

The draughtsman needs basic units of measure found within the figure that is easy to remember. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans carved great statues and built great cities using a human proportional system.

The Egyptians used the middle finger as a unit of measure; of course, we use it much differently today. They also used the cubit and part of their Canon of Proportions. The cubit was based on the arm’s length from the elbow to the middle finger’s tip. In some ancient cultures, it was as long as 21 inches.  

They established an archetypical figure based on their Canon of Proportion, without which they could not have created their Colossal Statues.

The Geometry of Nature or the Golden Section

There is an underlying geometric order based on the Golden Section or Mean, but that is a treatise for another day. Let it suffice to mention that the human form follows the principles underlying the Golden Section’s divine order

.

The Golden Age of Greece produced the most significant advances in the realm of Proportion, Order, and Harmony.

Natural Philosophy and Universal Order flourished in the Greek Forums. There was no separation between Philosophy and Science in the Golden Age of Greece. It was characteristic of the Greek mind to reduce natural phenomena to a mathematical order and harmony. The understanding of the relationship between the human mind and the human form was front and center in the Greek Academies.

The Greeks saw the human form as a symbol of perfection. Myron and Polyclitus studied the bodies of warriors and athletes. Nudity in Ancient Greece was considered the perfection of the Gods, and women and men paraded nude in festivals and celebrations as examples of that perfection. In Sparta, nudity was the order of the day.

The Rhythm And Balance Of The Contrapposto Pose

According to Pliny the Elder, Polyclitus created the definitive Canon of Proportions in book form. This manuscript has, unfortunately, disappeared. These works were often considered blasphemous by various religions or sects and subsequently destroyed.

We know the figure’s height in the Polyclitus Canon to be seven heads, we do not know the other measurements. His Bronze statue of Doryphoros, the spear bearer, gives us an example of the Canon of Proportions used by the Greeks for over a hundred years. It is also an early example of Contrapposto, which refers to having most of its weight balanced over one foot.  

Considered the Greek’s pivotable contribution to the history of western art, its appearance marks the first time in that the human body expresses a more relaxed psychological disposition. This gives the figure a more dynamic or relaxed appearance. 

This also results in the opposition of shoulders and hips; for example: if the right hip is higher than the left, correspondingly, the right shoulder will be lower than the left, and vice versa. The leg that carries the body’s weight is known as the engaged leg, the relaxed leg, as the free leg. Contrapposto is less emphasized than the more sinuous S Curve and creates the illusion of past and future movement.  The Contrapostto Pose introduction was a game-changer and was passed from the Greeks to the Romans and revived in the Renaissance.

This also results in the opposition of shoulders and hips; for example: if the right hip is higher than the left, correspondingly, the right shoulder will be lower than the left, and vice versa. The leg that carries the body’s weight is known as the engaged leg, the relaxed leg, as the free leg. Contrapposto is less emphasized than the more sinuous S Curve and creates the illusion of past and future movement.  The Contrapostto Pose introduction was a game-changer and was passed from the Greeks to the Romans and revived in the Renaissance.

Polyclitus and Phidias are considered the leading sculptors of the 5th century B.C. Phidias created the magnificent frieze on the Parthenon. The Parthenon is based on Golden Section proportions.

Introducting A More Refined Canon Of Proportion.

Lyssipos would later create a new Canon using eight head lengths, creating a more slender, graceful figure; this is the Canon predominately in use today.

Ancient Cultures Were Aware Of The Dynamic Symmetry And Order That Existed In Nature And Conformed To Some Universal Order.

They designed their buildings, the surroundings, and even the vessels they used in their daily lives. These proportions are fundamental to the ideal relationships involved in the architectonic construction of the human form.

The High Renaissance And The Rediscovery Of The Ideal.

Move ahead eighteen hundred years to the High Renaissance, and we have the humanistic investigations of Leonardo, Durer, Michelangelo, and Vesalius. Michelangelo being a sculptor followed the Greek Canon, the others were more interested in examining individual differences based off of the classic ideal.

Leonardo created a myriad of proportional studies based on the writings of the Roman Architect Vitruvius. Vitruvius was a Roman Scholar that lived during the 1st century B.C. his writings on proportion in architecture and the human body led to Leonardo’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man.

Leonardo’s studies of the Proportions and Anatomy of the human form served both Art and Science. Leonardo was one of the first artists to study the science of drawing and painting. Many Renaissance Masters to follow would create in multiple disciplines. The Renaissance elevated its Master Practitioners from artisans to artists. They were no longer just painters or sculptors; they had become Architects, Engineers, Mathematicians, Scientists, Botanists, and Anatomists.

 

The Contributions Of Albrecht Durer

His German counterpart Albrecht Durer did extensive studies of human proportions in his Dresden Sketchbooks. His voluminous studies of proportion, perspective, and descriptive geometry distinguished Albrecht from the crowd.

Many of his contemporaries thought of it as a waste of time and admittedly there is a Germanic obsessive compulsive methodology going on here.

Durer made many drawings concerning proportion. They had grid lines to help make everything proportional. He published many books on proportion and geometry. He maintained that learning geometry and applying it to one’s art are essential to one becoming a great artist.  

Michelangelo created his figurative works in the manner of the classical Greek Proportional Canon; his works certainly contain proportion, order, and harmony. His monumental statue of David is the most famous Contrapposto pose in history.

One could easily add Raphael to the list but the search for the ideal and the perfection of the human form was certainly a norm in the high Renaissance until the advent of Mannerism.

Dr. Paul Marie Louis Pierre Richer (1849 – 1933) Richer was a professor of artistic anatomy at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His book ‘Artistic Anatomy’ was translated into English by Robert Beverly Hale in 1986. Richer’s canon of proportions was considered a cornerstone of proportional studies until Hale developed the Cranial Index Canon some years later.

The Advent Of Artistic Anatomy

Dr. Paul Marie Louis Pierre Richer (1849 – 1933) Richer was a professor of artistic anatomy at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His book ‘Artistic Anatomy’ was translated into English by Robert Beverly Hale in 1986. Richer’s canon of proportions was considered a cornerstone of proportional studies until Hale developed the Cranial Index Canon some years later. This is without doubt our go to book from most things relating to Anatomy for the artist.

Dr. William Rimmer

In about the same time frame across the pond, we have Dr. William Rimmer, who occupies a unique position in the study of proportion and artistic anatomy. Rimmer focused almost entirely on the anatomy and proportion of the human form. These studies were not to aid his art; they were his art. Many of Rimmer’s concepts would be very controversial today because of his reference to structural features denoting ethnic characteristics beyond surface detail. It is doubtful the Rimmer was even aware of the works of Richer. 

Illuminating Loomis

Adding to the various Canons of Proportion, one needs to examine the contributions of Andrew Loomis. Loomis provides us with an illustrator’s perspective on variations based on gender, age, and stature.

The Monumental Contributions Of Gottfried Bammes

Gottfried Bammes was a German Professor of figure drawing and very highly regarded. He passed away in 2007 but left behind a wealth of information on Artistic Anatomy and figure drawing.

Bammes starts with proportion and with the Classical Canon of eight heads heights. Starting with proportion is key in learning to draw in the Classical/Renaissance tradition.

His approach was very tactile and hands-on. He had his students sculpt simplified skull pelvis and knees. Gottfried had his students do paper cut outs and make lino-prints. He taught construction instead of detail, always cognizant of how the parts articulated with the whole.

The Art Students League of New York

Enter Robert Beverly Hale, Hale, one of Bridgman’s students, took over his class, The Art Students League of New York, at the time of Bridgman’s death in 1943. Up until this time frame, the length of the head was used as the standard unit of measure in human porportions. In the early 1940s Archilogists developed the carnial sternal index as a means of determining which body parts belonged together for a single individual. They discovered that the width of the head and the length of the sternum could be used to assemble a skeleton which great accuracy.

Hale outlines this approach in his book Master Class in Figure Drawing he gives an even more detailed account on his series of DVDs on artistic anatomy. These are in black and white, and dated in appearance but the information contained is essential in understanding human proportions and dicipering Bridgman.

We are the undoubtable the worlds leading experts and proponents of the CSI system (Cranial Sternal Index) it is far and away the superior system if one endeavors to learn to draw from memory and imagination. We introduced this system to Glen Vilppu, and the fine folks at Proko.com

The Masters of Antiquity and the Renaissance merged science and art in a Plutonic search for the ideal. These achievements are considered monumental in the development of the art of the western world. The Plutonism ideal exists beyond the realm of man, which equates to a higher being. This goes against the grain of the current trend of secular atheism. However if one wishes to learn to draw from imagination and break away from their dependence on the model they will need to accept the fact that they have to create and easy to understand gestalt approach to the human form.

Two Steps Backward

Backsliding through countless centuries, ‘Classical Realism’ and its associated Ateliers have desecrated the study of Proportion and Anatomy. Many give it lip service and list it as part of the curriculum but treat it as a non-credited elective and relegate it to other venues.

The Sight-Size Deception

The sight-size methods developed in Minneapolis in the 1950s and the Bargue Dessin course’s reprinting are akin to accending into the Dark Ages. Working in this shape aping, tonal trancing, mimetic manner relegates the Artist back to artisan or craftsman’s realm. Eliminating the advances made from antiquity, though, Greece’s Golden age revived in the Renaissance and carried forward by true practitioners to the current day.

Never Intended For Artists

The Charles Bargue Drawing Course is really not a drawing course at all. It was developed by the French Government to train engravers to copy historical imagery as faithfully as possible. It was never intended to be used in the training of artists. This is documented in the book itself if anyone bothers to read it.

Sight-size is not the traditional approach used by the Old Masters. As it is practiced today, the system was invented in the 1950s in Minneapolis by a protege of Richard Lack and had no lineage or relevance to the old masters’ traditions.

From Minneapolis it spread from the United States to Florence, Italy in the late 20th century by American instructors who had learned the Sight-size system at Atelier Lack.. Despite it’s current centering around Florence, Italy (Florence Academy of Art, Charles Cecil Atelier, Angel Academy of Art) the approach is not traditional Italian drawing as its practioners would lead one to believe.

Sight-size is based on the accurate measurement of 2D shapes for flat images or direct observation. Sight-Size is always model-dependent, and because this approach relies on self-correction, one can learn this approach sans instruction. In the ‘Classical Realist’ Sight-Size system, there is strict adherence to recording surface detail; the human form’s underlying architectonic structure and spiritual idealism have little application. The proportional canons of the Greeks, Romans, the High Renaissance, and beyond gave way to mimetic replication of surface detail and physical appearance. The results are predictably devoid of balance, rhythm, harmony, and order. To say that this represents a regression in the creative process is an understatement. Practitioners of this genre of realism believe they contribute to the art of drawing by eliminating its scientific basis.

Observation VS Construction

Constructive drawing redirects our focus away from surface appearance, toward an examination of its underlying form units. It is diametrically opposed to working from observation. Those that are trained in Constructive or Architectonic Drawing can easily do Sight-Size but those trained in Sight-Size have a very difficult time transitioning to Construction

Hopefully, we will trend back to the study of proportion and anatomy, and the appreciation of its beautiful structures and the universal truths that are the evidence of growth and life. The underlying reason to build a solid understanding of Proportion, Order and Harmony is to move one from replication to creation. The first step to creating a work of art is moving beyond dependence on the model. We should all strive for the highest possible pursuit of the arts, which goes far beyond painting things that look like things.

The significance of definitive Canons of proportion is essential to harmonious design. The master artists of ancient Civilizations innately understood this. The human form and it’s Golden Section geometry provided their unit of measure for all things. The novice’s revelation of the order and harmony of the parts to the whole becomes a seminal moment in their development. When one becomes cognizant of these canons’ rhythmic flow and grace, they have moved closer to mastering the human form’s design.

Leave a Reply