Measuring Drawing Angles and Proportions - Drawing Skills for Beginners 

Learn how to easily measure drawing angles and proportions to help develop your drawing skills.

Learn to guess-timate angles & proportions to help you draw accurately

Learn to guess-timate angles & proportions to help you draw accurately

In our first drawing lesson, we looked for simple shapes in our drawing to get us started. This is a fantastic drawing technique that you can use when you’re drawing absolutely anything…

But not everything we want to draw is as simple as a single leaf and sometimes we need to use additional techniques to help us draw more complex things.

We’ll start looking at these here…

Have you ever seen artists holding a pen or pencil up at arm’s length when they’re drawing something?

What they’re doing is measuring the relative sizes of the parts of what they’re drawing so that they get it looking right…

This is called getting something in proportion or getting the proportions right.

We’ve all seen artworks where the proportions and angles are all wrong (and we’ve all created our own drawing disasters too!)…

So we understand why it’s important to try to get our sizes, proportions and angles all looking the way we want them to!

I’ll show you how to measure angles and proportions for your drawing with your outstretched pencil, here…

Working out proportions when drawing from life by holding out a pencil at arm’s length

Working out proportions when drawing from life by holding out a pencil at arm’s length

When we think about proportions and our drawings, we need to find a way to easily divide up what we’re drawing into separate parts, but also to relate them to the whole of our subject matter… so that each leg of a dog, for example, is the right size for his body, and his head is also the right size and sits on his body at the right angle.

We can do this by holding out our pencil and using it as a very simple measuring tool to give us a rough guide to the relative sizes of each part and also the angles we need to make in our drawing.

Measuring your drawing proportions with a pencil

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When you hold out your pencil against your subject matter you can measure each part of what you are drawing against your pencil.

Hold the top of your pencil level with the top of the section that you’re drawing and move your thumb or finger down the pencil to mark the point where the bit you’re looking at ends. Hold your thumb or finger there. Then transfer this onto your drawing by marking your page with the size (Hint: it’s often easier to do this with a second pencil so that you can keep your thumb or finger in place).

marking-out-overall-size-on-drawing.jpg

You can hold your pencil horizontally, vertically, or at an angle according to what you want to measure.

measuring_horizontal_width_with_pencil.jpg
transferring_horizontal_width.jpg
  • You must hold your pencil at arm’s length and make sure you’re stood or sat in exactly the same spot to do this, so that you can be sure that your measurements are taken from the same distance every time

  • Close one eye (the same every time)

  • You then transfer that pencil’s length onto your page – either to the same size/scale - simply transferring the pencil length you’ve marked directly onto your page (the easiest option)… or to another scale you’ve chosen, double the size or half the size, for example (‘guesstimates’ are just fine in most cases!)

Let’s look at a simple example

Follow along with me as I make a small drawing of a pinecone next to a physalis seed head.

Click on the image above if you’d like to download it for drawing practice - opens in a new window

Click on the image above if you’d like to download it for drawing practice - opens in a new window

I’m using a very light pencil (a 3H) and pressing only very lightly to make these rough sketchy outlines to my drawing

First, I check the width of the pinecone against the pencil and use my thumb to mark the spot

First, I check the width of the pinecone against the pencil and use my thumb to mark the spot

Then I check the height of the pinecone in the same way - and discover that the height and the width are roughly the same

Then I check the height of the pinecone in the same way - and discover that the height and the width are roughly the same

I transfer my rough measurements onto my paper by making small marks with my pencil. For this drawing, the size I transfer onto my paper is twice as big as the size I measure on my pencil… so I double up each measurement as I transfer it.

I mark out the height and width for my pinecone onto my paper

I mark out the height and width for my pinecone onto my paper

I then measure the height and width of my small physalis seedhead. Again, the height and width are similar.

I then measure the height and width of my small physalis seedhead. Again, the height and width are similar.

I make my measurement of my smaller physalis seedhead by holding out my pencil again - and I also check this against the size of the pinecone by moving across my pencil with my thumb held in place and judging this roughly against the pinecone…

I discover that the measurement I just made for the small physalis is ROUGHLY one half width of my pinecone

I discover that the measurement I just made for the small physalis is ROUGHLY one half width of my pinecone

Making a measurement with our thumb and pencil and also comparing it against the first measurement that we took helps us to make the sizes accurate. We can make our mark on the paper using the measurement we took, or simply make a guess at a mark roughly half the size of the first… or a combination of both to check and double check…

Here you can see that I’ve marked the page to divide my first square into half height/width and drawn a square of that size next to it to represent the physalis seedhead.

Here you can see that I’ve marked the page to divide my first square into half height/width and drawn a square of that size next to it to represent the physalis seedhead.

Next, I’ll think about what are the rough shapes that I can see in what I’m drawing - these two objects are both pretty well circular

The square marks are to mark out the sizes of my objects. Now, I roughly mark in the circular shapes using the squared marks as a guide.

The square marks are to mark out the sizes of my objects. Now, I roughly mark in the circular shapes using the squared marks as a guide.

When I’m happy with my very light outlines I can make firmer marks to make my drawing…

Using a soft B pencil to make the drawing using the outlines as a guide

Using a soft B pencil to make the drawing using the outlines as a guide

Adding detail to the drawing

Adding detail to the drawing

Completed sketch drawing to show how to measure and work out proportions. I’ve left in the outlines to show you. At this point, you could carefully erase them if you choose.

Completed sketch drawing to show how to measure and work out proportions. I’ve left in the outlines to show you. At this point, you could carefully erase them if you choose.

Measuring drawing angles

We can also use the same pencil technique when measuring drawing angles for our artwork. There’s two main ways of doing this (plus my own extra personal favourite technique)…

Here’s how it works:

When we want to try and show angles in our drawing accurately, our pencil measuring technique can really help us, too.

Estimating angles in our drawings does get easier with practice, but we can give ourselves a little head start by these quick techniques for measuring angles.

  1. Compare your angle against a horizontal or vertical straight line created by your pencil so that you can roughly judge how the angle looks against the vertical or horizontal, and draw a line at a similar angle on our page – no numbers or calculations needed. This works because it just narrows down our focus and makes it easier to judge small deviations from the vertical or horizontal line.

Holding a pencil vertically helps us to work out the angles of the leaves in comparison to a vertical line.

Holding a pencil vertically helps us to work out the angles of the leaves in comparison to a vertical line.

Holding a pencil horizontally helps us to work out the angles of the leaves in comparison to a horizontal line.

Holding a pencil horizontally helps us to work out the angles of the leaves in comparison to a horizontal line.

  • How does the angle look against the vertical/perpendicular?

  • How does it look against the horizontal?

  • Where do you think it falls?

Take care to try to hold your pencil very straight - you can position it against something straight (a wall or table) to help you.

2. We can also hold our pencil at the angle we see and transfer this angle across into our drawing

Hold your pencil at the same angle then bring it across to your drawing…

Hold your pencil at the same angle then bring it across to your drawing…

3. My personal favourite method is to follow the angle I want to draw in the air with my pencil a couple of times (as if I’m tracing it mid air) then copy this same movement straight onto my paper.

Make it a tool that works for you

Please, don’t get too caught up in thinking of this drawing technique has to be a precise science – it doesn’t. It’s most helpful if you consider it as a rough guide to help you – a tool that you can choose to use, or not, when and if you feel like it’s helpful – just like all of these drawing tips and techniques I’m going to share. Some you will resonate with, others you won’t - and it’s okay just to use the ones you feel help you.

Please don’t feel like you ‘should’ use the pencil method. Lots of artists do swear by it and it can be very useful, but personally, I only use it quite rarely, myself, so please don’t think it’s compulsory if you’re not feeling the love for it.

Sometimes, I’ll work out sizes just by holding up my fingers and measuring one bit against another – for example, one bit might be “about the same size” as another bit…

Very rough proportions for drawing!

Very rough proportions for drawing!

 “About the same”, “about half”, “about a third”, or even “a little bit bigger/smaller” all work as proportions that are quite easy to ‘guesstimate’ against any size. These actually give you a very useful rough guideline that still lets you to keep your drawing expressive, sketchy and loose without getting really bogged down in precise sizing or complicated scaling up or down (nothing too technical!).

Use the techniques you prefer to sketch your outlines in lightly. Think: does it look right? Does it work with the rest of the drawing? Try again if you need to.

Or consider making your drawing without these techniques, just as comes naturally to you… then, if you want to double check a size, a position, or an angle, you will have this technique at your disposal to help you in a moment of need!

Remember, for most drawings rough ‘guesstimates’ are a-okay for measuring your drawing angles and proportions! If you’d like to be very precise in your drawings, do practice this technique as it can be very useful.

Measuring Drawing Angles and Proportions Exercise

  • Practice drawing a flower or small stem with leaves and holding your pen or pencil up to get the proportions right. (There are some images below you can practice with if you want but also try practising these techniques by drawing from life as your confidence improves.) Draw lightly to mark the page with the sizes you measured.

  • Draw rough outlines very lightly and think about what shapes you see that make up your overall leaf shape or scene. There’s no right or wrong answer. Art is about looking and it’s personal – so it’s what you see, what you make out of it.

  • Think about the angles and lines that your drawing. How do they relate to the vertical/horizontal/right angle?

  • Draw in your firm lines when you’re ready. Remember to keep these relaxed and confident – they’re your own artistic expression.

  • How does it look? How do you feel about this drawing technique?

Try drawing one of these images below to practice and see how you get on…

Click the image to get it for drawing practice (opens in a new window)

Click the image to get it for drawing practice (opens in a new window)

Click the image to get it for drawing practice (opens in a new window)

Click the image to get it for drawing practice (opens in a new window)

Here are mine - click the images below to see them larger…

Good luck and remember to have fun with your drawing!

If you’d like more help with this, this topic is one of the lessons in my Start Drawing Your Way Essential Drawing Skills online course, where we practice this technique in drawing exercises to get us started drawing accurately, from photos and from life…

Personal help from me, and feedback on your drawings is available, or you might prefer the DIY version of the course - if this sounds like your kind of thing, click here to find out more about the Essential Drawing Skills online course…

Next: Understand how to use light and shade in your drawing to create more realistic and ‘solid-looking’ drawings…

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