Ever since the first caveman or cavewoman drew the first saber tooth tiger on the wall, we have been exploring, discovering, and rediscovering proportions. I watched one of those “how to paint” artists on PBS recently. The instructor was working on a painting that featured a sand hill crane. He started off by saying “To pull this off you must get the proportions right.” I perked up and listened, then but he didn’t elaborate. Evidently everyone but me must know how to proportion a sand hill crane.
When it comes to woodworking, understanding proportions are one of the foundation blocks of design. I’ll go so far as to say that anyone who produces a large body of work which is recognizable has worked out an approach to proportions even if it’s something completely freehand in their mind. I suspect that’s that case with many accomplished designers. I’ve questioned many builders who produce outstanding work and often they cannot explain how they proportion their work. Obviously they have mastered it. I put them in a category of someone able to play music by ear but unable to read notes. My hats off to anyone who has achieved this whether through keen observation and study, talent, or most likely a combination of both. Down through history there have been numerous ways to use proportions to arrange a composition and link the parts together into a unity. I primarily focus on the use of simple whole number ratio proportions but I thought I’d share briefly another approach that was once used. Some refer to it as a simple geometric approach and in the fine arts it’s referred to as the armature of rectangle. Take any square or rectangle and with simple diagonals you can divide up a space proportionally both vertically and horizontally. Connecting the opposite corners divides the space in half (Point A). Connecting the midpoint down to a lower corner divides the space into thirds (Point B). Finally, connect two midpoints and it divides the space into fourths (point C). You can continue adding diagonals and dividing the space into smaller and smaller units. I have no idea if furniture builders used this method, but I do know they frequently used and studied simple geometry. It’s also a handy thing to know regardless.
This approach was used by architects as this drawing from Serlio illustrates the layout of a door opening on a wall. Renaissance painters are most famous for using this approach to organize a composition on a canvas. If you would like to read more about that you might check out a copy of “Classical Painting Atelier” by Juliette Aristedes at your library.
George R. Walker