A little while before originally writing this article, I was listening to a radio programme on the BBC’s website when I slowly realised that the background illustration for the program (an “Alice In Wonderland”-themed digital painting of Alice falling down the rabbit hole) wasn’t technically correct. Alice’s head was too narrow and her legs seemed to be shorter than they should have been.
And, yet, it was still a very dramatic illustration that conveyed a sense of drama and movement. It was also a great example of how art doesn’t have to be technically correct in order to be dramatic or striking.
Distortions are an essential part of making art. Even if you’re making a technically “realistic” piece of art, it is going to include some distortions because of things like perspective etc.. For example, if you’re painting someone stretching their arm towards the audience, then their hand will have to be larger than their head in order to convey this accurately. Here’s a very quick diagram I made in MS Paint to show you what I mean:
So, artists can add extra drama to their artwork by exaggerating these distortions slightly. After all, art isn’t photography. Art doesn’t always have to be an exact accurate reproduction of the real world. Art is meant to evoke emotions, to tell stories, to spark the imagination etc… So, exact precise realism isn’t necessary, and it can actually get in the way of the message that an artist is trying to get across to the audience.
For example, here’s a cartoonish painting of Sherlock Holmes that I made a couple of months earlier (and posted here a couple of weeks ago). His arms are too long and his head is too small, but this is designed to make him look lean and spindly, like some kind of otherworldly intellectual creature. This distortion also places emphasis on both the mysterious document and the iconic pipe in his hands.
In addition to this, there’s also the subject of experience and skill. As an artist myself, I’ll admit that I’m not an expert at drawing realistic proportions. Yes, thanks to a few years of regular art practice, I’m a lot better at it than I used to be – but it often isn’t my primary concern when making art. Usually, my main concern is whether the picture as a whole looks good. As long as a picture looks vaguely right, then I’ll consider it a success.
And I think that this idea of “vaguely right” is a good rule for distortions and “unrealistic” proportions in art, since it allows these distortions to have a dramatic effect without confusing the audience too much. For example, the “Alice In Wonderland” illustration that I described at the beginning of the article looks fairly realistic at first glance, but it only seems unrealistically proportioned when you actually think about it carefully.
But, why aren’t these distortions always noticeable at first glance? Simply put, this is because the events of the picture are more interesting than thinking carefully about the technical details of the picture.
Because art is often meant to tell a story or create a mood, this is the thing that we usually look at first. Likewise, because the style of most art isn’t photo-realistic, we’re more likely to excuse other unrealistic elements of the art (eg: incorrect proportions) as part of an unrealistic style.
So, yes, art doesn’t always have to include realistic proportions.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂