What Is a Proportional Divider & How Do You Use It?

By Milan Art Institute on June 7, 2021
What Is a Proportional Divider & How Do You Use It?

Photo caption: Artists use proportional dividers when they want to learn how to draw or sketch better. Photo courtesy of Milan Art Institute.

For non-artist, the ability to draw can seem a bit like magic or a superpower. Indeed, most people have wondered how to get better at drawing at least once in their life.

Now, here’s a not-so-secret secret that many online art students have learned in our art instruction programs: You can learn to draw better. No talent required.

You just need the right instruction and the right tools and one of the most important tools in the artist’s toolbox is a tool called the proportional divider or the scale tool. 

Once an artist learns how to master this drawing tool, that artist gains the ability to draw anything he or she can see.

It’s that powerful. 

What is a Proportional Divider?

A proportional divider or scale tool is a tool that artists use to measure when they’re drawing or painting. The purpose of the tool is to ensure that the artist draws in proportion and that the drawing is accurate to the scale you’re drawing.

When Do Artists Use a Proportional Divider for Drawing?

The short answer to this is whenever they want to draw accurately. The longer answer requires some understanding of what makes up an accurate drawing.

If you want to learn how to get better at sketching and drawing, it’s important that you learn to see the relationships between the lines on your drawing, between the positive and negative space and other elements. 

For example, if it is your goal to learn how to get better at drawing people, then you must know that the eyes must be in proportion to the nose and the lips and to the overall “edges” of the face. 

The proportional divider will help you keep the correct ratios in your work not only between each individual element of the subject’s face, but also between your reference image and your drawing. 

In other words, if you’re using a picture as a reference for your drawing, using the scale tool as you work between the photo and the drawing allows you to keep everything in correct proportion. 

This is true even if your drawing is larger or smaller than your reference. Using this tool ensures that your drawing is to scale.

How Do Proportional Dividers Work?

As you can see by the photo at the top of the page, the scale tool looks a bit like scissors without handles. In the center of the tool is a pivot point that is made from a nut and bolt. There are also holes on one side of the arms. 

Photo caption: Adjusting the pivot point allows you to make your work larger or smaller than your reference and still keep it to scale. Photo courtesy of Milan Art Institute.

You adjust the size of the pivot point by moving the nut and bolt up or down. Moving the nut and bolt closer to the tip (as in the photo above) means that the resulting drawing will be larger than your source. 

The small end of the scale divider measures your reference photo. The larger end measures your drawing. Moving the pivot point closer to the center means that the drawing will get smaller. 

Photo caption: If the pivot point of the proportional divider is at the center of the tool, then the drawing and the reference will be the same size. Photo courtesy of the Milan Art Institute.

If you have it in the exact center, the resulting drawing will be the same size as the reference photo. (See photo illustration above.)

Example of Using the Scale Tool to Learn How to Draw Better

It’s also important to note here that we’ve been using the words “reference photo” throughout the article for expediency’s sake. It is also possible to use this tool to measure a live model reference or a still life that you have set up. It works the same way.

If you take a look at the photos below, you’ll see this action. Elli Milan, one of the founders of the Milan Art Institute, demonstrates how to use the proportional divider. In the top photo, she uses the smaller end to measure her reference, in this case a shoe. In the bottom photo, she shows how the scale tool allows her to maintain the correct proportions of the shoe she’s going to draw, even though the drawn shoe is larger. 

Remember, the small end measures the reference. The large end measures the drawing. However, both ends of the tool represent the same item, in this case, a shoe.

Photo caption: Using a proportional divider to measure a shoe.

Final Thoughts on Using the Proportion Divider

Learning how to draw better is a matter of having the right know-how and the right tools. Using the proportional divider when you draw allows you to maintain the correct proportions throughout the drawing process. It also allows you to make your drawing (or painting) smaller or larger than your original reference. Using this tool allows you to tap into your superhero drawing abilities, enabling you to draw whatever you see.

If you’d like to learn how to draw or sketch better, then consider signing up for our Milan Art Community. Or if you’re ready to become a serious professional artist, be sure to check out the Mastery Program. This professional-level certificate program trains you to become a professional artist in just one year.

Learn More About How to Draw Better…

8 Helpful Tips For Finding Inspiration to Draw and Paint

Free Art Tutorial: How to Draw or Paint the Nose Step by Step

Quick Drawing Tips & Techniques: What Is Subtractive Drawing

Milan Art Institute
Milan Art Institute

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