The United States is firmly entrenched in another election year. Every four years, the nation endures nonstop ads, debates and policy speeches as it chooses the person it wishes for the highest office of the land, that of the presidency. While the majority of the rhetoric is easy to overlook, I couldn’t help being fascinated by the repeated statement from Republican candidate Mitt Romney, during the Michigan primary, about the trees in the state. “You know, the trees are the right height,” he stated, while referring to the nature of things in Michigan. As a landscape painter, this got me thinking about the relative size of objects and how we perceive them. What is it that made those trees just the right height?
I’m fond of reminding students that painting is similar to a magic show. The things represented in the confines of a painting’s border are an illusion. We act as the illusionist—arranging shapes, edges, values, and color infused with atmospheric perspective and centers of interest. These are the basic components of the production and the tools painters have up their sleeves. By understanding how the human eye sees, we learn to manipulate these tricks to heighten reality and make a personal statement.
One of the most undervalued tricks is “scale. As a component of drawing, scale sets the relative size of objects within a painting to indicate proportion. Everything within a painting is an association. The viewer uses their memories and experiences to recognize and relate to what is being portrayed. Certain objects, like the human form and man-made structures, set a standard size for comparison. Everything else will be placed in context to them. When they are not present in a composition, we associate to the most familiar object, like a tree, rock or mountain. This is where our personal bias and that of the viewer can come into play. Were the trees short and the mountains tall, or the trees tall and the mountain even taller? It can be tough to know at times unless there is something in the painting to set the scale. Linear perspective plays a big part here as well. Relative objects need to feel larger in the foreground and smaller in the distance in order to achieve the appearance of space.
When confronted with a composition that is “scale challenged,” a subtle indication of a building, road or pathway, or fence can often add the necessary point of comparison to set a scale for the other elements of the scene. A good example can be seen in the Pastel 100 Grand Prize winning painting by artist Terri Ford, featured on the cover of the current Pastel Journal. Even if these elements were not present in the scene, they can be added to accentuate the illusion of scale. It is the prerogative of the painter.
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