The Human Scale

As human beings we?re naturally drawn to “people watching.” Luckily this can be accomplished anytime: while waiting to pick someone up or sitting on public transportation, for example.

Painting Tiny People: I use this technique to add a sense of drama to my seascapes and landscapes. I also goof around with this technique whenever I have a brush in my hand and am waiting for something else, such as inspiration, a painting to dry, getting off hold on a phone call, etc. It?s fun to create gestures for these Lilliputians and then add a prop (a basket, a tool, skis or a hat) to help them tell a story in three or four tiny brush strokes.

Another wonderful capability we have is that we?re extremely astute about posture, gestures and body language, and about detecting what?s human and what isn?t. So a game I play is to add a tiny brushstroke to a painting to suggest a person or two. I challenge myself: What is the minimum amount of paint I can use and have others believe there?s a human being in my painting?

This exercise is fun, and putting people in paintings adds a dramatic sense of scale. We all know the approximate size of a person so once we spot the human in a painting, everything else is automatically scaled to the person. And the sense of scale can grow dramatically?and instantly?as our mind calculates the magnitude.


A Sense of Scale: Gathering Seashells (watercolor, 10×14) by Jane Mason.

Tiny Brushstrokes Make Tiny People
1. Remember, we want to suggest the gestures with the fewest and simplest lines. So, forget the feet and the hands. They?re not necessary.
2. Add the head last and keep it tiny. Surprisingly small. Think: pinhead. You can always pump it up a tiny bit. But a big head ruins this effect.
3. Keep the paint a light value. These tiny people are usually quite far off in the distance, and their values would logically be diminished by the space between us and them. Often I use a light, watery purple or watery blue.
3. Start with a jab-stroke. On a practice sheet, make 10 to 30 jab strokes. Usually I start by pressing the heel of a small brush (maybe a No. 6 round) moderately into the paper, then pull and lift. The stroke usually is heavier at the top and trails to a point. Don?t overthink this part. Keep it fast, small, intuitive.
5. Add diminutive details to define your little people such as hats or baskets.
6. After you?ve practiced a bit, start adding people to your paintings!

“I grew up wandering around the hills and along California’s central coast. I was outside all the time,” says Robert Reynolds. After 35 years teaching at California Polytechnic where he won the Distinguished Teaching Award and the President’s Art Award, he took an early retirement in 1997 to spend more time painting, although he still conducts workshops. His actual and spiritual home is the beautiful landscape of San Luis Obispo, California.

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