My students and I are painting the mountains that surround us. We are in the Catskills, not the highest, the most majestic or dramatic of mountain formations but absolutely beautiful. The Catskill Mountains, thought to be the oldest range in North America, consist of very large rounded mounds or humps, covered with thick mixed forest punctuated with the occasional remnants of early 20th century farms. Wide at the bottom, rounded at the top, each mountain is outlined by flat, twisting hollows. The range rolls on and on as far as the eye can see and offers a stunning array of atmospheric effects according the weather and the time of day.
How to capture their presence in paint? In studying our results we are confronting the issue of “scale”.
A subject is large or small, tall or short, wide or narrow, close or far away, only in comparison with something else. Landscape artists employ several techniques to depict features of an area: layering, perspective, variations in color to indicate atmospheric effects of distance, and scale.
Just as the archaeologist, to accurately convey information about a subject in a photo must place a common object beside it to indicate size, the painter can include a commonly recognized object in her painting to indicate the subject’s size, or distance from the viewer. “To accurately depict“– the difficulty for us is how to include an item of scale and still make the painting one that focuses on the mountains.
I went back into my own archive of paintings to locate one painting I remembered as “critical“ to my growth as a painter. I have for nostalgic reasons, kept this unfinished painting of the huge, 10-12 foot tall, sculpted box hedge at the entrance to the Rockefeller Greenhouse in Cleveland, OH. That day I was painting with my Plein Air Painters, Cleveland group and had completed a painting of the hedge and the walk beside it. I thought it was beautiful when Betty McRainey, a friend and fellow painter, glanced at it and said, “You need to include a person for scale“. Scale! I hadn’t thought of it and all of a sudden my painting looked different; I could not tell if the hedge was massive or waist high! I began again and included a nearby statue. Above is the never finished painting that reminds me of the point!