Art Term Tuesday: Scale

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Have you ever looked up at a large mural or painting and wondered, “How’d the artist plan and get that on the wall?” With murals going up on walls downtown thanks to Art this Way, we thought it’d be a good idea to talk about how something small gets larger, or scale.

A work from our permanent collection, Charles Holloway’s watercolor and pencil sketch Two Lovers and a Faun is a study for the murals inside the Allen County Courthouse. Likely drawn in the 1890’s, these figures make up a small portion of the large rotunda murals. In the foreground, we see an embracing couple among the forest foliage while a faun serenades them in the background. As this piece is just a preliminary sketch, you’ll notice that the colors are quite muted and the shadows seem sketchily drawn. There’s also a grid lying on top of the entire work. This overlaying grid is what makes this sketch unique and aids in our explanation of scale, or the ratio of the length in a drawing to the finished product.

A man and woman embrace in a grove. Behind them, a faun plays on his pipes. Across the composition are light vertical and horizontal lines, like on graph paper.
Charles Holloway, American, 1859-1941. Two Lovers and a Faun (study for a mural). Watercolor and pencil on paper. Museum Purchase, 2015.16. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

By adding a grid to this study, Holloway accurately and proportionally translated his smaller drawing to the larger wall. Holloway first completed this initial sketch and then overlaid the grid. He then measured the difference in size between the drawing and the space on the wall for the mural, or the scale. For the sake of simplicity and easy math, let’s assume that the finished piece was two times bigger, so a ratio of 2:1, than the drawing, despite the finished mural being much larger. If the original grid system consisted of 1×1” squares, the area designated to receive the finished Two Lovers and a Faun would possess 2×2” squares, 1×2=2. Now, all Holloway needed to do to precisely paint this piece on the wall was work from square to square. Rather than try to draw an entire head, arm, or leg in one go, he simply paid attention to where and how lines interacted within a single square at a time. Scaling the work made moving from a small sketch to a larger, finished composition much easier.

I can almost hear some readers wondering, “Isn’t that cheating?” No, it’s not! The artist still creates the initial composition. Initial sketches, or studies, were often smaller than the finished piece. So, by installing this grid system, artists can create compositions on a grand scale, even on curved walls tens of times larger than their small piece of paper.

The grid system to scale artworks was perfected during the Renaissance by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Albrecht Durer, and Pontormo. This was often accomplished by setting up a simple frame structure with wire or string suspended within to form the grid. This was then placed in front of their subject, as they didn’t have cameras, and then drawn on their sketch pad which contained a corresponding grid layout. Working in this manner ensured that artists were able to capture the correct proportions, or scale, of their subjects, both in the initial sketch and then again in the finished composition. Imagine their frustration when working in fresco or tempera, both fickle mediums, only to make an error that could not easily be remedied. This new system enabled fewer errors to occur. It’s like the saying goes, “Think smarter, not harder.”

The grid system continues to be taught 600 years since its perfection to change the scale of artists’ works. A tool for established artists and artists just learning to draw, it allows the user to replicate an image exactly, despite the size differences from original to copy, whether they are working on their own piece or learning from a master. You can see this technique in action at FWMoA’s annual Chalk Walk event (pictured below), as amateur and professional artists draw grids overtop of their chosen printed image and their allotted square of pavement to transfer it. By scaling their work, artists ensure that nothing gets shortened or forgotten and that their artwork, whether a large mural or a beginner’s drawing, is exactly how they envisioned it.

In town over Thanksgiving? Take a walk around downtown Fort Wayne and see if you can find all the murals! Did you know FWMoA has a few commissioned murals as well? Come in out of the cold and see our murals by Nosego and St. Monci!

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