A Monstrous Sense of Scale

Welcome back, students!

Here we arrive again at a new semester. And, as usual, a higher class number results in a smaller class size. As your professor, I have to admit I’m disappointed when students do not stay in the program, but the result is never so much a reduction as it is a concentration of the experience of learning. You who remain are the most fit of all those who came before. Your more advanced appreciation of the subject allows for a more advanced exploration of it.

This is Iconetics 201: Monstrous Sense of Scale

Lesson 1: Why We Teach Scale First

Frankly, I find scale to be a dying virtue in the arts. Many art curricula still teach scale and proportion first, even as the professional art scene discards them, under the guise of leaving scale up to interpretation. Or, worse yet, under the guise of transcending the need for it.

An art professor once told me that while Jackson Pollock paintings may seem artless and random, they are extremely difficult to fake, and imitations can usually be identified with a glance. He lied: Pollock is one of the most widely faked painters in history, and discovering which purported Pollock paintings are fake requires forensic analysis of the artwork’s physical materials.

But for those artists who wish to create not merely a masterpiece but an icon, scale and proportion are not optional. Any attempt at iconetics that does not include them is almost certain to fail. And even a cursory examination of iconographic history proves beyond question that scale, perhaps more than any other iconetic quality, is never to be neglected.

This is no small point of contention—and one that causes strife between iconetics and other artistic disciplines. There are many pillars of the art community which, when transposed to the field of iconetics, are nobodies. A lot of sacred cows get slaughtered, heated words get exchanged, and century-long grudges are born.

Truthfully, this was the biggest obstacle that for so long prevented me from introducing iconetics as a discipline into academia. Hallowed institutions and halloweder luminaries are none too friendly to people poking holes in their bread and butter. Nevertheless, the following statements hold true:

Jackson Pollock may have created many great paintings, but he never created an icon.

Mark Rothko may be a celebrated master, but he never created an icon.

Piet Mondrian may have painted a long series of revolutions, but he never created an icon.

Strangely enough, one modern artist who may have bucked this trend is Andy Warhol.

He was not particularly known for his sense of scale, but his works occasionally fulfill the criteria for icons that were covered in a previous class. The reason for this is that Warhol made heavy and frequent use of the other essentials of iconetics (which will be covered in the higher classes of this subject).

But for most of us, iconetics begins in how we scale things. For many students, this class may nostalgically take them back to their earliest art classes, where their middle-school teachers instructed them on how to draw a chair using linear perspective.

And this accessibility is why, in iconetics, we teach scale first.

But it will not be the same kind of scale they teach in other art classes.

Lesson 2: The Dark Side of Scale

You’ve likely picked up by now that iconetics cuts against the grain of some traditional art instruction. And, in matters of scale, this is no different.

When you are taught about scale and perspective in your middle school art classes, you learn how to make an image appear more in line with reality. A properly scaled painting gives a realistic impression of a three-dimensional space within the two-dimensional image. It reinforces the viewer’s sense of order, rightness, and realism.

Iconetic scale, on the other hand, is primarily in the business of disorienting, confusing, and frightening the viewer. It is a monstrous overapplication of a traditional artistic virtue.

In this, once again, we find valuable object lessons in German expressionism.

Did I fool you? This last one is actually not an example of German expressionism. It’s an old archival photograph from the Library of Congress, and it shows a large experimental wind tunnel used by NASA. But it certainly demonstrates a monstrous sense of scale.

When scale is used in a provocative way, you have the beginnings of an icon on your hands. Many of the examples here specifically come from German expressionist cinema, and due to the grayscale nature of that artform, you’ll also notice a stark difference in shade accompanying the stark difference in size. Large things are either unfathomably dark or painfully bright, and the smaller things are painted in a more timid grey palette.

For whatever reason, there is something immediately memorable about an intentionally distorted scale. It shakes the viewer out of reality and pokes holes in their sense of safety. If the concept of grabbing someone’s attention could be bottled into a “secret sauce” that made any artwork it touched into something unforgettable, this would be it.

Naturally, this works not only for buildings and backgrounds, but people, animals, and even props.

And while truly titanic differences in size are certainly eye-catching, you needn’t go so far in your pursuit of distorted scaling. Not every giant needs to be the size of a skyscraper. Some of the most intimidating size differences are still within the bounds of almost-realism.

But, of course, it’s not enough to appreciate a monstrous sense scale in art. As iconeticists, we want to learn how to make it. Which means it’s finally time for us to step off the safe platform of theory into the astounding open world of application.

Lesson 3: Forced Perspective

A parlor trick that became one of the world’s most powerful illusions. Forced perspective has been used for centuries to create a sense of scale that makes a big impression.

And though this trick can be applied to objects in the real world, it is even easier to accomplish in an artistic composition, where the artist is able to manipulate perspective with the power of his pencil.

And there is at least one iconic example of this.

Van Gogh’s most famous work uses forced perspective to make a hedgerow in the French countryside appear taller than a mountain. People unfamiliar with French hedgerows who gaze upon this piece for the first time often ask “What castle is that?” Terrestrial shrubbery in the foreground is made comparable to stars, clouds, and moon in the background, creating a disorienting sense of scale through the miracle of forced perspective.

Notice how immediately your attention is captured by the piece. And bear in mind that—as experts in the art of persuasion often point out—90% of persuasion is just getting someone’s attention. If you can convince a million people to just look at your art, then—simply as a matter of statistics—you are likely to gain thousands of admirers. But if your art never captures anyone’s attention, then no one ever gets the chance to fall in love with it.

Lesson 4: Camera Angles and Camera Lenses

By “camera” I mean the audience’s viewpoint, even if the artwork in question is not a photograph or a film.

To start with, the angle at which any scene is viewed changes the scale of whatever is being depicted. A lot of artworks hold the “camera” level with the horizon. This has its uses. And some iconic works have used it.

But it does not convey a provocative sense of scale. “American Gothic” has its reasons for being iconic, but scale is not one of them. What we have here is a deliberate sense of flatness. It downplays the sense of three-dimensional scale in order to heighten the two-dimensional details of the image. Which is not always a bad thing.

However, if we are trying to create an icon through the use of scaling, then creating our image at horizon level is a bad idea. It is better for us to tip the camera up or down to exaggerate our sense of the world’s scale.

When we tip our camera down, we get a “bird’s eye view”.

Remember that “height” is also a scale. And a bird’s eye view exaggerates that height to something intimidating and impressive.

If we tip our camera up, we get a “worm’s eye view”.

This also distorts height in a way that creates a monstrous sense of scale. Depending on the effect we want to create, either approach can be used to create an icon. And many icons have been created thereby.

One other iconetic tool, more recently invented, perhaps, than any other, is the use of camera lenses to create distortions in a similar vein. Since most of human history didn’t employ cameras, and had little use for distorted lenses, we tend to only see artworks employing this method in the last century or so. Yet it can still be used to great effect.

Wide-angle lenses flatten. Fish-eye lenses distort. And there is no end to the effects you can create when you compound interesting lenses with interesting angles. You could be swimming in potential icons before you are half-done.

Lesson 5: Quantity over Quality?

Monstrous scale does not have to be limited to portraying small figures against a larger figure, though that is certainly effective.

Another way to create a monstrous sense of scale is to pit a single person against a crowd of persons. And the people of that crowd need not be gigantic, as long as the crowd itself is.

This principle applies to any scene in any artwork where one man fights an entire army, or where a mass of people is fleeing in one direction, while one struggling woman runs the other way. Doing this creates a sense of scale that depends more on quantity than it does on dimensionality, but the principle is the same nonetheless.

A faceless mass of bodies can be as intimidating as any giant monster. Consider the rise of the zombie horror genre, which has its own icons and enjoys a popularity that, appropriately, appeals to the shambling masses.

There are, after all, many ways of achieving a monstrous sense of scale. The traditional methods are sufficient, but outside-the-box approaches tend to get rewarded.

Speaking of which…

Lesson 6: Don’t Be Afraid to go Small

Scale is relative. And while it can impress people by making objects bigger, the opposite is also true. Sometimes, things in the world become more interesting as they get smaller. And if you can’t grow your subject to monstrous proportions, then you ought to consider shrinking it.

Loved and remembered by a small group of people.

We see this kind of iconography used throughout mythology. Every culture has its version of “the little folk” who live in hiding. When pitted against a miniscule world, the most ordinary person becomes something of a monster himself.

Apart from that, the principle here is little different from other exaggerated uses of scale. The same rules apply. It is only the perspective that has changed.

Finals Week!

Another semester in the bag. What a crazy few months it has been! And in that time, iconetics has gained even more public attention as governments, corporations, and individuals seek to harness it.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here. And, if the department would allow it, I would give you all perfect grades. I’d like to take this time to assure you that you have all shown great understanding of the material and have a lot to look forward to.

But seriously, you’ve got a doozy of a final coming up. If you fail, you’ll be eating beans and dry ramen for the rest of your life. The jobs market is murder right now, and most of you are not going to pass this class. Tell me, how does anyone fail an art class? It’s not the kind of thing I can even imagine.

So hit the books and pray you have a future in iconetics. Remember what’s at stake!

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