Painters sometimes run into problems when they attempt larger works. This goes for artists who transpose smalls into bigs, as well as those who make bigs for their own sake. For many, bigs and smalls can appear to be the work of separate artists. Spontaneity and simplicity in the small give way to complexity and labour in the large. In the larger painting we may be trying too hard or trying to “give too much.” Big paintings can fall into the “mish-mash” category — too much going on. Small paintings rarely have this problem. Many of us find it easier to be free and playful with the smalls — while with the large we become tight and stultified. Why? Here are a few basic and also esoteric ideas that might be of use:
It’s a good idea to remember to equate brush size with canvas size — bigger works need bigger brushes. And when you’re looking at your work in progress, just as you try to see the big picture in the little picture, you need to see the big picture in the big picture. Look at your work through the back end of binoculars, or take a photo, print out and reduce to thumbnail. When you work, make sure you stay refreshed and full of beans. Furthermore, tightening up and overworking are almost always due to a lack in confidence. Joseph Storey said, “Have confidence that if you have done a little thing well, you can do a bigger thing well, too.”
Maintenance of style is all-important. Funnily, if you enlarge your personality, you will enlarge your style. Don’t be afraid to puff up. Elan, if you’re looking for it, can fortunately be faked. Furthermore, scale gains power only when the motif gains in scale as well. Also, take advantage of the “law of relativity” — a normally large 24″ x 30″ will feel small if you’ve just worked on a 50″ x 60″. Another thing — it’s not always necessary to take a longer time to do a big one — they require more energy, but not necessarily more time.
Apart from the need for some artists to make small sketches in preparation for large works, there’s a philosophical understanding of the mystery of big and small. Lao Tzu expressed it 2600 years ago: “Prepare for the difficult while it is still easy. Deal with the big while it is still small. Difficult undertakings have always started with what’s easy. Great undertakings always started with what is small. Therefore the sage never strives for the great, and thereby the great is achieved.”
PS: “Practice by drawing things large, as if equal in representation and reality. In small drawings every large weakness is easily hidden; in the large, the smallest weakness is easily seen.” (Leon Battista Alberti)
Esoterica: A useful technique in the production of large works is to see them in terms of a series of small tasks and fresh starts. The “intermittent habit” gives a constant reminder to refresh and renew. Big jobs need to be reduced to properly ordered little jobs. Intermittence permits a creator to back off and continue to focus on the big picture. “Large tasks are completed in a series of starts.” (Neil Fiore)
This letter was originally published as “Big problems” on November 2, 2004.
“The painter can and must abstract from many details in creating his painting. Every good composition is above all a work of abstraction.” (Diego Rivera)