Big problems


Dear Artist,

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:


“Man at the Crossroads” 1934
recreated version of destroyed Rockefeller Center fresco
by Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

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.”


Ford Motor Company mural 1930s
by Diego Rivera

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.


“Pan American Unity” 1940
mural by Diego Rivera

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.”


Mural by Diego Rivera showing the pre-Columbian Aztec city of Tenochtitlán.

Best regards,


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.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“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)



  1. I think this can be a problem if you are attempting to “re-create” the smaller study and simply try to blow it up, I think there will be frustration. The larger painting is a separate entity all together. You can base the image, color, composition even on a smaller study but the larger piece has it’s own requirements. Using a larger brush matching the larger size as was suggested is a good point. Your marks must reflect the new size. A small dash, or dot on a 9×12 will be lost on a 30×40 painting. Keeping the “pace” of the painting overall just as you would a smaller painting is also important. I know several painters who work large in the field and have no problem. I am one of those painters who prefer to at least start a large painting on site, but what do you do if you are travelling and it is difficult to bring large canvases? The answer for me is to do several smaller “studies” just as the Hudson River School painters did and Corot and a host of other landscape painters for reference in the studio. Using these small studies as guides, photo referencing , pencil sketches, notes about the color and also important to include your remembrance of the “feeling” of working in this particular place, which I think is most important. ..Using all these things as tools to re-interpret not re-create the small study is the goal for a larger work.

  2. I learned how to be economical with my brushstrokes even more so after a few years of working in theater.

    We used ops, bush brooms, backpack water sprayers intended for watering plants or insecticides etc. to paint drops that were easily 20’x60′.

    It was actually HARDER to go back and paint “smaller” on my 5’x5′ paintings….

  3. As an artist who started her career working only on large paintings, commissions included a 100square foot mural for the USPS, I have found in my later years that really do enjoy doing the small ones now. At first I felt cramped and missed the excitement of a full day of knives and brushes flying. Now an hour sees a small painting almost completed. In the field, doing plein air, as I recently did in Italy I have found that 16×20 is my max and 11″x14 is just about right. If I do a 6″x8″, or 8″x10″ I work very fast, but details wait until I am back in the studio. Listening to the rain outside today has me enjoying working hard. I am getting all of the 15 “oil sketches” from Italy signed, and “loved” on. There is nothing like bringing back from a place you never want to forget, paintings that take you to that very special moment when the light was perfect and the sounds of a different world were caressing you while you worked.

  4. Great comments from people who have worked large, very, and small. I may not use small brushes on larger canvases, but I don’t feel the need to fully equate the brush size with available space. I just have more fun stretching out the strokes. I do realize the old saw that big works demand big ideas. With all the great work of the past there is still the need for more.

  5. It looks like we were hacked, apologies to anyone who didn’t see the content they expected. Our provider has told us that the problem has been fixed, so fingers crossed!

    Official Brush Cleaner
    On behalf of The Painter’s Keys team.

  6. Great post! I recently completed a 60X60 commissioned acrylic painting–my largest yet. I was excited to discover how immersive the process was. Given the scale of the work, there was a sense of walking right into the landscape I was creating. It was quite magical! I also swapped my ‘artist’ brushes for contractor ‘painter’ style brushes–1 to 2 inch size that could hold more paint. I also discovered that going big was a true test of my planning process. It’s easy to blow through a lot of good paint when you make a wrong turn!

  7. One important note that I didn’t see mentioned. “Look at your painting through the back end of your binoculars”
    may refer to what was available at the time. If you work on a large scale you absolutely must own a “Reducing Glass”
    which is the opposite of the Magnifying glass. I have two and find them invaluable even with a small painting.
    It gives you great perspective and sense of detachment when you can’t step back far enough.
    My largest paintings were 6′ X 6′ each to hang together, or a large diptych. My painting space is small and I couldn’t have produced these without the Reducing Glass.
    After doing a large piece of 30 X 40 I find it is therapeutic to bounce back to a small…..12 x12 worked for me,
    or even changing media is a refresher.

  8. Working big is truly a different type of painting altogether. It’s challenges of working from smaller drawings into a larger final piece is part and f the great process.

    My Professor always pushed us to work as big as possible. At first I was intimidated and overwhelmed by the idea, but now,I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

featured-workshop 32644
Oil on Canvas
48 x 48 in.

Featured Artist

Gardens are my enduring inspiration, and getting to the heart of the flower, my passion.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.