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 labor 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.”

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)


Keep moving for the big ones
by Henk Jelsma, The Netherlands


original painting, 200 x 140 cm
by Henk Jelsma

Before starting painting big, do a lot of sketches with charcoal at real big format. You then get a feeling for the immense space that is waiting for! Big paintings need another use of your body; you’re totally involved with the painting. So swing your arms and stretch your body, keep moving in front of the painting. Be prepared for a great experience!






Bigger is better

I was trained to paint big right from the get-go and that is how I paint and what I prefer. I find it easier. I would have a difficult time painting small. I don’t mean I paint the ones you can’t get through a door, but 36″ x 42″ on up. To me, painting big is easier in the fact that you can see things clearer, i.e. perspective, shading, forms, even color. I feel free on a large canvas, whereas on a smaller I would feel stifled. I also like big “in your face” paintings.

(RG note) So far, more than a dozen artists have written with thoughts similar to those expressed above. “In your face” is in my face. Thanks.


Big makes happy
by Shawn Newton

I must disagree with the notion that painting big is harder than painting small. I have always been so much more comfortable with a 4 x 6 foot canvas and a couple of buckets of paint than with anything that I could easily carry in my arms. With small size, I feel so restricted and held back, like I have to think inside the box as it were. With big scale I just release an energy that I can’t on small, it’s refreshing and fun. The end result, no matter what the intention or what it actually looks like, almost always makes me happy.


Stretch big and go
by Kim Rody, Stuart, FL, USA


“Big Cuda”
acrylic on canvas, 78 x 44 inches
by Kim Rody

If you think you want to paint big, go buy or make a big canvas. I have them sitting around the house. Eventually they talk to me and I have to paint on them. They are hard to sell, but eventually they go. I paint 76″ x 48″, because that was the biggest thing I could fit in my Ford Explorer. I prefer large over small any day. Much easier and much more fun!



Scale is everything
by Cathie Harrison


Many times I have finally gotten to see the original of a favorite painting and the size is the thing that knocks me out. Monet’s Waterlillies at the Orangerie in Paris is the closest thing to a spiritual experience. I was so aware of his conscious decision to make me feel like I was a part of the painting, not a removed “viewer.”




The memory of seeing Georgia O’Keeffe’s cloud series, painted after her first airplane ride, still thrills me. Every time I fly and look out the window I know exactly what she was thinking.




On the other hand, if John Singer Sargent’s Madam X had been 10″ x 8″ I doubt it would have caused such a stir. I think one of the qualities of a really good painting is when it is small but appears to be big in reproduction. Nothing is more annoying to me than when authors of art books leave off the dimensions and make you search for it. It is the first thing I look for. I recently had a chance to see a beautiful book on Bruno Cote and it drove me mad wondering what size the marvelous paintings were. Scale should always be the first decision of the process, second only to the subject, and not to be taken lightly.



“Inch by inch, life’s a cinch”
by Marie Johannes


“Spring Branch Creek”
original painting
by Marie Johannes

When our daughter was is grade school I went to the school’s holiday sale and bought a decoratively painted yardstick. Along the edge opposite the numbers were painted the words “Yard by yard, life is hard — Inch by inch, life’s a cinch.” We put that yardstick over a door where we could often see it and during her school years I had to periodically take her to the yardstick and ask her to read what it said. It always helped when assignments overwhelmed her. Now that she is off and gaining stride in her career, I find I still need to visit the yardstick and remind myself of Lao Tzu’s philosophy expressed on that stick.


The force of bigness
by David Oleski, West Chester, PA, USA


“Sunflowers in a Glass Vase”
oil on linen, 40 x 60 inches
by David Oleski

The not-so-obvious thing is that every aspect of the studio needs to be bigger. Same time but more energy translates into more force on the canvas, and then the easel will be jumping and dancing across the floor. I had to buy a giant solid oak easel. You’ll need to mix more paint, and sometimes it will be amazing amounts of paint. More paint means to be ready to squeeze out entire tubes onto a larger palette, with more room to move more paint, and of course a palette knife suitable for flipping pancakes to mix these large amounts of color. Don’t forget a big jar of medium to keep up with your big color mixing, and at the end of the session you’ll barely be able to lift your arm. Always big decisions, and be ready to make big mistakes, and then follow up with big corrections. When you start to struggle to keep up with all the big stuff, take a break, splash your face, get some air. Stand way back to have a look, and get a running start before you jump back in.


Size and sales
by Duane Dorshimer, Raleigh, NC, USA


pen & Ink, 40 x 30 inches
by Duane Dorshimer

I noted that on one of your dealer’s websites, they currently have 21 images up, and that all but 1 of the 11″ x 14″ paintings have sold. Have you found any evidence that you sell more smaller-sized paintings or would you say that the lower price was the factor? I ask, because I am curious about to what extent the size of a work contributes to how well they sell.

Also, have you found that there is any correlation between the level of abstraction versus realism that your work exhibits, and to how well the paintings sell? Do you find that your paintings that focus on color and form, rather than fine detailed realism, do better or has it not mattered in your case? I realize that everyone is different, I am not asking for you to tell me what I should do. I would just like to know your opinions based on your experience with your own work.

(RG note) With regard to the first question, I pay little or no attention to relative salability — particularly based on size. While I don’t generally equate my gallery cheques with size or subject–when I do see large cheques for a number of small paintings I sometimes conclude that maybe my smalls are running temporarily better than average. At the same time my dealers often tell me that they have buyers for my larger works and it’s just a matter of “certain discriminating connoisseurs” finding the right ones. I can tell you one thing–well-executed large paintings when displayed in a gallery help to sell smaller works. With regard to the second question — we all pretty well paint as we must — abstraction, realism, impressionism, whatever, and on a level playing field relative quality will generally be noted and collected.


Location of signature
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“The Mural”
artwork, 20 x 30 feet
by John Ferrie

I love painting big canvases, the bigger the better. But, my “biggies” only occur these  days when I have a client who will commission one or when the season is right. Because of the small size of apartments and condos I’ve scaled my work down considerably. For my current collection, Luminaries, I have and will paint dozens of 6″, 8″, 10″ and 12″ canvases. The show is in late November and I want to target the early Christmas buyer. I just look at a canvas and envision a painting on it. I also calculate where my signature will go. I’m working on these really cool cube canvases, so the location of my signature is crucial.


“Bigger than me”
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Little Lake Santa Fe”
original painting
by Eleanor Blair

There was a dramatic shift in my relationship to my work the first time I stretched a canvas bigger than me. I was still in art school, and finances had limited me to small paintings. I don’t remember why I decided to build such a big canvas, but I remember how it felt to paint on something six feet tall. It felt great!




The subject as a feeling
by Nicole Lavoie, PQ, Canada


original painting
by Nicole Lavoie

Yes, Lao Tzu has the universal answer to the big problem. However it is not simple to apply. I find that when I go from small to big I have to regroup my thoughts about the subject and try to recapture the excitement I felt when facing the final product of the small or even just the idea of the subject matter. I then kind of close my eyes and standing in front of my easel I make gestures thinking of the subject as a feeling and not as an image to reproduce. I work standing up and give myself a lot of space to stand back so that I can see my canvas from a distance. A mirror to increase that distance also helps. But it is not easy, especially if I think too much about it.


Poverty breeds smalls
by Dave Wilson

When going ‘large’ two things enter into my equation — space and cost. I would bet that at least some, if not many, people freeze up when working big — simply because it costs too much. And this concern may not even be a conscious one. And, of course, one needs to acquire those big brushes and be able to stand back from their work to see it a’right. If I can see small, I can see big, but I am a ‘poor’ artist who continues to work small.


No repainting for Mike
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA


“The Triumph of Icarus”
60 x 30 inches

During a tour of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City this summer, the guide pointed out how Michelangelo had painted three of the center panels (the first three on one end — he painted the story in reverse chronological order) before climbing back down the scaffolding to “get the big picture.” He realized his compositions were too crowded and from then on designed more spacious compositions for the ceiling. I rather enjoy that he felt no need (or more likely, no desire) to go back, redesign, and repaint those 3 panels.

I was especially intrigued by Warren Criswell’s response to Feelings of control — he made me question the whole idea. We tend to think of control as a conscious choice, exerting our egos. But what if allowing our subconscious to emerge while in our studios is the ultimate act of self-control, surrendering to our inner, individual voices? Perhaps our conscious minds are too susceptible to outside influences, perceptions, and feelings of obligations to others that to exercise real control over ourselves means to leave the outside world, well — outside. Maybe trance is the true sign that we are actually in control and speaking freely. Perhaps we are most in control of ourselves when we appear to others to be out of it.


Best way to fit into cosmos
by Kim Power

Art gives me a voice for things I feel and think that I cannot explain. I’ve never tried to be more original than others, nor to conform, but it seems this is the best way I can fit my puzzle piece into the great cosmos. I have been an entrepreneur, selling lemonade as a kid and other small schemes, but in the end, it goes against my grain to have to put a price on and sell my work. I do it nonetheless, for a living and simply to have room in my house. I suppose I could give my art away if I felt like this entirely. What would be nice is if I could sell only to those who love and appreciate what I do and that I respect.






Lily Pond

oil painting
by Luther Pokrant, Winnipeg, MA, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Christine Olson who was “just grappling with this issue yesterday. However, I was having the opposite problem dealing with painting on a smaller canvas. It’s easier for me to paint with a bigger brush on a bigger surface.”

And also Jim Rowe who wrote, “When I went from small to larger paintings I found that there were large areas with nothing going on — wasted space. Filled in with subject matter it made the painting too busy. Now I just add more texture to the vacant areas — this keeps the subject matter simple thus sticking with the theme of my other paintings.”

And also Phyllis Anderson who wrote, “I’ve had a 4′ x 6′ canvas underpainted and ready to go for a year and last week I got into it. I’ve experienced most of the problems you mention and now I shall try some of the remedies you suggest. The timeline of your letters is almost eerie.”




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