Painting big

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Lanie Frick of Licking, Missouri wrote, “I’m going big. So far my painting size range is 5 x 7 inches to 16 x 20 inches. Now I want to expand up to 36 x 60 inches. I’ve been cautioned that an artist’s paintings can fall apart on a large canvas. What pitfalls does an artist face when painting big?” Thanks, Lanie. It’s good to understand that effective large paintings are often merely small paintings enlarged. This is how they gain power and authority. The temptation is to put more elements into larger paintings, thus weakening overall compositions. Unless your work is purposefully primitive, decorative, etc., avoid adding more stuff. Here are a few ideas that will help you to make better bigs: At first, consider copying small paintings onto the larger formats you have in mind. As you do this, enlarge the size of the brushes to get similar effects as you got in the smalls. Squeeze more paint, too — you’re going to need it. Where really large amounts of paint are required, it’s a good idea to premix. In acrylics, for example, preparation and storage in yogurt cups (with lids) makes for ease of operation and avoids all kinds of problems. Every painter needs to eat a lot of yogurt. Gridding, pantographing and projecting-up are useful tools in the art of bigs. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about by using these devices — it’s just practical and intelligent. The time-honoured convention of the thumbnail is most useful when planning bigs. To find the “big picture” you need to go small. Use pencil broadsides for sketches and avoid spindly lines. Thumbnails head off dreadful compositions. Further, you need to let your sketch tell you what size might work best. Don’t get any old big canvas and try to figure out how to fill it up. Try to visualize your sketch in various larger sizes. The sculptor Henry Moore said, “I make the little idea from clay, and I hold it in my hand. I can turn it, look at it from underneath, see it from one view, hold it against the sky, imagine it any size I like, and really be in control, almost like God creating something.” Once, at one of my solo shows, I overheard the dastardly word “mishmash” murmured almost subliminally by an otherwise pleasant couple. My first inclination was to smite the offenders, but I soon realized it was my own giant, unthumbnailed mishmash that needed smiting. Best regards, Robert PS: “There is a right physical size for every idea.” (Henry Moore) Esoterica: In the words of the inimitable Audrey Flack, “If you can’t paint, paint big.” It’s been noted by New York critics that bad-painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barnet Newman, Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, etc., gained credibility by going big. “Size matters” is hard-wired into the American Dream and the mystique of the rich and powerful (Cadillacs are bigger than Chevys; Lincolns are bigger than Fords. Everything’s bigger than Smarts). Small-painting connoisseurship and tiny cars are more likely to be seen at some distance from the Big Apple.   The dichotomy of scale by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland  

“Not to scale #6”
oil and beeswax, 120 x 100 cm
by Brian Crawford Young

As a painter of abstracts I find there are exceptions to the rule that you merely scale up to paint bigger. In my “Not to Scale” series I’m trying to represent a vast space, or at least create a feeling of being in a vast space, so that the viewer has a feeling of mental expansion. To my surprise I found that my smaller paintings in this style had to be busier, and the larger I got, the more like minimalist Color Field paintings they became. I think it’s a kind of microcosm v. macrocosm dichotomy. If you look down a microscope you see lots of detail. If you look up at a blue sky you see lots of nothing. I can see that this doesn’t work with representative work though, and I have a tip for artists who want to try painting really big. Use oils. Acrylic dries so fast that on this scale it is difficult to blend, so you end up with ‘hard-edged’ work. But if that’s what you want, fine! There are 2 comments for The dichotomy of scale by Brian Crawford Young
From: Paddy Cake — Oct 04, 2011

Your comment is helpful to me. I really like the idea of painting a vast space for a change. Not to scale #6 makes me feel good! Thanks.

From: Liz Reday — Oct 08, 2011

Love your painting, but I’m sure it looks even better in real life, beeswax being such a great surface with depth. Whether it’s abstract or semi-representational, my paintings’ creative emergence sometimes come about spontaneously. I’ve prepared for bigger paintings by making studies, numerous drawings and all manner of thumbnails only to have the big work dead on arrival. Not to Scale is a wonderful title suggesting my inarticulate mumblings here. Paintings happen, at least the best ones do. The artist needs to be open to radical changes and shifts in direction. Sticking to a prearranged plan for a painting can be deadly – you need to think on your feet, the muse moves fast. Art is caught in the moment after years of rehearsal. As far as acrylic goes, one could go the yogurt cup way or use the inherent changeability of acrylics to explore a different way to work. Acrylic is an experimental medium for me in terms of application of paint. Oil is a little easier, but the more I play with it, the more I see how little I know.

  Abstracts depend on size by Leslie Tejada, Corvallis, Oregon, USA  

“Heart Throb”
mixed media on canvas, 42 x 48 inches
by Leslie Tejada

As an abstract painter, I have found that what I paint has everything to do with the size of the painting. Some of this has to do with scale: dripping or using other techniques translates into a very different mark on canvases 4×6 inches and 4×6 feet. And some has to do with the visceral fact that a large painting is encompassing. And then there is the time factor: smaller paintings take a lot less time. Therefore painting lots of details takes less time, too. When I am getting stagnant and want to give a boost to my work, I change size. The shift from one of the sizes mentioned above to the other is especially invigorating! There is 1 comment for Abstracts depend on size by Leslie Tejada
From: Darrell Baschak — Oct 04, 2011

Leslie, I totally agree with your comments and absolutely love your work.

  Truck needed by Lori Faye Bock, Abiquiu, NM, USA  

“The Chorus”
acrylic painting, 48 x 60 inches
by Lori Faye Bock

It was so exciting to read your letter about painting big as there have been two Baltic birch punnets measuring 48″ x 60″ collecting dust for the last six months or so in my studio. What in the world could be painted on these that would be worth the price the gallery will charge? After much thought, many sketches and many questions, I decided to do just what you suggested — although my little painting was not so little — 30 x 30 inches. It seemed that I needed to paint a subject I was familiar and comfortable with in order to have the confidence necessary to complete this monstrosity. The day before I read your letter, I borrowed a truck (as it would not fit in my little wagon) to transport my first ‘big’ painting to the gallery. Now that I have this first one under my belt, the second one will surely come a bit easier as I won’t be so terrified by all the square inches.   The complications of bigs by Lynne Cunningham, Davis, CA, USA  

“Summer Flows”
oil on canvas, 6.5 x 5 feet
by Lynne Cunningham

I just finished my largest canvas ever and went to the computer and read ‘painting big’ this evening! I’m happy with this, which is 6.5 feet tall x 5 feet wide. It’s destined for a show in southern California and part of my water series. Since this is around number eight in the series I’m grateful I had the experience of the others before I attempted this one. What pleased me the most and gave me a big bubble of confidence is that the underpainting came off easily — I felt the underpainting was good enough to stand on its own. The pitfalls: The size of the canvas — I can lift it from easel to floor but just barely. The logistics of gessoing and then muscling the painting around require planning ahead and timing; I can’t just lift it off to the other easel to dry a bit, I have to find a space or ask for help to move it. I actually mixed too much paint! I finished this one last night and immediately started a new (smaller) canvas to use up my piles of oil paint. The next logistical hurdle is hanging it – first I weigh it and then I’ll ask questions of gallerists on what they suggest for hanging. I’m thinking double hooks with heavy wire on the back of the canvas. There are 3 comments for The complications of bigs by Lynne Cunningham
From: Lanie Frick — Oct 04, 2011

Good points to consider Lynne. I’ll keep them in mind.

From: Lynne Cunningham — Oct 07, 2011
From: Claudia — Oct 24, 2011

I really enjoyed your blog. I liked your informal style of writing and really enjoyed seeing both your work process and your finished work. Love “Summer Flows”.

  The cost of painting big by Margot Hattingh, South Africa  

“Elephant Mask”
wax encaustic painting
by Margot Hattingh

I really like your advice to keep it simple — mostly I tend to want to put in more stuff, as large ’empty’ areas make me anxious that they may be boring. Meanwhile the strong composition of the original is probably lost. The other problem for me about directly enlarging a small painting is that when working small I can luxuriate in extravagant use of paint without counting the cost. The material cost to paint big like that intimidates me and stops me in my tracks. The upside of that restriction is that it has been the spur to my now pretty wide knowledge of all types of ‘gesso,’ paint fillers, wax and other painting mediums to create deep texture without having to use up tubes and tubes of paint on one painting. I have inherited quite a lot of oil paints over the years and it seems such a crime not to use them up. I could use them all up in a couple of big paintings. However they are all mostly brown, and on top of that not the browns that I like. I’m now trying to think of ways of doing thickly textured brown paintings without them being utterly depressing. Where’s Rembrandt? I need to channel him. There is 1 comment for The cost of painting big by Margot Hattingh
From: Darla — Oct 04, 2011

Brown paint is a great neutral! Mix it with a dark cool blue for a rich substitute for black. And some of the most glowing effects come from using touches of intense color in a mostly neutral background. You can use brown, blue and white for very effective underpaintings, too. If you don’t want to use brown that way, you can always use it for your thickly textured parts and paint the color you like on top of it.

  Tips on going big by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada  

“From the Shadows”
oil painting, 72 x 40 inches
by Brigitte Nowak

As someone who paints everything from 5 x 7 inches to 4 x 6 feet, I’d like to suggest some additional considerations: 1) Some ideas are just not “big” ideas. Before tackling a large painting, be confident that the painting deserves to be big. That the idea that inspired it can best be presented as a big painting. The inspiration/concept/image will have to be sustained through what is likely to be a longer painting process. 2) Make sure you use excellent quality supports that can sustain the larger size without warping. It is very frustrating to spend time and energy on a large painting only to have the stretchers warp! 3) Where do they go from here? a) Big paintings require more storage space and b) Is there an audience for one’s large paintings? Small paintings may find a readier audience than large paintings (especially in today’s more careful economy). While not a reason NOT to paint large, it may be something to consider. There are 2 comments for Tips on going big by Brigitte Nowak
From: Lanie Frick — Oct 04, 2011

Great tips Brigitte. I will definitly consider them along with Robert’s.

From: Catherine Robertson — Oct 04, 2011

I love your canoe painting and the fact that it is bright red against the blue water. Yummy colours. It looks life-size and very impressive. (Now I wish I had a canoe !) Thanks for your comments as well. Lots to think about.

  Use of ‘shacos’ for blow up by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA  


“Alicia Rose”
oil painting, 65 x 50 inches
by Sharon Knettell

Painting large is a popular way to increase real-estate space on a gallery wall. It is all too common today in the age of contemporary paint bullies who have no craft, little to say and scream loudly to cover their deficiencies. That said, I must confess I do paint quite large, life-sized. Every painter has to find the scale that resonates with him/her and their ideas. I have done paintings with, say, a 5″ head (my usual is 8″) and even my husband will notice that there is something wrong with the scale. It takes preparation. I usually do a drawing at half scale and have a “shaco” blow-up of a rough outline on tracing paper of the finished drawing. They have a graphite spray I use on the back to transfer the painting to the canvas. You can get shacos, large, cheap black and white photo-prints, which can be done at some large photo-printing stores. They are used by architects. I always do a color study, especially if it is an unusual color combination. I make notes of the colors I use so I am not mucking about when it comes to a large canvas — generally 6-7″ or more. Color studies save a lot of time and keep your paint work fresh.   Ins and outs of bigs and smalls by Deborah Elmquist, Port Orange, FL, USA  

“Apple Harvest”
oil on canvas, 12 x 24 x 1.5 inches
by Deborah Elmquist

I too paint big. Everything you said about preplanning is extremely necessary. Once you go big, it’s hard to go small but there are many downfalls. Positives first: All my major awards are given to my large paintings. Blue ribbons are nice and the notoriety helps to promote oneself in their business. The other big positive is that I feel like I have created something of substance that pulls me in and makes me just want to stare at it (those paintings that I pull off). Big paintings make me feel like I have accomplished something important which reinforces that I am a painter. My small images (8 x 10 inches, 11 x 14 inches) are so easy, they feel like “widgets.” Now for the negatives: Prices have to be in keeping with your price range. Consequently, you have limited your buying market considerably. I have strong pieces still hanging around my house because they don’t sell. After a while, they begin to pile up and storage becomes a problem. Besides costing so much more, a lot of people don’t have the wall space to hang a big piece. Small paintings can be hung almost anywhere but not so with big. I would love to know if anyone has suggestions on selling large. There are 3 comments for Ins and outs of bigs and smalls by Deborah Elmquist
From: Anonymous — Oct 04, 2011

Find decorators that furnish builders’ model homes. Downside, they are used to buying furniture wholesale and expect to buy art the same way. They decorate a house, it sits furnished a year or two, then the model eventually sells. If the home buyer doesn’t want the furnishings they sell off whatever they put into it and move it to the next model or to a warehouse. Upside, my painting sold out of one and I got a commission out of a another. And one more my painting was the only thing the home buyer wanted out of the house.

From: zidonja — Oct 04, 2011

Deborah I love your Painting apple harvest, it reminds me of the old masters, the colours are so vibrant

From: Anonymous — Jul 01, 2012

I need to enlarge a 10″x10″ oil sketch of clumps of apples nestled deep within an apple tree. How will this read at 40″x40″? My concern is that enlarged 8″ diameter apples and 12″ leaves will look grotesque! Yikes, please offer your experience and tips. Merci, Judy

  Small stuff in the Big Apple by Elizabeth Daggar, Brooklyn, NY, USA  

“He is not as cool as his shirt”
mixed media, 18 x 24 inches
by Elizabeth Daggar

As an artist and designer who has lived in the Big Apple for over twenty years (in Brooklyn, to be specific), I must disagree with your comment about the appreciation of small things. Perhaps it depends on which strata one is looking at within NYC, but here is the only place I’ve seen Smart cars outside of Europe. They make driving and parking in the congested city easier, and have a smaller footprint. They are also ill-suited to highway driving, more suited to city driving. Also true of small paintings; this being a city of limited real estate and small spaces (not to mention expensive studio space!), small works do abound in the galleries of NY. Just not the big galleries! Perhaps it’s Texas that one would be least likely to see small paintings and tiny cars!     ‘Bad’ artists not so bad by Michael Abraham, Delta, BC, Canada  

“The big sleep”
original painting
by Michael Abraham

You wrote, “It’s been noted by New York critics that bad-painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barnet Newman, Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, etc., gained credibility by going big.” I think they gained credibility by pursuing visuals that were not yet explored. Size helped, and size and colour field were one of the things being explored. One has to go beyond whether something just looks like a good painting or not, which is something that challenges according to realist tenants. Painters aren’t bad, just some of their paintings are. I think the contemporary realist school often throws out the babies with the bathwater, not taking into account what these explorers in paint were doing, things which could include social commentary, shamanism, the challenging of conventions, breaking down the hierarchy of power, clout, illusionary import, exploring the potential of the medium of paint, colour theory, etc. It is an easy way out of saying the ‘bad’ painters went big. The comment negates an entire period and group of artists in the history as useless. I am a realist painter but I feel these artists are some of my best teachers, as I have learned from what they have done. The dismissive comment makes you sound like you only favor those who are accepted as easily perfect, visually. To me, I think Guston is sometimes bang on! I think it should read, “There was great dialogue between critics and artists and the general public about whether some artists, whose work was at times big, are any good or not. Because that, I think, is the true conversation to be had. One has to ask what the merits and failings are of each piece. I also think there is much to learn from studying these ‘bad’ artists. Not that I love them always or ever, as I am often challenged by them, Big time. Philip Guston was admired, then shunned, then admired again. DeKooning is having a retrospective at the MOMA on now. It is sometimes the critics that have to come to the understanding, not the artist having to be ‘better.’ Big art is lousy for storage and shipping reasons. Otherwise, I think many of us would have grandiose visions and desire to accomplish them! Thumbnails are a good way to start. Some of my better paintings started as a Post-it note sketch. There are 5 comments for ‘Bad’ artists not so bad by Michael Abraham
From: Robyn Rinehart — Oct 03, 2011

I have just been into your website Michael, and I love your work. :0)

From: caroline Jobe — Oct 03, 2011

thank you for your intelligent letter. i felt the same way about calling pioneering artists “bad”.

From: Susan Easton Burns — Oct 04, 2011

Thanks for your beautiful art, and letter here. Right on! Amen. We can call these artists whatever we like. They changed the world. We love to hate them because they made it look so easy.

From: suzannejensen — Oct 04, 2011

I agree with your insights. Just love the humour and skill you brought to that painting. kudos

From: Liz Reday — Oct 08, 2011

Thank you for calling out Robert on the “bad artists” comment. I think the devils advocate made him do it, hoping to spark a little outrage in the clickbacks. Shocking that most readers were not offended, but it says something about the readership perhaps? For the record, Guston is wonderful in the real and DeKooning stops me in my tracks and leaves me salivating endlessly whenever I see his paintings in a museum, though they still look good printed in quality art books. Having said that, “big art” seems to be everywhere these days which makes me wonder how so many artists can afford such big studios, not to mention canvases and paint! Still, as an artist, the experience of painting large scale is something to try at least once, depending on the size of your transport. Love “The Big Sleep”. What size?


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Painting big

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — Sep 29, 2011

What a Ko-inky-dink. I just finished 45 small pieces (5″x7″-12″x24″) for a show next week; yesterday I wrote a note to myself: “Time to go big; larger brushes, larger renditions”. It’s simply a matter of magnifying the thumbnails. Larger paintings are more exciting.

From: John Ferrie — Sep 29, 2011

Dear Robert, Ok, first and foremost, Henry Moore should give his head a BIG squeeze. Nobody is GOD and it is nothing short of arrogance to think otherwise. I’m just say’in…. Second, doing big paintings can prove some challenges. First of all, it is way more paint and way more canvas. It can be overwhelming at first to see all that white space. But as the piece slowly comes together, and it is a slow start, it can be exhilarating. Like putting together the pieces of a puzzle or working on a mathematical equation, the work takes hold. You wonder if the piece is ever going to be finished. As areas become complete, it is exciting to look back over these parts with some distance. And as that last dab of paint goes on and the piece is deemed finished, it can be truly satisfying. I always recommend doing a larger piece, not only for the challenge, but for the sheer joy. Selling a large painting is another challenge entirely… John Ferrie

From: Darla — Sep 30, 2011

Whether you are painting small or large, it’s all about composition and gesture. That’s why thumbnails and using the largest tools that will work are so important. Even if you have to modify what you see to make the gesture/composition more effective, you should do it! Details are secondary, even in portraits. In this economy, small paintings may sell better, but it is the large dramatic paintings that will get people to look at your work. So you need at least a few large dramatic paintings for display. Large size adds drama to a painting all by itself. And it’s a real ego boost.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Sep 30, 2011

Big is better, you have room to move around within the image, but remember that in big paintings your mantra should be “No dead Paint” large areas must stand on their own with colour that has life or no matter how well drawn or composed it will fail.

From: Suzette Fram — Sep 30, 2011

Painting big has a real advantage, it forces you to paint standing up and to use large brushes, your whole arm and large body motions. It really loosens up your work. A bright bold abstract in a large size really catches your eye and has a lot more punch that a smaller one.

From: Rodney Cobb — Sep 30, 2011

Scott Christensen used to say that the only thing worse than an ugly painting is a big and ugly painting. Upon his approach to one of my paintings in his class I said, “Scott, I know it is ugly but it is small!” He reservedly smiled.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 30, 2011

To me, this was a rare misguided missive. By this measure, are you suggesting painting really huge teapots? From photographs? Audrey Flack was hoisted by her own canard. She painted big and from photographs. That list of “bad” painters includes some of this century’s innovators, people who broadened the visual vocabulary of painting. Ms. Flack seemed to be desperately hanging on to reality and fearful of her imagination. She stuck with her schtick and to me, always seemed stuck with it.

From: Susan A Warner — Sep 30, 2011

It is so liberating to expand ones vision. I have moved from 5 x 7″ pen and ink 40 years ago to a recent commission of two canvases, each 6′ x 6′. Those paintings taught me a great deal about planning, layout and use of color for impact. A reducing’ glass is a necessity when working big, especially in a small space which is all that I have to work in. Alternating between average size such as 16 x 20″ to 4 x 5′ is nothing short of a trip!

From: Retha Palmer — Sep 30, 2011

I am a piano teacher by profession, yet I have practiced art since I was a kid, drawing when I had a spare moment. Although I am very busy with students, I strive to do some art every day. Your information keeps me energized and hopeful that someday I will be able to devote much more time to painting. This June, I was able to participate in a week-long workshop in Bend, Oregon, with the Australian watercolorist John Lovett. I was so happy to paint all day long for five great days, and I fit right in with the rest of the group — very nurturing, filled with inner discovery. And I want to do much more. Portland, Oregon

From: Sharon Cory — Sep 30, 2011

I agree that making a thumbnail or sketch for a large painting saves time and headaches, but I don’t agree that blowing up a small painting into larger than life size will automatically provide drama and excitement. I’ve been telling people for years to paint bigger, and their answer is to come back with a reworked version of an idea that was OK on a small scale but didn’t have the depth to transfer to the big canvas. If you want to paint bigger, think bigger!

From: Marilyn Kousoulas — Sep 30, 2011

I know of an artist by last name “Ernst.” He always paints on huge canvases. His work is sold for thousands per on the East Side of the States, of course. Evidently, he thinks ‘big’ and can master the art on large scale. (I liked the comment that if you cannot paint well, paint big. Reminded me of bands playing….If you can’t play good, play loud.) This has nothing at all to do with Ernst’s art creations. The lad is a well educated, dedicated and an excellent large canvas artist. Plus he earns a living with his fabulous art.

From: Shine West — Sep 30, 2011

I like to paint big. I really don’t like to paint very small and am always amazed by how many painters that I admire do paint small…sometimes what I would consider very small.

From: Betsey S. Foster — Sep 30, 2011

I love the yogurt comments. I use the quart containers for my water, the plastic lids become my paint palettes, and the small yogurt containers become mixed-color containers when I work with pour-and-blend technique. Yogurt containers/tops are wonderful for travel as well. Thank you Stonyfield (yogurt brand) for filling such diverse needs. And, I thought I was the only one to realize this use!

From: Lorna Dockstader — Sep 30, 2011
From: Alex Nodopaka — Sep 30, 2011

Being a devil I’ll take the devil’s advocate position that bigger is not better. As a matter of fact it is worse because there’s a waste of everything since every goes ultimately to waste anyway, My proposition is to think small instead. Very small. As a matter of fact think yourself a microbe. I assure you the world appears quite vast under such conditions. It is a matter of perspective like us artists profess. I create small worlds such as aquariums and ponds. To magnify the scale I insert small ships and imaginatively travel throughout my constructions. The same applies to the visual art. Painting or sculpting big is only a time consuming affair effective only in postponing the completion of the end result. As a matter of another fact I now construct small ephemeral erection that I photograph from a very up-close perspective and voila! Of course I explain my philosophy to prospective buyers and they pay me with diminutive imaginary banknotes… lol

From: Noel Torrey — Sep 30, 2011

On the other hand, there are artists that paint VERY well, and choose to paint BIG simply because a large image has so much more visual impact than a small image. There are always trade offs. Working large is a problem for many simply because of logistics. It’s difficult to move and transport an eight foot painting, and it takes a much longer period of time to create a good large painting than a small one.

From: Jack Wahl — Sep 30, 2011

Some other things Lanie will find out, is: It costs a lot more to frame a large painting, If you do choose to frame it, will cost a lot more than a 5 x 7, canvas and the paint costs more, and shipping to and from, if it doesn’t sell, costs more. The last is it will take a lot longer to paint 36 x 60 than a 5 x 7. Thanks and good luck

From: Steve Brown — Sep 30, 2011
From: Janet Badger — Sep 30, 2011

I learned a couple of things while getting my BFA. “When in doubt, Stretch it out!” and “If it’s good small, it’ll be Great, Big!! That was the mindset. I nearly did a Mary Poppins carrying a canvas bigger than I was across the campus one windy day.

From: Kim Rody — Sep 30, 2011

I gave a talk to an art group last week called “Creating Drama on the Canvas”. Number one out of 9 was “get a big canvas”. I brought in a 72×48″ blank stretched linen canvas for my projector screen, and most of the painters had never seen an empty canvas that large before. They were a little intimidated. I have about six empty big ones in my studio so that they are there when I get the urge. I actually find that the big pieces are much easier for me than a 16×20″. And, except for the primary wash, I generally use a number 1 or number 2 flat brush. I just realized that this year.

From: Kathi Hobbs — Sep 30, 2011

The strength of a large unencumbered area in a painting gives strength to the details. The mass serves as a foil that accentuates and delivers.

From: Sharon Sieben — Sep 30, 2011

These are great thoughts….I like to strive for “larger than life compositions”. I fill a 24 x 30 canvas with one eggplant. It is great fun to “think big”

From: Phyllis Tarlow — Sep 30, 2011

I, too, am being drawn to painting big after years of painting smaller landscapes. Some just scream at me to be a larger size. Sometimes I do a larger version (12″x24″ or 18″x24″) but this is still not as large as I’d like to go. The problem is my small studio space and where to store the painting after it’s completed. Is it time for me to risk the cost of an outside studio just so I can paint big? That seems to be the solution I keep coming up with and then stopping short of making the commitment.

From: Dave C. — Sep 30, 2011

I do remember listening to the Artists Helping Artists radio show a few months ago and heard Debra Huse (artist & gallery owner) say to the effect that, if you don’t paint big you can’t sell big. She pointed out that a lot of her customers to her gallery are looking for big pieces and if an artist hasn’t painted a large painting she can’t sell it. Now I just have to figure out how to paint large in my tiny studio where I don’t have much room to even turn around without knocking something over.

From: Jackie Knott — Oct 01, 2011

Subject matter for a larger work is to be considered – abstracts pack a real punch as larger pieces. Portraits of almost life size are far more appealing, which allows the artist to paint torso and hands. Of course, panoramic landscapes. One can go too large, enough so to eliminate a portion of your market. How many residences have rooms large enough to accomodate a 30″ x 40″ painting with a 4″ wide frame? If you’re painting for a public space, you have the freedom to go pretty much as large as you want … just keep in mind who or what you are painting for. I much prefer working slightly larger, 30″ x 24″ minimum. I recently completed a 20″ x 24″ landscape because the commission called for it … it killed me. It would have been a far superior painting at 24″ x 30″, ho-hum, when it could have been hmmm, very nice. I can’t paint small and have never understood the attraction. I want a painting that makes a positive statement with enough investment of time, size, paint, and effort.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 01, 2011

Not being a painter… I once worked on 4 textile pieces going to Japan made out of silk- that were designed on a computer screen- and then the patterns blown up. It was a joke. I had to explain to the artist/designers that doing so would never work- and they in fact had to take the blown up patterns and redraw/design all 4 pieces (say 5′ x 20′) at scale because all the proportions of all of the pieces were off by a mile. I worked for this couple one other time. I had to get the female/painter to free herself from a 1″ brush and instead use a 4″ brush just to begin to paint a couple of big canvasses. My work has often been big- 5′ x 8′- or whatever- but people think it was made for a bed! WRONG! Guess what? It gets into the prestigious shows and has been impossible to sell. Right now I’m making new work less that 24″ in any direction. Have to create a new market. For the time- the big ones are killing me… though I’ve got a few in motion-

From: Peter w Brown — Oct 01, 2011

The only difference between a big painting and a small painting is how far away one needs to stand to look at it.

From: Demersart — Oct 01, 2011

When I plan a large painting, I project my thumbnail or sketch right onto the canvas. I do it in an unlit studio so I can really see the carrying power of the composition. Paintings are all about viewing distance. When you work on a 6″x8″ canvas and your standing 2 feet away from it, imagine multiplying the dimensions by let’s say 6, then it’s as though your standing 12′ away from a 36″x48″ canvas. I always try to remember this when I’m working on a very large canvas. This means put on the walking shoes, because you should be walking away from the canvas often to maintain it’s strength of design and not fill the canvas with a lot of unnecessary elements.

From: Bob Snider — Oct 01, 2011

Here’s to bigness! It takes not only courage, but space, to paint large. In my “watercolor days” the size of my paintings were restricted by my workspace and the 22″ x 30″ limitation of watercolor paper. It is much easier to be free and expressive with a big canvas and big brushes….I recommend it for everyone who has a garage! My most recent painting, which was completed yesterday is a splashy race horse scene, 4′ by 10′ for a client’s wall.

From: Charles Frizzell — Oct 01, 2011

In the eighties, I worked doing layout work and underpainting for a very well know southwestern artist. After a couple of 30″ X 40″ pieces, he put me on a layout and color block-in of a diptic with each panel being 8ft. X 6″ for a finished size of 8ft X 12ft. A real challenge after my usual 16″ X 20″s or similar sizes. His word of advice was that no one will take you as a serious artist until you paint big. I have heeded that advice from time to time over the years, and do love to paint large, although the size constraints of my current vehicle is about 48″ X 72″.

From: Dorenda — Oct 01, 2011

I feel like a bit of a doofus in admitting this, however, until this letter it NEVER dawned on me to upscale my brushes if painting larger. Currently I paint very tiny works with very tiny strokes with very tiny brushes. I was so hooked on my teeny “one-haired” brushes that I couldn’t fathom painting a larger scale work! Get bigger brushes and paint the same strokes was so obvious that I just never saw it…feelin’ a little “duh” moment ( and I thank you :) Anxious to try it!

From: Juan Vincente Joanes — Oct 01, 2011
From: Brigitte Nowak — Oct 01, 2011

A couple of years ago, I moved studios, from a cramped, nearly windowless basement room, to a 500 sq. ft. studio space with large, light-filled, industrial-sized windows and a 14 ft. ceiling. What liberation! Immediately, I got the urge to paint large. What joy!

From: Bela Fidel — Oct 02, 2011

For the first time ever, I must disagree with you. I have tons of thumbnails or 5×7 drawings/sketches that were meant to go on bigger canvases (60×48, 48×36, etc.). They never work. What I have frequently done is have a very rough idea of the design in a thumbnail and then use those elements as a base for the possible composition on transfer paper that is taped onto the canvas. That gives me the right proportions from the very beginning. Still, 95% of the time, my small sketches do not work on big canvases. I find it easier and less troublesome to sketch from scratch onto the transfer paper or the canvas itself. The case must not be made on a definitive basis that it’s best to sketch small before going big. It may work for some, but not all.

From: Elizabeth Bertoldi — Oct 02, 2011

About 3 years ago, I set my task of “going big” and have done 2 4’x6′ paintings, and one 5’x5′ one. It was great fun, and I used a lot of paint and big brushes. My best expereience was at Artscape on Toronto Island, where I had a huge studio space. The challenge in these works was to hold it all together as I went along – there are many underlayers to the works. Going big is like directing an orchestra, instead of a trio!

From: Sari Grove — Oct 03, 2011

learn to use your left hand, because your right hand is gonna get tired…I was painting with a knife so the switch was easier…Know that a regular car can usually only take max. a 36×48 painting…My 48×60″s required me to walk down the street to the gallery carrying one at a time in my arms…(which is great publicity for the gallery btw)…If you are gleaning subject from plein air, you can rest the cross bars of the canvas on one of those orange & black striped construction cones…I’d lay it flat & do my sketching that way…(some workers let me take one of the cones home-the ones with the flat open top)…Know that scaling up from small misses details that you didn’t get on the small sketch…This can be good or bad…Good for clarity but people like to look at complexity because they think it is technically harder to do-so it is a choice…Linen sags on big, so be prepared to learn about how to tighten things up- Best metal corners are a neat piece of hardware…(a diagonal accessory that you screw in)…Oils take longer to dry on big- so take up knitting or something so you don’t put your dammar on too early due to impatience…I use zeolite rocks to absorb smell- put them behind your canvas in storage…Baking powder in the studio helps too…Christo used to eat plain yogurt with raw garlic chopped in, made by his now late wife Jeanne-Claude…The yogurt cuts the extreme spice of the raw garlic & the garlic cleans your head of paint fumes…After you have gone big in painting, you may feel the urge to try sculpture which is even bigger & more exercise…I was carrying huge bags of wild bird seed to trumpeter swans in winter, which toned my arms to move into sculpture…Bigger is heavier- train for that…

From: Ron Wilson (artist) — Oct 03, 2011

I get grumbles from the gallery and my family that I’m TOO SMALL but I am going BIGGER now. Like you said, the trick is to scale up the strokes and the simplicity so that we don’t become too bitty during the expansion. It’s working! Thanks, Ron in Victoria.

From: jen lacoste – cape town — Oct 04, 2011

Half a dozen huge, unsold canvases need storing somewhere… that’s about quarter of an average bedroom…

From: Sheila Minifie — Oct 04, 2011

I was always taught that upscaling definitely needed a change in composition and its elements, otherwise it was unlikely to work. ‘bad-painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barnet Newman, Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, etc.’ Huh? Have things changed so radically in the US that there can be a statement like this? I suppose if realism is the new-ish trend, then it’s normal in art history to reject what is past…..but…. Or was bad-painter used in this context as ‘bad-boy’ painter in revolt against academicism? This would make more sense to me.

From: Gail Rhyno — Oct 04, 2011

As someone just at the beginning of my painting experience, I have to tell you I’m at a loss for painting small! I buy the small canvases, because I’ve been told that starting small will save me money on paint. But I don’t even open the packages, they are voiceless if that’s a word. Silent, they say nothing, and frankly, they scare me. I can hardly find a large enough canvas. Is that because of the message I want to send? Or have I just waited too long to start my painting experience and the pent up voice in my head figures it won’t be able to express itself on a tiny canvas? I have no idea, I only know the large canvas feels like home, feels inviting and is so full that I just can’t imagine using small canvases.

From: Joan C. Thompson — Oct 04, 2011

My miniature figurative etchings could be blown up to room size. I know the intimacy of viewing them in their original scale, sometimes with a a magnifier, would be lost. They would become another entity, another statement about human drama, humor, or anatomical range of motion. Worth a try!

From: Lanie Frick — Oct 04, 2011

Thank you Robert for posting my question and for your words of wisdom. Thank you all for taking the time to post your thoughts and experiences on painting big. I will put it to good use.

From: Nancy G Cook — Oct 04, 2011
From: Michael McDevitt — Oct 04, 2011

A reducing glass is helpful. It was a tool common in the now extinct giant “paint” billboards studios. The craftsmanship in some of those monsters up above Hollywood Blvd. was amazing. In art school back in the early ’80s one of my classes visited the Foster & Kleiser billboard studio. We learned a ton about how to paint big.

From: Lillian E.Walsh — Oct 04, 2011

Robert and others, regarding GOING BIG! I took a wonderful weeklong class with Birgit O’Connor this past summer. I had never painted as large as I did that week. WOW, what a relavation. Amazing was the constant sentiment when I returned home to ‘show off’ my encounters of color. The general thoughts all of you gave is to start small and enlarge as you go. I have tried going cold turkey BIG, at home in my studio; only to find that I seem to be stifled. I am going to try your cumulative advice. Thanks so much for the extremely enlightening comments. Schenectady, NY

From: Judi Martinez — Oct 16, 2011

Since I regard a sheet of paper 11 x 15 as a challenge to see how to cut it up most efficiently into miniatures, I LOVE this article ! In a rather perverse way, I must admit. Especially the critics commenting on the likes of Jackson Pollock…….. Now I must go eat my yogurt. (Huxley,AB)

     Featured Workshop: House of Wind and Water
100411_robert-gennHouse of Wind and Water Workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

San Miguel Vista

oil painting, 22 x 28 inches by Tom Dickson, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

  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, 2013. That includes Gillian Hanington who wrote, “If you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it red.” And also Erika Schulz of Red Deer, AB, Canada, who wrote, “I really want to be overwhelmed when I walk in a room and see a daunting, intimidating piece of work and know that it’s mine.”    

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.