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.
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
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!
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Abstracts depend on size
by Leslie Tejada, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
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!
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by Lori Faye Bock, Abiquiu, NM, USA
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
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.
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The cost of painting big
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa
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.
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Tips on going big
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
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.
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Use of ‘shacos’ for blow up
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
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
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.
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Small stuff in the Big Apple
by Elizabeth Daggar, Brooklyn, NY, USA
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
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.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Painting big…
San Miguel Vista
oil painting, 22 x 28 inches
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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.”
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