Does size matter?

15

Dear Artist,

“If you can’t paint, paint big,” said American photorealist Audrey Flack. My dad, a student of the classical school and reducing grand themes onto 8 x 10 mahogany panels, quoted Audrey when he visited me at art school and noticed a syndrome of sizes going up and quality going down. We discussed how size could have its merits, and I reminded him that Monet’s most ambitious and groundbreaking work was huge — work he didn’t begin until the apex of his creative maturation when he was in his 70s and 80s. While perhaps partly a compensation for failing eyesight, Monet’s mural-sized water lilies presented their own unique technical challenges and pushed him into the innovation of abstraction. When I got home that summer, a dozen amusingly large, primed canvases waited for me in the basement.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) in his studio at Giverny, 1920.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) in his studio at Giverny, 1920.

Yesterday, a studio visitor asked just how large I was planning to go. “Work expands to the space allotted,” I replied, gesturing at the ceiling and the door-width of the exits. “It’s getting a bit overwhelming in here,” he said, and I took it as if that was a good thing. I offered that it was irresistible not to try. Blowing up paintings can advance skills and understanding and if the results are satisfactory, can radicalize the immersive visual and physical power of composition and colour work. Here are a few ideas:

If you’re going big, increase the size of everything: your subject, your brushes, your paint load, your flourishes and the heft of your overall concept. Big paintings, said Dad, require grand subjects and powerful ideas.

The Water Lily Pond, c. 1917-1919 oil on canvas by Claude Monet

The Water Lily Pond, c. 1917-1919
oil on canvas
by Claude Monet

Technically, I’ve noticed that everything becomes exponentially more difficult after a certain size — usually the size that’s bigger than your person. A thumbnail — first, a sketch and after, a snapshot — are the bookends for good design and will guide you to problem spots.

A commitment to size, materials and time can be daunting. When failure happens, as it does for me daily, I secretly tell myself that I’m a bit like Thomas Edison and remove my staples with his zen-like mantra: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Sincerely,

Sara

Too large to be moved, Monet's water liles remained in place during 2000-2006 renovations of the oval rooms built for them in 1927. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris Remy de la Mauviniere photo

Too large to be moved, Monet’s water liles remained in place during 2000-2006 renovations of the oval rooms built for them in 1927.
Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
Remy de la Mauviniere photo

PS: “Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.” (Thomas Edison)

Esoterica: Size matters — for every painting. Take a photo of your current work with your smart phone and look at it, postage stamp-sized, on the screen. This tiny, perfect version of your painting can reveal compositional strengths and weaknesses, issues with value and where design can be strengthened. Every painting has an ideal size and format. If you work enough, you will begin to intuitively feel it without much deliberation. A tiny, perfect 8 x 10 panel, constructed well, can hold and captivate the world.

“It really is appallingly difficult to do something which is complete in every respect, and I think most people are content with mere approximations. Well, my dear friend, I intend to battle on, scrape off and start again.” (Claude Monet)

The Water Lilies - The Clouds, 1920–1926 by Claude Monet Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris

The Water Lilies – The Clouds, 1920–1926
by Claude Monet
Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris

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“Growth comes from activity, not from intellectual understanding.” (Maria Montessori)

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15 Comments

  1. Once again….super size it! Make it so big that details are unnecessary. Just slop the paint all over and let the colors (or lack of) speak to the illusory concept of actual talent. This technique works exceptionally well for the sellers of supplies. The latest catalog I received from one of them has a photo of the artist covered in paint in front of a huge gloppy & colorful canvas. Looks like a lot of fun….I just might try it!

  2. Thank you Sara,

    Spirited fun that your dad had some large canvasses waiting for you. I appreciate all of your experiences and insight that you share.
    Ive just been painting on larger canvass than usual and I quickly found out that the brushes needed to scale up.

    Wishing you and all a lovely day and weekend ahead.

  3. Monet has guided much of my work this summer, although I am painting a series: Monumental: Great Lands, in honor of the pillaging of America’s national monuments, national parks and other public lands. To top it off, my eyes began to trouble me, so like Monet, I have a spectacle wardrobe and several drops for the eyes. I used to slop paint all over the place, but efforts later are deliberate. focused and large! Two more shows to exhibit this year!

    • Paul. Klee. With. His. Small. Paintings. Would. Have. A snowball.chance. In hell. To. Survive. In today’s. Art. World. Schnabel. Large. Broken. Plates. Paintings. Are Excellent. Examples.

      • Thanks for reminding me of the “smalls” of Klee, as they temporarily slipped my mind. For the past three years I have gone to 8 x 10’s and have become enamored with the results; more ideas have been researched and completed, they have been much easier to carry around and they don’t take up much space in my storage facilities. I have also felt that I have not in the least lost my message in the images. True, I have lost the shock and awe of the “big’s”, but though my work may be small, I feel that they are “mighty”!

  4. Just last week I saw the wonderful exhibit, “Monet: The Late Years” at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. There were a couple of his huge wall-size paintings on display. All were terrific but I preferred the “small” paintings, about 3X4 feet.

  5. Yes, going big, bigger, bigger is wonderful[ and difficult and frustrating and ,,,, well you know ,,, exciting, dramatic , etc]… especially if you are a student of colour . Interestingly , trying to go back to small scale paintings after big is much more of a challenge . Wishing everyone going big success and enjoyment in the process.

  6. Charles Eisener on

    I think size is relative. When first starting out in oils in high school, I consistently had problems trying to fill an 8×10″ panel without having an excess of empty space that said nothing and certainly added nothing to the composition. My typical acrylic is currently 16×20″ but there have been a few almost double that size.

    As an amateur, my other size is also relative: there is a limit to my display/storage space. I can assume that professionals suffer from the same problem. With this in mind, there is little incentive to “go large”, as the after effects are more negative than positive. The question often resolves itself by looking more closely at the concept or reference image and then asking “How can I distill or crop this down to 16×20 or thereabouts and still maintain the impact?” Often the answer is to develop another concept or change to a more linear canvas.

    The VanGogh collection on display in Philly a few years ago made me realize that large canvas size is not always required to achieve huge effects. It is what we see and how we put it onto the canvas that counts, after all.

  7. Great article, it pulled me right in from the message you sent. I work digitally from photographic images that I capture in NYC, edited revised reworked; I look for abstract expression within the frame and wish always there was no frame at all….even if that is not possible… The rectangles and squares that hold the work do so arbitrarily and the edges of the box create a shape that is not present when I create the picture. Sometimes I look at something I made and its not what i made at all; the box its in changed it so fundamentally that its become something else. Fortunately the thing it becomes, is interesting to me. Most of the time.
    The size then becomes a critical factor, however. The piece, whatever it is, existing on the physical plain now is a separate thing from the space that inspired or caused it. Or it may not be from that space at all; it doesn’t matter. What matters is the separation from the space it occupies and the size of the image has a major affect on that. Small things don’t create the same separation as big things. The flow of the World that swirls around it, Time passing, people coming and going, creation, destruction life and death are the water in the river that flows on by. The pebbles on the bottom of the river may well be jewels but the rocks and boulders that make the river change its course loom large. Inevitably.

  8. Thank you for these insightful ideas, Sara! In former days, I loved painting BIG…. these days, 16″ x 20″ seems to suit me fine….. Perhaps I”ll persuade myself to go larger again because of your ideas…… perhaps.

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