Last Saturday morning, Felicity, the neighbour’s daughter, burst into my studio. “I got this for my birthday,” she said. “What do you think would look good on it?” It was a blank 12″ x 16″ stretched canvas. In the revolving carousel that I call my brain, I remembered the camellias that are now peeking out in their garden. “Go for them,” I suggested. Yesterday, the canvas re-entered my space with about 35 closely-packed blooms on it. It was crit time. Under the light I gave it some hard thought. For a first-timer the painting was remarkably fresh. It was also a bit tight. In order to really inhale and breathe, our springtime the motif needed more elbow room. I recommended that we find a 36″ x 48″ canvas and that she might try it again. “That’s it?” she asked. “That’s it,” I said.
The British sculptor Henry Moore observed, “There is a right physical size for every idea.” His remark is basic to the process of art making. Often, we simply fail to anticipate the scale in which we ought to be working. A common blockage happens when canvasses are too small for the amount of stuff in them. Put more philosophically — You may be made for greater things than that which you commonly conceive. On the other hand, good things often come in small packages. As a very fine lady once said to me, “It’s better to have a small diamond than a large piece of glass.” Here are a few questions to ask yourself at the outset of each project:
Can I get my brush/chisel around this subject?
What areas will give difficulty at this scale?
Will increased/reduced scale increase its power?
What size is right for how I feel today?
Am I being victimized by available sizes?
What can I eliminate to make it stronger?
What level of patience or commitment do I have for this?
Will these dimensions bring out my best capabilities?
Will there be room in this size for serendipity?
Can I follow through and bring this size to signature?
Do I have others lying around whose problem is scale?
How excited can I get about this size and shape?
Am I potentially bigger/smaller than I think I am?
PS: “A one-tenth scale model of Stonehenge loses all the impressiveness of that place.” (Henry Moore)
Esoterica: Start with a concept and find the size that will meet its potential. Sit back, think it out, try it on for size. A short rehearsal never hurt any actor. Who said you had to think small? “O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.” (Pindar)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above letter. Thank you for writing.
by Jim Rowe
Make a small painting of what you want to do, then somehow get it under an enlarger and project the larger version up on a white wall. I have an inexpensive (hard to use) photo enlarger, so I have to take a photo of the painting to enlarge it, but the results are worth the effort. The enlarged version is so changed that there is no way of just visualizing the enlarged version in the brain; you have to use an enlarger. Ask around, you should be able to find someone that’s just dying to give you a demonstration, even if you have to go to an art store. It’s a whole new dimension in painting.
Easier than fiddling
by Marilyn Brown, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, USA
I really could identify with what you are saying about thinking big! As an art instructor, I find that most students want to use only 1/8 or 1/4 size watercolor paper. When I force them to repeat a painting on a 1/2 sheet, and then on a full sheet of paper, most all agree that painting bigger is not only easier in most cases, but doesn’t take any longer than fiddling around with tiny, small brushes on a tiny, small piece of paper, trying to copy rather than create.
by Bruce Meisterman Memphis, Tennessee, USA
After reading your latest newsletter, I was reminded of a size restriction that I had put on myself years ago. I attempted to print a few photographs at 16×20 size. They were terrible. I hated printing that size for what appeared to be nothing. Well, printing that large is a bit harder. It’s even harder when the subject matter doesn’t require or benefit from doing so. That was the problem. However, I carried that problem with me for years, avoiding larger prints. For a show I was about to hang, my wife forced me to see that while my work was powerful in its ready-to-hang size, it would in her opinion be even more so if printed larger. It would mean a lot of late hours reprinting all the work, 28 pieces in all, and getting it ready for exhibition in a now much abbreviated time period. She was absolutely right. The work took on even more power. The subject matter, dark to begin with, was now achieving what I mistakenly thought it already did. I do like the larger prints now. However, I agree with you and Henry Moore, that we need to very objectively look at our ideas and truthfully determine whether it is a “big” idea or a “smaller” idea — one not being any better than the other.
Struggling with size
by Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA
Your timing is perfect. I’m struggling with this very issue. I work en plein air around 8×10 to 11×14 and generally am happy with a good percentage of the studies. Happy with the composition, the amount of information, the color harmonies and most of all the brushwork. But something happens when I go to do larger versions of the studies. Either I loose the freshness or spontaneity of the brushwork or it feels like there’s not enough information in the piece. I really want to do larger pieces but am struggling with size. Perhaps a solution is to slowly work my way up from small to larger. Or just paint the whole thing on site from the get-go. I sure would like to know if anyone else has grappled with this.
From a different angle
As a creative artist I have traveled some of these same paths of thought through the creative process letting a painting or drawing direct me to its final conclusion. This space thing on the canvas reminds me of a figure drawing class I took at a Jr. college over 20 years ago. Drawings were done on butcher paper approx. 2×3 feet in about 1.5 minutes then put at the front of the class for a critique. At first most of us drew within a 10×12 inch area on the paper and it didn’t look like much from forty feet away. We all took turns pointing out what we liked or disliked about the drawings. By seeing our drawings begin to fill the page we also found it easier to see areas that needed correction. I learned the advantage of using a stand up easel, not only to avoid parallax, but also the advantage of the sweeping lines and curves possible by using the whole arm and shoulder. Using gravity and the ability to step back, and looking at the drawing straight on as you would if it were hanging on a wall. Proportion and depth problems become obvious immediately and easier to correct not only because of the larger size but also because of being upright. Those who try to layout a painting or drawing sitting down will always run into more problems with distortion because of the angle at which they are looking at their piece of work. For those I have taught to draw in the past I have always tried to share with them this advantage, and to step back and let the piece show and guide the artist to its final conclusion. I was taught all realistic pieces of art are composed of combinations of abstracted forms, shapes and symbols. This holds true in all of creation, so I encourage anyone drawn to the creative endeavors to explore it all from abstract to landscape. An artist is a soul drunk on beauty that needs an outlet to express that awareness.
by Judy Wood, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
You are so right when you say size — as in scale — really matters for artwork. I have done a series of free-shape glass cowboy wall pieces over the last few years. They average 42″ in height — better than half life-size. They are a real pain to drag around to shows with me, but they have to be that size. A lot of the statement they make is implicit in their scale. I get a lot of people asking if I will do them smaller. I suspect they really mean “would they cost less?” but that’s beside the point. They are the size they are because that’s the size they need to be. I also drive my framer nuts (with my conventionally shaped works) because I’ll have an extra 1/8 or 1/4 inch on the height or width of a mosaic. Sorry, it’s essential to the way the design works, and he has learned just to accommodate me and not make editorial remarks. I usually try to make the inches come out even, but sometimes the artwork just doesn’t allow for that. It seems like a fine point, but to me even that 1/4 inch makes a difference. God (or sometimes the devil) is in the details.
New size, new challenges
by Annette Waterbeek, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
SIZE MATTERS… yes… new size, new challenges. I am currently working on full sheets, 22×30 so far, and I am seeing problems that need to be solved. Things I could get away with in small paintings are amplified in large. I got a call from a gallery, whom I sent some small works to, and she said they were just lovely and not a thing wrong with them but in her space they would get lost, she does not deal in small. I found a little jewel of a book and in the back the author wrote this, I couldn’t explain it better… “The painting begins as a feeling but ends as another body of myself. Therefore, design knowledge not only strengthens the painting, but puts backbone into the painter. To know is better. The composer acts on impulses with minimal pussyfooting.
Nevertheless compositional skills do not exempt one from anxieties and doubt. They are ever present and are as frightening as political, economical or emotional chaos. Isaac Watts wrote, “Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?” Compositional know-how gives us a weapon to fight aesthetic phantoms of doubt, fear, discouragement and apathy. It turns all these negatives into yea-saying. Soli Deo Glorial” (Frank Webb)
Art and Meditation
by Alar Jurma
I just read the clickbacks on the recent Art & Med letter. I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of understanding they revealed among your truly rich and wonderful readership. Excepting maybe just two warriors in the bunch, they were thoughtful and meaningful responses to a very “not-easy-to-understand” subject. To the two wonderful warriors, I would say “more power to you!” It is far better to be a “warrior” than a “worrier.” However, God (a.k.a. Universal Consciousness, Shakti, Kundalini, Chi, Holy Ghost etc.) gave us a brain for a reason. And it’s our job to figure out why he did that.
Tranquility through process
by Edward M. Compton, Richmond, VA, USA
I am involved in the entire process from stretching canvas to creating ink derived from an Old Masters’ recipe of crushing oak galls. Due to my extensive traveling across the world ranging from New Zealand to Austria and living in Virginia, Italy and Panama, my work accounts for the remembrance of these experiences. Presently, I am contemplating where I am today in Virginia and where I was living in Italy over thirty years ago. Painting with my “Italian paints” and utilizing an Old Masters’ recipe for ink, I continue to create European inspired scenes, as well as venturing in the present and seek similar inspirations from the beauty of Virginia.
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