The wisdom of smalls

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Andrée M. Kuhne of Kingston, Ontario, Canada wrote, “My friends and I exchange our art by email to get feedback. Why does art look so much better on a small scale than in the original?” Thanks, Andrée. Great question. It’s the same phenomenon as viewing your work from a distance. If it’s a really great distance, like half a mile, the work can look pretty excellent indeed. You can tell it’s a painting but you can’t tell what’s wrong with it. Good system for the self-delusional. More to the point, as a tool for finding out what’s wrong with a work, like the thumbnail that’s often made beforehand, a medium-small reduction is a highly useful ploy. Several ways can make this work for you, and with today’s technology, they’re fast. The simplest way is to take a picture with a digital camera and then review the painting on the camera’s display. Just this simple transposition often brings out composition weaknesses and problematic areas. Another valuable tool is to photograph the work in progress and print it out. I recommend doing this in black and white. I reduce large paintings to about 5 x 7 inches. When you reduce your work to a value study you are better able to see strengths and weaknesses. In my case, I most often notice a shortage of middle tones and grey areas that are so necessary for satisfactory work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found too many leaden darks and too many chalky whites. Viewing the original, you tend to get lost in the tyranny of colour. Another ploy, similar to glancing at your work in a mirror, is to print the work in reverse. Many picture-software programs do this handily. Funnily, in reverse, compositional faults come at you like a moose in rut. Now here’s another: Take a shot that’s purposely out of focus. The print will reveal large masses that either work or don’t work. It’s like half-closing your eyes — squinting — one of the most valuable studio ploys. This system has felicitous results for me — I’ve often gone back into a painting and softened certain edges to good effect. Blurred areas pick up mystery and intrigue. Further, hard edges poorly done can often profit from the business of obfuscation. A soft-focus printout gives you permission to obfuscate. Best regards, Robert PS: “A well-composed painting is half done.” (Pierre Bonnard) “Composing a picture, do many thumbnails, rejecting the obvious ones.” (Irwin Greenberg) “Get the art of controlling the observer — that is composition.” (Robert Henri) Esoterica: You can leave quality in the hands of the gods, or you can elect to use every diagnostic ploy at your disposal. Inspections-in-progress give the professional’s edge. Some artists simply train themselves to employ the troubleshooting mini-events a thousand times as they go along. To get the “big picture,” the “little picture” is often needed. As a partner in the learning process, the “little guy” is a welcome handyman.   The best tool around by Louise Francke, NC, USA  

“Mischievous Harlequin”
original painting
by Louise Francke

I’ve been using the digital camera since the Canon came out in the early 1990’s. With a digital camera and Photoshop I’ve composed paintings, checked out the palette, contrast, composition, etc. Yes, I share my newest works with some of my select artist friends for critiques. It is the best tool around.       There is 1 comment for The best tool around by Louise Francke
From: Sharon Cory — Aug 26, 2011

Love your painting!

  Review stages and document progress by Hal Frazier, Laguna Beach, CA, USA  

“Lands End”
oil painting, 30 x 30 inches
by Hal Frazier

Excellent advice about using a digital camera to review stages of a work in progress. It is also a good way to document the progression of a painting for personal or advisory use. It has always worked for me!         There is 1 comment for Review stages and document progress by Hal Frazier
From: Sheila Minifie — Aug 26, 2011

Love the moody landscape.

  Mirrors and more mirrors by Margot Hattingh, South Africa  

mixed media painting
by Margot Hattingh

I have a small mirror, one of those hand held two-sided mirrors, one magnifying and one normal. Stuck the normal on the studio wall, and have to walk up to it really close to see the painting on the easel at the other side of the room. Reversal and distance all at the same time. I really like the idea of soft focus and printing out in B&W — colour can be an overwhelming distraction. Maybe that’s why I often instinctively like using a severely limited palette? I’ll be trying them out now! There are 3 comments for Mirrors and more mirrors by Margot Hattingh
From: — Aug 26, 2011

Whimsy! i love this painting. There is not enough whimsy in the world. Thank you!

From: Sharon Cory — Aug 26, 2011

You are always brilliant.

From: linda b — Sep 03, 2011

this painting is terrific! great concept…

  Major use for DSLR camera by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA  

original painting
by Charles Peck

These are fine straight forward points every artist should consider with each piece of work no matter the genre. Coincidently the particular means mentioned are the very things I rely on these days. In fact it is the major use of my DSLR.         There is 1 comment for Major use for DSLR camera by Charles Peck
From: Patt — Aug 27, 2011

Love this painting. had to click on, fascinates me!

  Technology to try things out by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA  

oil painting, 36 x 36 inches
by Fleta Monaghan

When I’m working in a more abstract genre, cropping studies can help to find the best composition, and I use my digital camera and the computer to try things out, even changing the colors and values sometimes. This is sort of like how Franz Kline projected his small works to see how they worked large, and how to crop. Good for us we have all this technology at our fingertips to make things so much easier! Karen Weihs, a master painter in our region, who you responded to recently, sometimes works with blurred reference photos, a very brilliant idea! And my colleague Mark Holland describes the summers as “a tyranny of green” here in Western North Carolina. He is sure right, and a good painter must learn to mix a vast variety of greens, and not rely on a couple of tubes of mixed pigment greens to be any good at mountain landscapes here.   Brighter than normal images by Elihu Edelson, Tyler, TX, USA  

“Shin Series – 3 Yod Shin”
mixed media painting
by Elihu Edelson

When you are looking at art on a monitor the light is coming through the image, rather than reflected from its surface, which makes it look more brilliant. Also, the premise here doesn’t necessarily hold true. The civic gallery here in Tyler TX has submissions to juried shows judged from entries on disc. Even a work as small as 2′ x 2′ loses a sense of scale when seen reduced.           Drawn by the success of the design by Mary Aslin, Laguna Beach, CA, USA  

“Beauty, Real and Imagined”
pastel painting
by Mary Aslin

I have a slightly expanded take on this. If the work reads extremely well from a distance or small, I know that the design of the painting is on the right track and investing in the refinement of details is worth pursuing. However, if the painting reads very well up close and large (and the details are done well) but does not read well small or from a great distance, then the design relative to the large shapes aren’t working and the painting is on track to be a failure. I remember reading somewhere that when in art museums and we see something from across the room from a distance that we are compelled to look at closely, we are drawn in not by the success of the details, but the success of the design. As I paint, I go back and forth from up close to as far away as possible to judge the cohesion of the design as I progress from large shape to small. A refrain of “notes” in our musical piece can be melodic and perfect relative to each other but will be fully appreciated in the context of the beautifully orchestrated symphony. There are 4 comments for Drawn by the success of the design by Mary Aslin
From: Sarah — Aug 26, 2011

Just beautiful!

From: Mikki Root Dillon — Aug 26, 2011

Mary, your pastel painting is just gorgeous! Thank you for sharing it with us. Mikki

From: Anonymous — Aug 26, 2011

eyepoppingly sensuous

From: Kay Christopher — Aug 27, 2011

Mary, your painting is stunningly beautiful. Wow. Met you last week at Festival of the Arts in Laguna Beach. your “Beautiful Distraction” painting is so beautiful it made me weep. Know I am not the only one who has had that response to it. I so admire your vision, your skill, the life in your paintings.

  Using the computer as final tool by Ron Ruble, Brooklyn, WI, USA  

original print
by Ron Ruble

Reducing an image is a great tool to study a painting in progress as you have described. I have recently taken this same reduction phenomenon a step further, and used this optical elegance to lead me to the actual finished product. I am a printmaker and draw my original image on acetate (I call my plate) with pen and ink, using a stipple technique which somewhat duplicates the method of a fine dot screen, except being randomly applied. When completed, my drawing is scanned and the exact image, using no screens, is fed into a computer. My drawn image, each and every dot, is then reduced in size to further clarify the drawing. The results are amazing. The final image and its clarity blow you away. As Robert Henri said, “Control the observer.” They will be fascinated and in some cases mesmerized. That has been my experience. Each hand-drawn dot is retained though reduced in size. The computer becomes the final tool used to accomplish detail impossible to attain any other way. I am enclosing a picture, Poe’s Muse, which will give you an idea of the finished product, though my camera cannot do justice to the true clarity of the final image. Purists may question this process, but should remember that the making of art should not be burdened by rules. These rules stand in the way of true expression. The final image is of utmost importance, not the craft used to arrive at it. There are 6 comments for Using the computer as final tool by Ron Ruble
From: Margot — Aug 26, 2011

A little confused as to what is your final ‘product’ a digital image on paper, or do you expose the digital image onto a light sensitive plate, and print through a press?

From: Ron Ruble — Aug 26, 2011

Thanks Margo for your interest. Since the 1970’s I would transfer the mylar drawing to a light sensitized plate, then etch and print it in the traditional manner.In the last few months, I more or less stumbled onto the digital process while looking to get some other work done. The process as a tool totally fascinated me with its ease of process and its flexibility, and now use archival pigment printing for my final editioning.

From: Ron Ruble — Aug 26, 2011

Addition: The final edition is on archival paper and no press is necessary.

From: Janet Badger — Aug 26, 2011

Your drawing was mechanically reproduced by a machine. The resulting print is a mechanical reproduction. An original print is created on a matrix by hand, and the plate is inked by the artist by hand and the paper laid over the surface, rolled through a press, by hand, and that is an Original Print.

From: Ron Ruble — Aug 26, 2011

Janet, I can certainly appreciate your point of view as I have spent 45+ years in my basement studio hand wiping plates and processing them through my handbuilt press in the traditional manner. I spend anywhere from 3 to 6 months drawing my image on acetate and the only mechanical means that I use is a 6×000 Rapidograph pen, a toothbrush to spatter ink, and an x-acto knife to scrape and refine the dots. It is a challenging hand intesive technique. The printing process is a small part of the total effort. Our only difference is how we arrive at the final print, and I have chosen at this point in time to use new tools and methods that we now have at our disposal. Our objective is the same and that is to produce a fine arts print. But thanks for your views.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin TX — Aug 26, 2011

A lot of words are gaining larger meanings these days i.e. print, marriage, etc. One can take a conservative stance if one so pleases, but progress is inexorable and words grow richer.

  Problems under glass by Gordon Henschel, Port McNeill, BC, Canada  

“Coastal Choreography”
original painting
by Gordon Henschel

I would be interested in what you have to say regarding galleries that will not accept works under glass. Much of my best work has been in watercolour and has been refused on that basis. I succumbed to an invitation by such a gallery in Sedona, AZ. In order to hang there I had some of the watercolours they liked made into giclees on canvas so as to adhere to the “no glass” policy. Many of the galleries in the Southwest U.S. have the same policy, yet the California School of Watercolorists have done just fine. I have recently had the same experience with several galleries in Canada. (RG note) Thanks, Gordon. Works under glass, including watercolours, are still, unfortunately, persona non gratia in some areas. Much of this stigma has to do with the great bubble of giclees and photo lithos that popped up a few years back and left many naive collectors with a pile of paper stashed under the bed. The crumbling financial pyramid left a bad taste for all things under glass and those of us who currently make watercolours, proper prints and pastels are still paying the price. There is 1 comment for Problems under glass by Gordon Henschel
From: Rene’ Lynch — Aug 26, 2011

Gordon, you may want to check out Aquaboard by Ampersand, a clay-coated panel meant for watermedia. Once the work is complete, you seal it with fixative and a varnish such as Golden’s UVLS polymer. No glass or plexi required!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The wisdom of smalls

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — Aug 22, 2011

Thanks for the “digital camera” thumbnail advice. It’s yet another way to see the work more objectively. Getting correct values is always a challenge. In the old days, David Hockney shot black and whites of his paintings with a Polaroid camera as they progressed.

From: Rosemary Mostyn — Aug 22, 2011

Dear Robert Another tool to add to your excellent suggestions in viewing art on a smaller scale and from a different perspective is the use of various sizes of window mounts. As an artist/printmaker, when I look for inspiration in preparing plates, I often move a window mount over a design, old print, sketch or painting in order to capture a completely new image but on a smaller scale. The eye tends to simplify the design and composition and the artist can then increase the image into a larger artwork. Sometimes this method doesnt work on a large scale but it is worthwhile experimenting and you can use different size mounts for your particular purpose. I agree using a mirror to view your work in progress allows the brain to absorb fresh information & signal a different viewpoint to the artist whose preconceived ideas could be the stumbling block to a successful work. In printmaking the artist is constantly challenged working on mirror images in various stages i.e. the design, the transfer to the plate, the final print. Rosemary Mostyn, (Perth, Western Australia)

From: Mary Wood — Aug 23, 2011

Couldn’t agree more, Robert. My feeling is that if my paintings don’t work better large then I have more work to do. I use the camera and Photoshop all the time to assess and correct. It’s those little things that can stop a painting from moving from ‘not bad’ to GREAT.

From: Carol McIntyre — Aug 23, 2011

Dito Robert! The digital camera and photo software are great ways to critique our own work. I had not thought of flipping the image before, so I will do that also.

From: Sandy Sandy — Aug 23, 2011

Wonderful post Bob. You’ve touched on so many important composition and evaluation tools. Now days, I see so much art where the artist has neglected to obfuscate shapes here and there, often leading to an overall stiff, cut-out look, lacking in both mystery and eye appeal.

From: Frances Poole — Aug 23, 2011

Good advise Robert. What I do is turn my paintings upside down while working on them which is very helpful, especially for still life. When I did line illustration years ago while working for an ad agency, we always made our illustrations at least 200 percent larger than what was needed. This could be tricky because we had to make lines much thicker too. When they were reduced to their printable size, all the small imperfections didn’t show and they looked clean as a whistle. Maybe the same applies to paintings. I also wonder if colors intensify when they are condensed to a smaller size.

From: Susan Holland — Aug 23, 2011

Robert, you have mentioned all my evaluations tricks with the camera except one. (It works with a mirror, too). REVERSE , or “flip” the image. Also view it upside down. You will find out lumpy places and weight issues this way– and it scrambles your assumptions about reality so you have an objective eye. Right brain stuff, y’know? Loving what you send us in your letters. Susan

From: Kat Corrigan — Aug 23, 2011

I was one of those students of the late 80’s who was taught some of the serious work of art through color studies, but wasn’t given much instruction in actual painting… lots of inspiration and critiques and all, but not much on how to wash a brush.

From: Michael Morgan — Aug 23, 2011

Famous Australian artist Sidney Nolan, used to look through the “wrong” end of a pair of binoculars. It works!

From: Frances Stilwell — Aug 23, 2011

Upside-down is good, too, if no mirror is available.

From: Jane Walker — Aug 23, 2011

If you look at a large number of your works in thumbnail it enables you to see a consistency or homogeneity across the whole series as well… or not..

From: Steve — Aug 23, 2011

One of the few advantages of wearing glasses- I simply take them off for a “different perspective”! Now here’s another: Take a shot that’s purposely out of focus.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Aug 23, 2011

I have not tried to inspect my work with such painstaking scrutiny. I just leave the painting for a while and look at it with fresh eyes and try to see where improvement is needed. Perhaps this method of photographing them and studying them works for most people but I don’t know if it only minimizes the faults. I think sometimes the lighting would be different looking at photographs rather than the original work it self. Perhaps you have to have a really good camera to achieve this but then cameras are very expensive. Another concern I would think is the perspective, would it not be distorted viewing it in the photograph?

From: Patsy Tucker — Aug 23, 2011

I have a “reducing” glass…it’s like a magnifier in the opposite….so no camera needed to see a reduction. I use the ‘squinting’ through my eyelashes trick.

From: Antoinette Hamilton — Aug 23, 2011

It can be helpful to turn a painting or drawing upside down, also, which gives a lot of information. I find this helpful even with my calligraphy.

From: Ruthy Rodgers — Aug 23, 2011

I had a similar experience last weekend at an art fair. To amuse myself and the passersby, I did a series of “mini” pastels, about 6″ square, throughout the day. The small size and short time frame forced me to simplify and restrain the level of detail, and these little paintings turned out to be gems! A lesson learned about clarifying the composition and not getting lost in the “frills.”

From: Diane J Mayer — Aug 23, 2011

I spent last summer engaged in six weeks of daily painting, which also means daily photo taking in order to post. I cannot tell you how many times, as I uploaded the photo to post my daily work, the flaw in that day’s work came at me large as life. Of course then I had to fix it and take another photo.

From: Marilyn Woods — Aug 23, 2011

With this in mind, yesterday my art teacher advised me to “take off my glasses!”

From: Deb Sims — Aug 23, 2011

Just holding a work up to a mirror does the trick for me.

From: Katharine E. Robinson — Aug 23, 2011

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy I your twice weekly insurgence into my inbox, your wit and artistic and other wisdoms! Don’t stop!

From: William Hazleton, Leeds, UK — Aug 23, 2011

There are too many artists these days who are just “leaving the creativity in the hands of the gods”. Don’t they know that true accomplishment comes with strategy and applying all the tactics you can muster. Part of the problem is that there is so much bad work around that gets critical approval that people don’t think craftsmanship is important any more. Pity.

From: Kelly Mann — Aug 24, 2011

I have used a mirror, a digital camera, and turning the painting upside down, but I have yet to reverse the image in Photoshop. Thank you for the tip! I am a new subscriber and look forward to getting your letters. Cheers!

From: James Fancher — Aug 25, 2011

I hate it when i spend forever on a painting, get happy with it, then see it in the mirror and realize i painted the damn thing backwards!!!! They always look so much cooler in reverse.

From: Lori Boast — Aug 25, 2011

You’ve become a creature of the digital age indeed! I was surprised you didn’t mention old tried and trues like the backwards binoculars, and the black mirror in this message. ( I know you’ve mentioned the binoculars before as I’m reading your excellent book) But one thing I have used and have never heard mentioned anywhere yet is good old “Myopia”, or it’s cousin “I need reading glasses”. As in, if you are near-sighted, look at the picture without your glasses to blur it, and if far-sighted,or 20/20, grab a pair of reading glasses and look through them and it blurs things nicely. Obviously blurriness varies according to prescription. A pair of reading glasses is cheap, super portable, and can be used to blur a scene nicely too to simplify it. If no one has ever heard of this before, I’m claiming it! Call it the Boast Blur! Akin to squinting, I suppose. I have to assume a small image also covers up overworked areas of the larger image? That may be why they look better.

From: Nan Fiegl — Aug 26, 2011

Perhaps this has been mentioned before: often the reason an artist’s “gem” of a small painting does not translate well to a larger one is, the artist is still using the small brush with which he/she painted the little work. Shift to an appropriately larger brush – 1 inch or more – for a fresher large painting.

From: Raynald Murphy — Aug 26, 2011

Regarding the Problems under glass letter, Robert is absolutely right. Works under glass are also not welcome in almost all commercial galleries in Montreal and elsewhere around the area. Unfortunately, the commercial side of art is not marketing some of the best creative works on paper. Worse still, the message that commercial galleries are sending unfortunately to collectors is that works on paper are inferior, which is totally false. One has just to look to history for the answer. If Degas, Lautrec et al were creating today, would the galleries not promote their works on paper? What a loss that would be.

From: jen lacoste — Aug 26, 2011

Marilyn, I have never tried things this way round, but not long ago I grabbed up a sketchbook to capture some quickies of a pair of Egyptian geese, and the resulting sketches, done without my specs, are amongst the cleanest in the book. No fiddling with details, just simple lines and blocks of shadow. Magic!

From: barbara greene mann — Aug 27, 2011

I do admit, that this thought never occurred to me or any of these thoughts except maybe squinting. I’m surprised at how much I just learned in only 19 minutes of a new day, by just reading your letter and it certainly has been one of the few exciting blogs I have read. Now in my case I like seeing my paintings larger as I tend to pack, or shall I say jam a lot into them. More bang for the Buck.

From: Joan Foster — Aug 27, 2011

One of the important tools in my studio is a diminishing glass (opposite of a magnifying glass) used with my glasses off (or on, depending).

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Aug 27, 2011

Those are excellent ideas! Somehow, I get lazy about using technology for troubleshooting, while there is no reason not to. Just as you say, the “tyranny of color” gets to me as well, so the values, that I carefully planned beforehand, somehow get lost along the way. That is such a huge mistake and cause of many frustrations. I should be more diligent in doing those checks more often during the painting process. I think I should start by moving the printer from the 2nd floor office to my ground level studio – maybe that was the major deterrent why I haven’t been using it. It’s easier to keep mucking with colors than hike upstairs and print some check-point images. There is another bright side of this effect. I am definitely receiving more compliments about my appearance from my husband as his eyesight is going bad. I encourage him not to use his glasses.

From: Zhang Qing — Aug 27, 2011

Painters who wish to accelerate development of proficiency and style are advised to work small and work often. More discouragement and unsatisfactory work occurs when people try to make large masterpiece before they know what they are doing.

From: Holly — Aug 28, 2011

I’ve noticed how helpful these smalls can be and appreciate some new ideas for ‘critical’ viewing. Sometimes i paint w/o my glasses which also seems to help me to stay looser and when looking at my ref. am not so locked in to details. Thanks R.G.

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watercolour painting, 30 x 22 inches Patti Adams, New Orleans, LA, USA

  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 Lynne Robbins of MA, USA, who wrote, “What kind of camera do you use?” (RG note) Thanks, Lynne. I’m a bit of a collector. Among others, I have a lovely little Nikon CoolPix (that projects its image) and a Canon Power Shot SX230 HS with a handy GPS (for keeping track of where reference was collected and identifying your location when lost). My main one these days is a Canon EOS 5D…a superb SLR with a large format sensor and full High Definition Video (We made the little Cuckoo YouTube video using it.)    

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