The values of big and small


Dear Artist,

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes, stood near the harbour. It was constructed by Chares of Lindos over an eight-year period starting in 292 BC. Felled by an earthquake after only 56 years, as a pile of bronze shards and stone rubble it commanded just as much attention (a thumb, it was said, was larger than a man). Sold for scrap 800 years later, it took 900 camels to carry the remnants away.

Las Meninas, 1656 108.7 x 125.2 inches oil on canvas by Diego Velasquez (1599 - 1660)

Las Meninas, 1656
108.7 x 125.2 inches
oil on canvas
by Diego Velasquez (1599 – 1660)

A monument to Greek power and in honour of Helios, it had become a metaphor for fallen gods and the decay of great civilizations. With the competitive and often warlike nature of mankind, it would seem there is a natural tendency to make things big at the expense of making them sensitive. Bluster is the greater part of power, and a strong sense of power is implied by size.

This may be changing. Is it possible that a more understated and gentler world may be upon us? Recently, a few of us were looking closely at the newly reattributed Portrait of a Man, a smallish canvas now certainly thought to be from the hand of Diego Velasquez. Probably another self-portrait, it shows a remarkable feeling for character and a penetration of personality. “A small gem,” said somebody. “That’s quality,” said another. If we were any closer our noses would be rubbing on it.

Portrait of A Man, c. 1630–1635 27 × 21 3⁄4 inches oil on canvas by Diego Velasquez

Portrait of A Man, c. 1630–1635
27 × 21 3⁄4 inches
oil on canvas
by Diego Velasquez

In another museum a giant wall-filling modernist canvas of Cy Twombly was being given a quick pass by visitors on their way to look at something else. I couldn’t help wondering if we’re witnessing a transition from big, blundering and blustering to a more sensitive and understated world. Is size now being understood for what it is? As the photorealist and sculptor Audrey Flack has noted, “If you can’t paint, paint big.”

Not that size can’t have quality. Look at the giant canvases of Velasquez. They’re often an assemblage of smaller gems. Integrated as a significant whole, sensitive to colour, light and nuance, an understated, decentralized self-portrait may be placed here and there with care.

Best regards,


PS: “It’s better to have a small diamond than a large piece of glass.” (A new bride)

School of Fontainebleau, 1960 78.74 x 126.5 inches oil and pencil on canvas by Cy Twombly

School of Fontainebleau, 1960
78.74 x 126.5 inches
oil and pencil on canvas
by Cy Twombly

Esoterica: “I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias)

This letter was originally published as “The values of big and small” on December 15, 2009.


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“I swear if I had to do this over again, I would just do the paintings and never show them.” (Cy Twombly)




  1. I am so happy to have found you! I have just started to receive your musings and find them to be thought provoking and stimulating. It’s great to see a brief look from a refreshing angle. Thank you! By the way, Ozymandias is one of my favorite poems, nice to see it here.

  2. Written in 2009 Robert was, in addition to a great artist, a prophet. As a U.S. citizen I truly hope for less bluster and blundering and less mistaking mere size alone for value.

    • Reading Robert’s words, I had a similar notion that he was forseeing our current circumstance. It comforts me to think that he might also be accurate in predicting the onset of a counter- appetite for more meaningful works of quality borne on a more modest scale. Imagine that wave sweeping the world.

  3. Sara….once again you read my mind! It’s uncanny really….I thought of posting on this very topic just last night. Since I am an enamel artist and much of my work is wearable, I fit neatly into the category of small. Every gallery I step into displays huge works of questionable technique/quality….but they certainly aim to impress with size. I’m left to wonder how many clientele have the space to display such large work….of course if one does have the space, it usually equates with wealth….hence the giant prices for giant pieces, good or bad. Oh well….I truly hope that the appreciation of small and exquisite work will find it’s way into mainstream gallery philosophy….there may be hope for me yet ;-)

  4. Over my life in painting I have always shifted between small ones and larger ones in part because each has its own qualities of making
    The little ones are a chance to make choices in a quick and bold way, like chasing a fleeting sunset.
    The larger ones are more like an athletic event when stamina and the use of my whole body is needed working from the shoulder not the wrist.
    Each has its virtues and each has its place in my body of works

  5. Jeff Heintzman on

    When I hear the comment about needing to paint bigger, I look to the Group of Seven. So many of their great works are 8X10 or even smaller. This may be because they were trekking and hiking and didn’t want to haul a behemoth around.

  6. Gabriella Morrison on

    Large scale incites reactions of awe and feelings of being in the presence of some powerful phenomenon. Small scale implies intimacy. Both scales, and intermediate ones, are part of our human perceptual experience. I can’t ascribe values of good, better and best to any of these – only am mindful of my own responses to the differences.

  7. The Cy Twombly gallery in the Menil is wonderful and so full of emotion. It is easy to just walk through it and wonder how it was done–ladders? long brushes? but standing there and looking and feeling—they are big–but not blustery–I would describe them as expansive–the feeling when your heart is so full, if feels as though it might explode from joy.

  8. Over the past couple of years I have gone smaller, more intimate. My work is narrative. My purpose is to get more done, more of my thoughts on paper. I am getting older (83) and this method is working well for me. I have more to say than one idea every three to four months, and my thought process has also improved, as it has a place to be.

  9. Funny Robert should mention it (albeit 10 years ago). I recently tried painting on a canvas much larger than my usual 8×10’s or 11×14’s, and found it much more difficult to visualize what I was doing. I understand now why some artists use a grid. I didn’t, but it would probably have been a lot easier if I had divided my larger panting into a series of smaller, more manageable squares. I will try that someday, but I think there is something more intimate and personal about completing an entire painting on a small canvas. Everything is right there within your field of vision, and more times than not, you’re working on the whole piece at once.

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