“As artists, we often obsess about the many and varied elements of our work. Everything from subject matter to color theory and paint handling come under close scrutiny.
But there’s one aspect that many of us often overlook. . . size.
Small, medium, or large, the dimensions we choose for our artwork will always have a tremendous impact on the effect it has on viewers.
As a young artist in college I was obsessed with large drawings and paintings. I rarely worked on anything smaller than three feet, and many of my paintings were six foot or more in size. Like much of the art world I believed that “bigger is better.” I equated size to quality, personal expression, and impact.
Over the years much has changed about my art making process. I’ve come to re-evaluate the “bigger is better” myth. In the process, my work has shrunk in physical size, but expanded in so many other ways.
These days I rarely work on paintings larger than two or three feet in size and most of my work is 18″ x 24″ or smaller.
Traditionally small paintings have primarily fallen into two categories: studies for larger works, or miniatures that are tour de forces of trompe le’oil painting technique. However, there are many artists who value smaller works as something more.
As early as the 1880s, the noted artist Whistler executed scores of small oil-on-panel paintings, some as small as 3″ x 5″ which challenged the conventional wisdom that equated size with importance.
One collector famously described Whistler’s small scale works as “superficially, the size of your hand, but, artistically, as a large as a continent.” More recently Ellen Eagle has earned quite a reputation for her diminutive pastel portraits.
Today there are hundreds if not thousands of artists painting and exhibiting small works, including many artists like Duane Keiser of the Daily Painting movement that first inspired me to approach my body of small work in a big way.
What I’ve learned is that larger formats can put distance, both physical and psychological, between the viewer and the art. While I adore those giant wall-sized Chuck Close paintings that can overpower a room, smaller sizes can allow for a more intimate interaction with the art by literally drawing the viewer in closer.
There are actually many reasons why artists choose to create small paintings. Some artists cite the time factor. I can finish a small format painting each day and still have time to work on some of my larger pieces. Other artists who prefer to paint en plein air like working small because they’re just easier to carry.
Painting small can also be a way to explore new techniques and experiment without the fear of using a lot of costly paint and canvas. My ability as a painter and my understanding of the medium improved dramatically when I began painting a lot of small pieces rather than concentrating on a couple large canvases.
Painting so many canvases in such a short time also helped me to quickly build a portfolio. And for some artists, smaller sizes help banish artist’s block or the fear of a blank white canvas. Having a wall-sized canvas to complete can certainly increase the pressure one feels to “get it right.”
Whatever your reasons for painting small, there are a few challenges to overcome for those of us accustomed to larger formats. Often artists complain about feeling cramped or boxed in when working on a smaller canvas. This can cause a painter to tighten up, giving the work a stiff and lifeless feeling.
Over time I’ve come up with a few tips to help the transition from larger canvases to more modest sized work, and I’d like share some of the insights I’ve gained:
1. Suggest detail instead of illustrating it in full
Consider using large blocks of solid colors. Using large shapes and loose handling can help keep you from feeling “boxed in” or cramped in the smaller format. My painting The Rocky Shore contains very little in the way of details yet comes across as a realistic view of Lake Mineral Wells.