Does Size Matter? (Should I Compose Big or Small Artworks)

At a time when photorealism and hyperrealism are all the rage, and when artworks are perhaps chiefly consumed online, I wanted to ask people about what size of paintings they think is ‘right’? I’m sure this is an issue which everyone must have thought about at one time or another.

The advantages of going big seem obvious to me:

  1. It gives you so much space to get things correct. For example, if you’re doing a portrait, the human eye can be blown up to a size that it’s really a pleasure to depict it. Rather than clarting around trying to convey incredibly complex information in a tight space, doing it large is very therapeutic.

  2. A large painting catches the eye in a gallery and can really command the room.

  3. Online all art is displayed with small thumbnails of equal size. And people, who aren’t particularly savvy, will marvel at works of photorealism without ever bothering to check the actual dimensions of the real thing. Thus a big art work, when shrunken, can look very impressive.

So what would be the advantage of going small? Well here I see only one advantage, and that is that you don’t get overawed by the sheer amount of work there is to do. You are liberated into having the time to endlessly pour over the trivial details of each and every facet of the painting.

However all that said, I would argue that that is only an advantage if you really have the skills to be able to render all those tiny details.

Which leads to perhaps a second ‘advantage’ of working small: that you by necessity convey a greater virtuosity, so that the art work is more admired. Of course again, this entails having the requisite virtuosity in the first place.

So my conclusion would be, unless you’re a maestro, working big is probably the best route to go down. Unless someone wants to convince me that working small in and of itself actually hones your skill (which I don’t think it does, I think you need a lot of deliberate practice at the very least, as well as strategies on how to handle tiny details).

A final point. Whilst an observer might look at two photorealistic art pieces of great quality, one very large and one very small, and conclude that the smaller one is more worthy of interest and awe because it is so small, this only works to a certain extent.

I don’t think an observer would ever look at two reasonably good photorealistic art pieces, one of 10 inches by 10 inches and the other of 20 inches by 15 inches and conclude that ‘the smaller piece seems somewhat shoddier than the bigger piece but in fairness to the artist he was working on smaller dimensions.’

In other words unless you’re both working really small and displaying great virtuosity, it seems foolish not to give yourself the advantage of scaling up, because the ‘judges’ won’t really be taking size into account. I feel that if someone were to judge two of my portraits, one twice as big as the other, they would conclude the bigger one was better.

It also seems to me that doubling the size of an artwork, let’s say a portrait, might improve the look of it, not just by 'a factor of 2’. That’s certainly been my experience with portrait painting where often halving the dimensions of the face can lead to an array of problems.

It feels to me like there is probably a sweet spot to be had, so that choosing the right size to paint at can lead to huge advantages from the get go.

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Small works have the advantage of lower shipping and framing costs. And lower material costs. And they take up less space before they sell.

That being said, people seem to be resistant to paying as much for a small work as they will a larger work of the same subject.

If you care about competitions, size matters too, since most have minimum and maximum size requirements. I ran into an issue recently where I couldn’t enter an 8"x 8" work into two different competition/shows because it was under their minimum size requirements. I ran into the opposite side of things with a large piece.

Also, there is the fact that a show only has so much wall space available, so if they accept one large piece then they’re cutting 2-4 smaller-to-normal size pieces. I don’t know if that is something jurors consider, but it is a practical wall space factor.

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Thanks for the response. Yes, those are interesting factors to bear in mind.

I’ve seen you’re very impressive Trump L’oeil piece. I’m interested, did you find it therapeutic to paint at such a small scale because you weren’t overburdened with too much information?

Or conversely, was it stressful to have to be so finnicky and exact, and to render such tiny details? I can imagine that if you make just a few basic errors at that size, a lot can go wrong. For example, Trump’s face might very much not look like him.

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Thank you for your kind words! I worked hard on that piece, and it was a huge step upward (breakthrough) in technique for me.

I found painting at that scale a new and welcome challenge, almost meditative. I had never attempted a small painting like that with such tiny detail, and that one was my first trompe l’oeil. To prepare for making it, I practiced partial bill patterns and etching portraits on some practice boards just to get the technique down and refine/polish what I was doing.

In my prior work, I had always attempted/tried to make my portraits as realistic looking as I could, but not to the level that I did with the Trump L’oeil piece. For almost a decade, I had seen Anthony’s work online, admired it, and wondered how in the world he did his kind of work. So for me, the Trump piece was a huuuge deal, a big breakthrough. I remember the night the technique started clicking for me. I was so excited that I could hardly sleep because I knew that a new world of technique and possible pieces had just opened up to me.

I’m very grateful and indebted to Anthony for his guidance on the piece and for being so willing to answer my questions. He’s a very generous teacher, a great guy, and obviously an amazing artist.

That being said… Yes, it was stressful because
(1) it was all new to me and I wasn’t sure how to proceed much of the time, so I’d have to test various possible solutions/techniques on practice boards until I found a way forward,
(2) it was such a big stretch for me,
(3) once I had something good down on the painting, I feared that I’d screw it up in a following paint application and not be able to recover.

That was all due to inexperience. It didn’t have to be that stressful, and from where I’m sitting now with a little more experience in that type of work (still not a lot), I had a lot more room for error than I knew. At the time, I felt like I was on a tightrope without a net, and now I see that there is a good sized net down there. You can still fix things if you screw up.

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Thanks for the detailed response John, and sorry I was so late in replying (I’ve just got back from a 4 day break).

Lol, it sounds like you had a similar experience to me. I too have been admiring Anthony’s work online since 2011 and wondering how he did it; and as well as that I was lucky enough to receive a lot of free advice from him.

If I can I’d like to ask you a further question about the dollar bill work (here Trump L'oeil for anyone else reading this thread).

I appreciate you may not want to give your secrets away, so please don’t feel obliged to. But I’m interested in how you did the black and white mosaic work on the edges of the bill, in which certain words are written. i.e. the black background with white markings on it.

If I were to attempt to paint that, I think I would use one of two techniques: either 1) paint in everything white and let it dry; then layer some black on top and etch out the patterns with a needle/nail head etc. Tough because usually the white will fail to come through and become dirty if the top layer is black.

A second possibility, which is perhaps preferable, is to again paint a white layer and let it dry. Then paint a black layer on top and let it get dry(ish). Then put a piece of paper over the top of it and using a mechanical pencil say, etch over the surface. This has the effect that the pencil picks off bits of dryish black paint from the surface, leaving the white pattern to emerge beneath.

The second method also has problems in my experience. Plus these techniques, are often hard to pull of with a colour like white because it is so easily contaminated.

Anyway I would be interested in some of the techniques you might have used, if you are willing to give me any clues!

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The following ideas have been important for my thinking as I have approached art from the perspective of an outsider looking in. Some of you might have considered these issues as well, and if you have you might find this post interesting.


In relation to the question of what size should I paint, I’ve spent some time looking at what is most common in this regard. By considering all works of art from the Art Renewal Center Salons, those from the AniArt Academy, as well as looking at Photorealists listed on Wikipedia and Hyperrealists listed on Wikipedia, as well as the works of other miscellaneous realist artists I was aware of, I came to the following conclusion:

About 97.5% of these artists paint on surfaces that are incredibly large. This means that thumbnail images of their work, although very good, give a misleading idea about how ‘realistic’ they are. The average member of the public is easily wowed by the realism on display. So too are many budding artists.

On the other hand about 2.5% (estimates are rough but I want to convey to you that this is not 10% or 5%) of so called realistic painters genuinely do produce works that really are like photographs, and that don’t need to be shrunk in order to make them appear highly realistic.

These artists – who amount to only a handful of people – I will list some of them below – usually work small. But really the key distinction that needs to be made here is not one between large and small, but between high resolution and low resolution. Conceivably these artists could work big – and sometimes they do – it’s just that so much work is required per square inch of their artwork that it would be too time consuming to do so.

If we take an outstanding artist like Dirk Dzimirsky for example, we see that here (https://www.artrenewal.org/Salon2016/Artwork/Index/12921#content) if you blow his work up, to some degree the realism fades.

Conversely with someone like Helen Crispino (https://www.artrenewal.org/Salon2016/Artwork/ByCategory/20219) , we find that even when we resolve the painting beyond its actual dimensions the illusion still holds good and you can’t tell that it’s a painting.

For me the moral of all of this is very clear.

Often I’ve seen artists on here, and I include myself in this, saying things like ‘my artwork, though good, is clearly not up to the standards of those great artists I see on the internet’. Other people will counter this narrative and say that this is not true.

My conclusion is that, as compared to 97.5% of other artists, the self-critical artist is being too harsh on themselves. They really should hold their work in higher esteem and not be so in awe.

On the other hand, as compared to 2.5% of other artists, the self-critical artist is probably actually right to notice that there are other professionals out there who are operating at a higher skill level, and the recognition of this fact is no bad thing.

To reiterate, the key skill, the elusive skill that only a handful of artists seem to possess, is to be able to paint/draw at a very high resolution. How they do this is not clear, though I’m guessing a magnifying glass might be useful.

In the next post I will list some high-res artists.

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I will now list some of the artists – outside of the AniArt stable and others associated with this parish – who I have come across, who work small, or who lets say, give good bang for the buck in terms of resolution. It’s not a complete list and it’s certainly a bit subjective as to where I’ve drawn the line.

Mike Bayne (https://www.mikebayne.com/) is one of the most interesting as he often works on 6x4 inches (which at first I thought was smaller than Tony’s work, but in reality it’s not because Bayne’s pieces occupy the whole board).

Rod Penner (https://www.rodpenner.com/) will sometimes work on 6x6 inches and similar.

David Eichenberg (https://www.davideichenberg.com/) works smallish sometimes and gives good bang for the buck.

Denis Peterson (https://www.denispeterson.com/) occasionally works small.

Davis Cone (www.daviscone.com/y397mivq2zgrs9hs9aq1kulvqzlvt0) gives good bang for the buck.

Bertrand Meniel (http://www.meiselgallery.com/lkmg/artist/works/detail.php?wid=1880&aid=27) also gives good bang for the buck.

Yigal Ozeri (http://www.yigalozeriartist.com/) might be on this list as well.

There’s also Andrew Talbot (http://www.andrewtalbot.co.uk/)

Slade Wheeler (https://sladewheeler.com/)

Joel Carson Jones (https://www.joelcarsonjones.com/)

Jonathan Queen (https://coleccionsolo.com/artists/jonathan-queen/)

And Kari Tirrell (http://www.karitirrell.com/home).

Please feel free to add others to this list that I have missed or indeed to take me to task if you think it’s not true. There is a huge element of subjectivity here – especially because we always judge artists on a limited portion of their oeuvre – but I think the distinction between high resolution and low resolution is an important distinction to be made.

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There is one final issue related to this matter. It’s common for large scale painters to use canvas or linen to paint on, whereas small scale painters might use panels. This I presume is for obvious practical reasons: a large wooden panel would get very heavy.

However clearly this has implications. One of them is the smoothness of finish that can be obtained. Another is how long do canvas and linen last.

Does anyone have any information or links to articles about how archival canvas and linen are? They don’t feel very archival to me but maybe that is just a prejudice. Also has anyone ever painted on aluminium, which seems to be becoming (perhaps) a more preferred surface for large scale painters.

Just sent you a message on this!

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Thomas,

I would say that size matters in that it is harder to incorporate a lot of detail into a given object the smaller the size of object is in the image. There is just a limit to what you can do at smaller sizes.

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Thanks for making this list. Some of these are new to me. As we all do, I hope to be in this type of list one day. Let’s do it.

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Well to be clear, I said at the outset that the list was of people outside of this parish, so I excluded the likes of you, Anthony, others on here and the AniArt group in general, from the list!

So you’re saying that reference images should be of very high resolution?

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No man, all good. I was just playing around. I am not established yet (I’m working towards it), and everyone on that list is established.

Regarding Ani status, while I’ve not had the privilege of going through the program at an Ani location, Anthony has been an inspiration for years and a mentor (whether he knows it or not, if he’ll accept that moniker). And I got to go to his Diagnostic Painter workshop last year.

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This is a fantastic question Thomas. I intended to respond to a while ago—but unfortunately, as usual, I’ve been swamped with one thing after another here at the Ani Waichulis studio.

The size(s) that you wish to work are as personal a decision as is content, composition, and style. So in a good number of contexts I would state that yes, size matters. I would also argue that you can find great fulfillment (as well as development-yielding challenge) with works of any size.

But rather than argue the many points made in this thread, I would like to share this short tale regarding a strategy to find the “better” work size:

I have been fortunate enough to show with quite a few galleries over the past twenty years. And while many galleries do share many common practices and strategies for placing art—just as many (if not more) differ significantly in how they evaluate the essential factors of their works.

Back in the late 1990s, I was exhibiting in Maryland with a small gallery that was able to place a good deal of my work. When I began to exhibit with them, I was already in the habit of working relatively small (between 5x7" to 11x14" on average with the occasional larger outlier.) My subject matter was almost always painted life size—but the subject matter was relatively small to begin with and my compositions were far more sparse than they are today. My thinking at the time was that smaller works would have a better chance of selling as the prices were often lower, and should appeal to a broader audience of collectors. However, the gallery owner felt that I was wrong. He felt that he could get much more money for my works if I would “inflate” the size. He stated that if I made larger backgrounds and just left more “blank space”—the increased sizes would grow our collective profits. I did just that and for a while it seemed to work out just as he said. The sizes grew larger and the price tags followed suit.

Years later, I found myself exhibiting in a much larger gallery on the west coast. When I began to showcase my works there—the gallerist asked why I was adding these inordinately large backgrounds to everything. When I explained my strategy to increase size—he told me that I should do the exact opposite. He stated that while the strategy might make sense in the short term—I was inadvertently working to diminish repeat business. “You’re filling up your collector’s wall space with those large, unnecessary backgrounds.” he said. And he was right. I returned to the tighter crops and sales increased yet again.

So you see, the significance placed on work size can be just susceptible to context as anything else. My advice is to pursue the sizes that you feel may best communicate your intentions. It’s definitely not a bad place to start.

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Thanks for replying Anthony. I know how busy you are so please don’t feel pressurised to respond in a hurry or even at all.

It’s funny that gallerists had two different perspectives like that. Personally I’ve always found your large borders to provide a nice contrast to the intensity of the central picture. A bit of free space which is ‘easy to look at’ is never a bad thing IMO.

But why did you ever go small in the first place? Was that just a natural proclivity of yours, or did you do it intentionally in order to concentrate on realism, by giving yourself less work to do in terms of square inches?

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Hi Thomas—it’s always a pleasure to talk shop. I truly enjoy it.

My decision to work on the “smaller” side was likely a result of many considerations. One of which would be my pursuit of Trompe L’oeil. To best achieve my goal of highly effective percept surrogacy, I wanted to keep subjects nearly life size. Those subjects were often relatively small (with less “projection”) so as to avoid issues resulting from viewer orientation (i.e.,issues with motion parallax, linear perspective, etc…) Second, I wanted to experiment as much as I could within my process so having more start-to-finish experiences were advantageous. All things being equal, larger works would have meant far fewer such experiences.

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Thanks for all this info, it’s been a great read.
Anthony, I wonder if those size changes were specific to each gallery, i.e. was the first gallery owner correct and larger backgrounds brought in more money with his audience or if you had stayed doing what you were would your prices have gone up anyway. Did the owner conclude his theories from the market or did he mould the market around he’s theories thus reinforcing them? I’m probably not very clear with what I’m spitballing/asking so for that I apologise and I don’t think it’s really a question so much as a thought.
Thanks again for the info.

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Thanks for the reply :smile: But what is a start-to-finish experience?

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Ahhhh-good question. I should have explained that better. A “start-to-finish” experience is exactly what it sounds like though. It is the experience of a process from soup to nuts. In this case, my painting process-- starting with a cartoon, estblishing a basic value/color structure, and refining to end. I wanted to do more “start-to-finishes” so that I can better appreciate how each phase of my process fits together so as to better assign focus to areas that could use improvement. Working on larger pieces would have meant fewer of those experiences, at the resolutions I was aiming for, over a given period of time.

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No, I get what your saying Craig—and the short answer is I don’t know. I had assumed at the time that he arrived at the strategy due to experience with the marketplace. But you are absolutely correct in that he could have molded his market around that theory. It seems we are left with a chicken vs. egg scenario. LOL!

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