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

(Thomas Baden-Riess) #1

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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(John McCuin) #2

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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(Thomas Baden-Riess) #3

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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(John McCuin) #4

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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(Thomas Baden-Riess) #5

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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