Choose the Right Canvas Size for Painting

by | Apr 10, 2008 | Blog | 2 comments

Even before that first brushstroke, a painter has already made choices that will subconsciously guide how that image is seen. Which mediums, what colors, what type of surface to paint on, and of course what size surface to work on – all these choices eventually shape and shift the end result of the work. It is therefore very important for us as painters, to carefully consider each aspect prior to beginning to paint.

The importance of choosing materials
There is a Native American practice I admire, that I learned from a ceramic artist and friend. His pueblo is well known for a specific style of ceramics here in New Mexico. These ceramicists would only collect their clay from a certain local place considered sacred to them. This beginning step was even more critical than the actual making of the clay pot.

Modern artists are fortunate to have most ingredients and materials pre-made and easy to purchase. Paint comes in tubes, canvases are pre-stretched and even pre-primed. Even so, we still have choices, and the choices we make right in the beginning, as I mentioned earlier, are an essential part of the process of making our art. Sometimes we just take it for granted, but I believe like my friend, that what we choose in the very beginning as our starting materials, pre-determines the end result. Before the first brushstroke is even considered, an emotional “content” is already inherent in the choices we had made.

Selecting surface size
One significant decision involves selecting the size of our painting surface. Large, medium and small sizes each bring a different emotional message to the image. Small sizes refer to anything we can easily hold in our hand. Medium sizes are about half our height. Large sizes are too big to hold onto with both of our arms outstretched.

Small paintings appeal to us like a gem. Medium sizes are self-reflecting like a mirror. Larger sizes evoke an expansive, impersonal space. Then we have orientation which brings even more to the viewing experience. A painting that is vertical, feels to the viewer as if they are gazing in a mirror.  Placed horizontally, it feels as if one is looking out of a window.

Some artists use this emotional content to their advantage. For example, here is a painting by New York artist Chuck Close. It is a close-up portrait painted on a super large scale. The contrast between what we expect (a face is usually the size of our own) and what we see in the painting creates a jolt or unexpected surprise, and adds a dynamic quality to his work.

Once we select the size and orientation for our painting, where we place forms within that painting’s perceived space will also add emotional expectations.


For instance, we have a life long relationship to gravity. We know it well and expect heavier objects to be closer to the ground, and lighter ones like clouds in the sky to float above. We bring this same set of expectations to viewing a painting. Shapes or forms placed near the bottom edge of a painting are expected to feel large and “weighty” (either physically or emotionally). They are the virtual pedestal which holds up the rest of the painting’s imagery.


David True, painter and former instructor of mine, called a square canvas the “boxing ring”. He felt that the square encourages a battle of forces. This can be disturbing to a viewer, or the opposite, depending on the viewer, adding a certain spice and energy to the image.


Knowing how we as humans are naturally hard-wired to expect certain things visually, we can use these concepts in our painting to evoke specific feelings and responses from a viewer. If we make decisions that go along with the expectations there is less tension. Tension being created from the unexpected. Or we go against expectations, like Chuck Close’s painting, to create more tension.


Making the image feel small or large
I have found small surfaces to be more challenging than large. Painting on a large canvas is like writing a novel. I can spread a variety of ideas out in a big way. A small surface, on the other hand, is like writing a haiku. It requires precision, executing ideas simply and directly.

There are two things to consider with size. There is the actual size of the painting surface. Then there is the perceived space created by the artist by the image. This space can feel big and expansive, or it can feel close and intimate.

Recently I created a series of small paintings that feel big. You can work on any size to create any type of space in a painting. In other words, for expansive spaces you don’t have to work on an expansive sized canvas. Click here to read best tips for painting small but big.

Let’s compare these three paintings of mine, each of a different size. This first painting is small measuring 8″ x 8″. It has an intimate feel, as if we are seeing one or two waves up close.


This next painting measures 22″ x 18″ placing it in the medium size category. This image creates a space that feels farther away from us than the first one.


This third painting is large measuring 48″ x 60″. The image also feels large, not limited at all by the painting’s edges.


More resources

Read Painting Small but Big to view my small works series and for more painting tips about size.

My course Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting offers many techniques including painting with gold leaf.

Study with me online or in person. More info here.

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Learn everything you need from your first brushstroke to the finished painting. Acquire techniques and ground breaking concepts to shape your artistic vision.
Hand painting pink wall with sponge.

Special Offer

Complete Painting Instruction

Learn everything you need from your first brushstroke to the finished painting. Acquire techniques and ground breaking concepts to shape your artistic vision.


  1. Nancy Reyner

    Hi Kelly!
    I just emailed you back.
    Good luck with A Charming Exchange. It looks like a great book!

  2. Kelly Snelling

    hi nancy! your new pieces are beautiful. i recently ordered your book from north light and, much to my disappointment, it is on backorder! i hope that means it is selling like hotcakes. also, i am wondering if you will be teaching anywhere in southern california this year. that’s where i am. by the way, i’m kelly, the girl who sat by you at the f&w author dinner at CHA in anaheim. i hope you are doing well!


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About Nancy

Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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