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.
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.
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.