Monday, November 3, 2014

Painting Big, Painting Small

On the internet, images have no scale; they only have resolution. But in public exhibitions, size matters. Artists who want their original paintings to stand out in a gallery or museum show know that you can grab a viewer's attention if you paint really big or really small.
Charles Bell, Gum Ball No. 2. 1973. Oil on canvas, 60 x 78 inches
As the Photorealists realized, large scale can lend importance to an otherwise insignificant object.

But a tiny painting can rivet the attention of gallery-goers, too.

Meissonier, Young Man Writing, 1852, oil on panel, 23 x 16 cm (9x6 inches)
One painter who was known for his gemlike paintings was Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891), who was jokingly called the "King of Lilliput." Small as they were, his paintings were immensely popular in the 19th century, and commanded the highest prices of all the artists of his time.

In his 1914 biography, Frederic Cooper noted that the small size of Meissonier's pictures forces the viewer to draw closer. Their miniature size, he says, is perfectly suited to the genre subjects, which are intimate stories of single characters.

Meissonier, A Poet, 22 x 16 cm

Meissonier himself said, "The smaller the scale of one's picture, the more boldly the relief must be brought out. The larger the scale, the more it must be softened and diminished. This is an absolutely indispensable rule. A life-size figure treated like one of my small ones would be unendurable."

Meissonier was influenced by the craftsmanship of the Dutch masters. But rather than painting the people and costumes of his own times, in his early work, he most often portrayed gentlemen of the century before his own.

Meissonier, detail of Soldier Playing Theorbo, 1865, Metropolitan Museum
His paintings on close inspection reveal a variety of brush handling. The detail above is about two inches across, about half of a business card. Although the background was scrubbed in with a relatively large brush, he must have used a very fine brush for the strings of the instrument and the small folds of the gathered sleeve. See the full image in high res here.

Have you been impressed by extremely large or small originals? Say so in the comments.
Boldini, RETURN OF THE FISHING BOATS, ÉTRETAT, 1879, Oil on panel
5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 23.9 cm)
Edit: Here's the painting mentioned in the comments by Michael.
Wikipedia on Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier
Book about Meissonier and Manet: Ross King - The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism


Jennifer Branch said...

Oh, lovely! It makes me want to take more time with my sketchbooks instead of pulling out the big sheets!

Alison said...

I was very impressed the first time I saw an original Rothko in a museum. It was immense and the color blocks so interesting. The images you see online and in print are flat and uninteresting.

Michael Garrett said...

On a recent visit to The Clark museum in the Berkshires my favorite painting was "Return of the Fishing Boat" by Giovanni was only 5 "x 10" ....amazing the detail he put on that small canvas...

James Gurney said...

Michael, it's so cool that you mentioned that. Jeanette and I were just talking about that gem as well. Made a huge impression on us. There's another one at the Clark by Boldini with a group of women and carts washing clothes along a stream, also very small. For those who haven't seen it, I've added it to the post.

Thanks, Alison, I agree, you really have to see those in person. Chuck Close, too! Those giant faces are amazing.

Meredith D. said...

Oh yes, scale can be shocking sometimes, especially when you've only seen them in a book.

Large: Guernica by Picasso, anything by Jackson Pollock.

Small: the Mona Lisa is a very modest size considering its fame!

Brooks Hansen said...

Some of Rembrandt's etchings are so small, it had me thinking he must have been a miniature on a miniature planet.

Lindsay said...

The beautiful concept art for Bambi is really small. If you go to 4:02 on this video it compares one of the drawings to the size of a penny.

Roberto Quintana said...

I was very impressed, even shocked, by the actual size of Dali’s ‘The persistence of time,’ it is very small(!) almost a miniature.

I make my living painting large scale murals, backdrops and sets, signs, and images for outdoor display, etc. One reason I started out painting on a very large scale was because I liked the physicality of the process: painting with my whole body w large gestures, and engaging with the viewer on an architectural and environmental scale; The main reason I started painting big however, was because I am blind as a near-sighted bat in my good eye, and blind as a base-ball in my other. About 15 years ago, I got a cataract and had an artificial lens implanted, which has corrected my vision so that painting and sketching in plein-air and on canvas in the studio is much easier. I have been painting much smaller easel paintings in addition to the large-scale work, and I must say it is a very difficult transition moving from large-scale to small and back again. I find myself using my brain in a completely different way (its not a Right-brain Left-brain shift, but more of a visual attention detail/scale shift). I’m not sure what M meant by “The smaller the scale of one's picture, the more boldly the relief must be brought out. The larger the scale, the more it must be softened and diminished” but there is definitely a cognitive and an aesthetic shift needed. Thanx for the interesting post, and the journey. -RQ

Thomas Grosskopf said...

Great post! My gallery in Water Valley, MS has a holiday miniature show every year that does really well. I get to paint about a dozen little paintings of robots and strange landscapes and get to enjoy the work of all the other artists that participate. The current size restrictions are smaller than 8x8. Mine tend to be about 3x4. You can really capture a feeling in a smaller painting that somehow can become lost or forgotten in the larger works. I try to paint one every week or so. They can even be helpful as thumbnails for larger pieces especially if you can capture the original mood of the thumbnail.

krystal said...

This post reminds me of Jeff Wall's photos (who was inspired by paintings like that of Hokusai's, etc). His work is really great. Also (Andreas) Gursky and (Hiroshi) Sugimoto's Seascapes.

James Gurney said...

Roberto, that's interesting that you mentioned vision issues leading you to work large. Kenyon Cox, writing about Meissonier, said that he worked small because of nearsightedness. He says: "The extreme finish of Meissonier's
work is in reality mainly the outcome of a physical
peculiarity or defect— extreme shortness of sight."

Thanks, everybody for the wide ranging examples. I'm also reminded of Rockwell's advice to switch around the size of paintings. Some of his canvases are life size, and others are 1:1 to the size of reproduction.

Glenn said...

I was living in London in 1987/88 and two large paintings really impacted me then and their memory still does. One was John Martin's "The Great Day of His Wrath" at the Tate. The other was at the National Gallery, they had on loan one of Monets huge Water Lilies installed on its own in a special curved room. Both paintings filled your scope of vision and completely pulled you in but in different ways. Monet's was very peaceful and you tended to take in the whole rather than the details while Martin's took you from the whole and drew you deeper and deeper into the details with the multitudes of figures and was anything but peaceful.

Steve said...

I recently saw "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia. Powerful at any published size, seen at its actual 8 feet by 6.5 feet dimensions the effect is almost overwhelming.

David King said...

The Hudson River Painters are known for their large landscapes but when I visited the Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson they had on display an Albert Bierdstat that was quite small, maybe a little bigger than 8" X 10" yet contained just as large a subject and just as much detail as the large paintings he is more commonly known for. While I did enjoy examining it I can't say such a small painting has nearly the same impact.

Gavin said...

I remember looking at a highly detailed portrait in Musée d'Orsay, which was no larger than a postcard. No sign of a brushstroke and beautifully handled. I couldn't wrap my head around how it was possible.

I love Étretat; fascinating place to visit, and I can see why the likes of Courbet and Monet were inspired. I know the Boldini painting, but never appreciated the size. There's a higher resolution version here :

On my monitor it's at least twice the size of the original. Wonderful handling of the paint at that size.

Christian said...

My friend the artist Poul paints on a very small scale (his portraits are about the size of a business card).
Here is a blogpost on his working method that I did while he was visiting me:

And here's a link to his blog:

Learning to Paint said...

There seems to be a current trend to push painters to "paint big" to perhaps bring in the big bucks commensurate with time spent painting, creating. I used to think that was "in me", but not making a lot of big progress. Does the world really need another "sofa painting" (to rest on the wall behind the sofa? I keep going back to the paintings of Corneille (like the one in the Met) that are tiny. Did he do these as a preliminary study for a client to work out the problems? Or was he competing with Meissonier?

Shaun Stipick said...

Learning to Paint-

Great point! In the same vain as your talking point; I think Anthony Waichulis has proven that there is indeed a contemporary market for small masterfully done paintings. I would be willing to bet there might be more if people had the same level of patience and skill required to execute a small painting to similar levels of finish with similar thoughtful subject matter, whether still life, figurative, or etc.

With that said I would recommend taking a peek at Anthony Waichulis for examples of impressive small paintings, in his case narrative Trompe Loeil.

The Brandywine Museu has two lovely Chalfont genre painting studies usually on display on the first floor. They are tiny but wonderfully executed and such fun to look at. Sadly, I could not find a good image to post.

Shaun Stipick said...

Oooh! I also can't forget to mention Girl with Red Hat by Vermeer at the National Gallery in DC. The first time I stumbld upon that painting, in the flesh, it blew my socks off! So delicate but it moved me in ways that are indescribable.

Not even close to what its like to see this thing in person!

James Gurney said...

Shaun, thanks for reminding us of those great examples. I had the pleasure of standing in front of that little Vermeer for a long time, just drinking in its tiny wonderfulness. Anthony Waichulis is incredible too.

ElaineB said...

When I was 16, I visited Paris and the Louvre for the first time. When I walked into the gallery with Rubens' cycle of Maria di Medici paintings, I was simply dumbstruck. They were titanic. Filled with mermaids, majestic royals, soldiers, mythological gods, gleaming drapery everywhere, clouds, jewels, silken-flesh nudes, light, color... All of it larger than life size. I had no idea how a human being could have conceived, no less execute, just one of these paintings. And there were twelve in front of me!

Even now, knowing that Rubens had an extensive system of support artists who worked on portions of his paintings, I am still awed when I revisit these paintings at the Louvre. To stand in front of one is to feel like a half-sized creature of rather limited intellect. No book nor computer screen can reproduce the effect. In fact, when shrunk down to such size, the paintings look cluttered and, honestly, rather silly. In person, the compositions are so large that you can only clearly see one portion of a painting at a time, and have to move your head around to see all it contains. The effect is much more cinematic, and quite effective.

larin said...

Two large paintings I was not prepared for were Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon at Grande Jatte" and the Monet Water Lilies in San Francisco. I wish I could remember which one the Monet was, but I do remember the brilliance of the colors. Having only seen them in books, I had no idea how large they were. The Seurat was also cleverly placed so that I came around the corner in the museum and was face-to-face with it. One that surprised me by its small size was Mary Cassatt's "Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading." --LaRinda

Tristan Elwell said...

Hi Jim, Imagine my surprise to see a Charles Bell gumball painting featured on your blog. I worked as Charlie's assistant for several years during and immediately after college, so I had the opportunity to see many of his works in progress as well as the final results. Scale was an incredibly important element in his work. By massively enlarging his subjects, he forced the viewer into a new relationship with mundane objects. Pinball machines became landscapes, toys became figures in history paintings. Sometimes, after being familiar with his subjects through the paintings, it would be a shock to see the actual things and realize how small they were. Gumballs are very different when you are used to seeing them the size of basketballs!