Thursday, December 10, 2020

Why Do You Work So Small?

A question that comes up from time to time on YouTube and Instagram is why I often work so small. 

Tamir Erez asks: "Would I be wrong to say that the larger the size of paper you're drawing [on], the easier it will be for you to be precise in small details? So why are the paintings always so small, looking like 30-35 cm by 20-25 cm. Maybe less. Isn't it better for you to paint on a larger surface? More details, more convenient for you and to your brushes ... Thank you for good lessons, and good videos."

Sno Kones, gouache, 5 x 7 inches.

I have painted all different sizes, from relatively big fantasy panoramas (roughly 4 feet by 2 feet), to tiny miniatures. Most of my Dinotopia paintings are about 30% larger than printed size, which allows for plenty of detail without losing the sense of brushstrokes at the reproduced size. So if I have an "average" size for my illustration paintings, it's about 18 x 24 inches. 

Size becomes an issue when you're trying to frame, transport, and store a lot of original paintings. I have a couple of complete exhibitions of Dinotopia paintings (about 70 paintings each), and they take up a fair amount of storage space. I'm glad they're not bigger.

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier - Musketeer, oil on panel, Height: 24.5 cm (9.6 in) , Width: 15 cm (5.9 in) 

When a viewer is looking at an original in a museum or gallery, average isn't always desirable. There's an old rule of thumb that if you want to make an impression, you should either paint very large or very small. Frederic Church's large panoramas were like IMAX theater experiences in their day. But the most popular and expensive artist of the 19th century was Ernest Meissonier, who painted exquisite, tiny paintings. The Paris Salon actually had to station a guard in front of them because viewers often scuffled to get their chance to see the paintings.

If you scan my previous posts about William Trost Richards and Adolph Menzel, you'll find plenty of examples of tiny paintings.

When I'm painting from life, there are practical considerations: portability, storage, and access. If you want to paint in a crowded waiting room, a concert audience, or a restaurant, it's not really practical to have a sketchbook wider than 16 inches laying open on the table.

Most of my paintings live their lives as images on people's computers, so the actual size of the original doesn't really matter any more than it does for digital art. Resolution (pixels per inch) is more important than physical size. I realized this when I painted backgrounds for animated movies. Most of them were around 9 x 12 inches, but they could be epic in conception and treatment, and when seen on the big movie screen, no one knew how small they really were.

So to answer your question, it's just a matter of personal preference. For me, as long as my eyesight and hand skills hold out, it's easier and more convenient to work on precise detail at a smaller size, but I admire artwork of all sizes. 
Related post: Seven Inch Figures


Anima Mascherata said...

The next time someone makes light of the fact that I generally prefer to work smaller I'm sending them here, this is a lovely little article, thank you!

forrie said...

I've seen other artists who paint very large who hire helpers to transport, which looks grueling -- for example, taking the cloth off the supports, carefully rolling, packing; only to reverse on-location.

I'd dread that! Until we have better tech for larger-scale works, this is how it's generally done.

Otherwise, you use palettes to ship them -- with a risk of damage. Neither seems appealing to me :)

Robert Michael Walsh said...

Having painted small, a few inches, and large, an 18-foot mural, I appreciate the role of scale. But on my computer screen they are all the same size and something is lost.

André Mata said...

The Meissonier paintings are phenomenal! Is it safe to say that in order to improve in painting faster, one should tend to favor smaller paintings at first and progressively move to larger ones? I say this because larger paintings usually take more time to finish and by doing smaller ones, the average student can do more of them and learn from past mistakes more easily.

Joel Fletcher said...

The larger the surface, the longer it will take to cover it. Another good reason to work smaller!

Unknown said...

Hi Mr. Gurney,

I have been watching you painting video on Youtube for quite a while, usually one outdoor painting takes around 1.5hr to 4 hours. I wonder what it is like to make a watercolor or gouache painting with very limited time, say within 30mins?


James Gurney said...

Henry, it's the same thing but faster. Here's an example: