Sunday, December 17, 2006

Why I Paint Small

I remember reading one of Emile Gruppé's incredible books recently, and in it, he recommended that the beginning painter paint no smaller than 16x20. This bit of advice blew me away. I was painting 8x10s, 9x12s and, very occasionally, an 11x14. Even a 9x12 was a stretch for me.

His point was that a large canvas gives the artist room to swing his arm in. Your strokes become more rhythmic, and they have more of a feeling of continuity and smoothness. Small canvases restrict the arm, and strokes become choppy, and if you're painting a tree, you're apt to stop short of the edge of the canvas and break the rhythm that makes a tree.

Good points.

However, there's a certain economy that comes with painting small. You use smaller -- and thus, cheaper -- brushes and a heck of a lot less paint. When a 8x10 goes for only a few hundred bucks (with an expensive frame on it), you're already squeezing your profit margin so tight it squeaks. But there's more to it. I can paint an 8x10 in one hour and a 9x12 in two hours. A 9x12 wipes me out, and I have barely enough energy left to pack up the tripod and drive home. Anything bigger, and I'd have to call a cab. (Good luck, where I paint!)

But you know, if old Emile could do it, then so could I. Bigger brushes, more paint -- got 'em. Raise my prices if I have to. Take a Thermos of coffee and half a chocolate cake to keep me going.

I lugged my French easel out with a 12x16 with my #12 flats and extra paint and thinner. And I made a painting.

Here's an interesting observation. Time compresses when you are "in the zone," as we say. You can paint for one hour, two hours -- even three hours, which is what that 12x16 took me -- and for the painter, the time seems the same. Maybe thirty minutes. Of course, you're beat more at the end of three hours than at the end of two, so there is some sort of objective measure of the energy spent. But while you're painting, it sure seems effortless, and especially if you've got big brushes, a big palette and lots of paint laid out.

Here's one more observation. After doing a few of these larger canvases (which still aren't as large as old Emile wanted me to paint), doing the 8x10s and 9x12s again took about as much effort as putting on your shoes. They came so naturally to me, and I really was painting better thanks to the exercise of painting large.

So, I still paint small. But now and then I'll make a big one, just to keep the muscles stretched.

No comments: