Bigger Brushes, Bigger Canvases

Here’s something you can try, if you ever get stuck in a painting rut, assuming you have the space and can afford to do it.  It can free up your brush strokes, allowing them to be made more flamboyantly, force you to work with a looser technique and relax you somewhat, as an artist.

Most painters become accustomed to working on particular sizes of canvas.  This is for cost and practical reasons, usually, but it can become stifling to your technique and become a self-limiting comfort zone.  You can find yourself making stiff, little brush strokes, with tiny brushes, to fit your work to the small canvas.

Every now and then, it helps to break out of those constraints.  You’ll need a studio easel and plenty of space.  Buy a large canvas (1m x 1.5m works well, but 90cm x 90cm, if you’re not able to handle such a big canvas).  Get some very large brushes.  I have some very good French-made brushes (“Manet” brand).  There are suitable brushes in the Bob Ross range, too.  If you cannot find or afford very large, traditional artists’ brushes, then use whatever is at hand.  A good decorator’s one or two inch brush will do, at a pinch.  Also, Liquitex makes a range of palette knives that resemble barbeque tools, in size.  These are also a good choice, for this exercise.

The idea is to paint on a larger-than-life scale.  Choose something small as a subject, like a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit, to paint much larger-than-life.  Make it fill the large canvas.  I recommend taking careful measurements and scaling them up, with the appropriate drawing aids, because every error in proportions will tend to be amplified, on a larger rendering.  To achieve this scale of painting, you’ll also have to mix much more paint on your palette than you usually would and you will need to apply it with confident, broad, sweeping strokes.  If you attempt to use your usual brush sizes and strokes, it will feel tedious, boring and ridiculous.  Also, the effect you get will be like very bad pointillism.  However, with large brushes (or palette knives), you have to apply the paint with flamboyance and gusto.  It becomes a much more physical activity, involving more of the muscles in your body and torso.  Be assured that it will be quite a physical workout.

Ideally, you’ll want to finish the painting in a single session.  Paint wet-into-wet and don’t be too precious about whether or not the art looks realistic, at arm’s length.  It won’t.  To see the effect, you’ll have to stand back from the canvas, by several yards.  The biggest challenge will be keeping the proportions of the object you’re painting realistic and to do this will require that you step back from the canvas to check, at regular intervals.  If you fail to paint realistically, it doesn’t invalidate the exercise, though.

What you get, besides a good shakeup of your usual painting techniques, is a work that is almost guaranteed to look fabulous and impressive.  The old masters knew this.  Painting on a large scale produces very good results and all the best painters have tended to work on large grounds.  Go around any decent art gallery and note the canvas sizes.

I understand that many people are wedded to a detailed, more representational, photo-realistic way of painting.  I know that working loosely may be anathema to them and feel bad.  If that is the case and you have the time, you can go back to your large scale painting and fill in the fine details with smaller brushes, over time.  You’re still going to get a much better result, than if painting on a small canvas.

There’s even an argument that painting on a small canvas with oversize brushes, initially, fills the canvas more rapidly, achieving a gestalt and visual balance quickly, thereby allowing you to spend more of your valuable time painting the finer details with smaller brushes.  You might discover that you actually like the character of the larger brush strokes and may wish to preserve them, even if some parts of your painting are rendered in finer detail.

I see many artists working on too small a canvas and it cramps and restricts the quality of their work.  They want to paint the details, but even using the finest, smallest brushes, the marks are going to look relatively crude, at that small scale.  People also tend to view small paintings up close, where the minor imperfections in brush work will be all the more obvious.

If, on the other hand, you paint on a vast canvas and choose to add fine details, your details will render with crispness and precision, which will look amazing, when viewed at the distance necessary to take the whole canvas into one’s field of view.  A larger work, by comparison with a smaller one, forces the viewer to stand back.  The awe induced cannot be underestimated.

For the same reasons of breaking habits, I encourage all guitar players to play with a widely spaced stereo rig, every now and then, too.  If you can use a delay or phasing effect on one of the channels, the stereo soundscape becomes vast.  If you have one, the Electro Harmonix Stereo Memory Man works well as a stereo splitter.   So do the Stereo Polychorus, the Stereo Polyphase, the Stereo Electric Mistress, Cathedral and my favourite, the Epitome.  Stereo pedals from other manufacturers work equally well too, of course.  I use a Boss GT-5.

The effect you get is like playing to the horizon.  Not only does it sound impressive, it also gives you a different perspective on what you play.  You will find that your usual lines and phrases may sound pretty strange, on a wider soundscape.  In fact, you might have to invent more minimal, elegant parts, to prevent the wash of sound becoming overwhelming.  On the other hand, if you want to experience the full, saturating tsunami of sound rolling over you, having your amps up loud and five to ten metres apart can give you that rush.

I think that artists need to consider working on a different scale, every now and then, just to stretch their technique and loosen them up.  Also, artists that always paint on large canvases should paint the occasional miniature, on gesso coated board, every now and then, too.  Once you conquer the large canvas, of course, consider painting a mural.

Above all, have some fun.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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