Does size really matter?

The perils of scaling up

Translating a small study up to a larger painting has always been a huge challenge for me. There are several factors involved:

  1. type of substrate (paper, canvas)

  2. Amount of paint needed

  3. Size of brushes (and the different feel they have when being used)

The small study

When I do a small study, it’s usually on watercolour paper using fluid acrylics. I have a beautiful angled brush from Silver Dynasty that seems to be able to coat the paper and scrub colours in - it’s my Swiss Army knife paintbrush. I can put out small amounts of paint and mix as I go.

As it’s watercolour paper and fluid paint, it can really work like watercolour painting (without the scary “don’t mess this up” feeling that you get with unforgiving watercolour).

Everything is different

However, when it comes to scaling up, it’s a bit more tricky, as all the tools and materials need to change. (I say they NEED to change, but I’ll talk about this in a minute).

Different substrate

For a start, when you use canvas it usually comes with three coats of standard gesso on it. This isn’t very absorbant, and doesn’t allow much unusual mark marking on its own. You have to really work the colours to get interesting texture and changes. It’s why you get a lot of acrylic artists doing crazy colourful underpaintings, really going to town with marks and gestures. You then have something interesting to work against.

Amount of paint

Then there’s the amount of paint needed. Mixing paint as you go can be a bit of a pain with larger acrylic paintings, as it’s hard to replicate a colour once it’s dry. What I mean by this is, acrylic paint colour shifts (dries slightly darker) than when it’s wet, and so if you want to go over a bit you’ve missed, you either need to go over the entire colour (time consuming) or mix the same colour again (not impossible but very tricky).

I’ve seen other artists have tubs of paint pre-premixed, and just use that. Now, I’ve tried doing that but it’s surprisingly tricky to keep the paint from drying out in its new container, and I quite enjoy colour mixing as I go, so becomes a different kind of painting technique.

A lot of my colour harmony comes from working with 3 primary colours and a couple of neutrals, so if you mix loads of colours beforehand, it can be hard to make those colours harmonise as easily.

Brushes, brushes, more brushes

Then there’s the brushes. Little brushes feel more like drawing, whereas with big brushes you need much more gestural arm motions to cover the canvas. They absorb a lot more paint, so cleaning them is trickier (you have to remove a lot of the paint before washing out), and they have less control because of their longer bristles. I suppose I could still go back in after with a smaller brush and tidy it all up, but ain’t no body got time for that (impatient, are ye?) and then we also have the colour shifting problem I mentioned earlier (curse you, colour shifters!).

(I have heard some paints like Windsor Newton don’t colour shift as much, which is something I should look into, but I have mainly liquitex and Golden colours in various forms, and feel I ought to get through those stock piles before making another visit to the art shop.)

What’s really the problem?

So! As I usually like to reframe a problem, I have several options open to me:

  1. Forget about big canvases, and only paint small paintings (great, but people want bigger ones, and I like painting big too!)

  2. Practice painting differently to the smaller ones, more intuitively, not so reliant on the watercolour effect (again, that could work, perhaps even with using oils instead? … a great excuse to buy even more supplies!)

  3. Do a detailed underpainting like other people do, in the dominant colour. (This might work for more abstract paintings, but I wonder if all the marks going in random directions would be distracting overall?)

  4. Use larger pieces of paper stuck to a canvas

  5. Use an absorbant ground to try and replicate the papery texture effects large scale

  6. Use thicker paint (back to the oil idea / changing painting technique)

  7. Just get used to the idea that larger canvases are trickier (I don’t want to suck the life out of painting big)

  8. Use contact paper as a ‘resist’ for certain areas that I want to add texture to, so that I don’t have to do it at the beginning

  9. Stick with how I do it currently, in the hope that something different will occur.

  10. Use a large piece of paper instead (like Sarah Graham) and have them framed instead (this can be expensive, and I have tried a few times with larger watercolour paper with average results).

There are my options.

I’ve bought some absorbant gesso from Golden already and will be trying that out.

Is the little one killing the big one?

It may be that having a study done initially is what’s killing the joy for the big canvases. On the one hand I know which ones are going to be more successful / populate by having done the small study and posted it to Instagram, but one the other hand, it ends up being more of an exercise in copying than exploration.

It seems there is more exploration to do! I’ll let you know how it goes.

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