Make your art big enough to hold your ideas and dreams

If it’s good enough, you’ll find a place for it.

This is what we were told in undergraduate painting class by our professor, George Bogart.

George Bogart

George Bogart, Signs of Spring--from the Garden Chronicles Series, 2002. Oil on canvas, 48 x 55.5 inches. ©2008 Estate of the Artist

We were 20 years old, living in small apartments with roommates, and painting 4-foot canvases. What on earth were we supposed to do with them? “If it’s good enough, you’ll find a place for it.”

Well, mine weren’t good enough. I left them mostly unfinished–except for one–in the wall bins that lined the painting studios on campus. I never wanted to see those canvases again and only hope that some thrifty graduate student recovered them and painted over the undistinguished surfaces.

But yours probably are good enough.

Don’t let size or space be an issue when you make your art. Make your art it as big as it needs to be in order to hold your ideas and dreams. If it’s good enough, it will find a home. If you have to borrow a truck to haul it, you’ll do that, too.

If it doesn’t live up to your standards, destroy it, recycle it, or leave it for a grad student to find. Don’t leave a sub-par work hanging around for your children to figure out what to do with.

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17 comments to Make your art big enough to hold your ideas and dreams

  • When I read the title of Alyson’s post I thought she was speaking figuratively rather than about physical dimensions. And I agree with her that young artists should do lots of large work. In my classesat MICA I require all the homework drawings to be on a 36″ or larger piece of paper- it really helps the student grow.

    But there is also value in “thinking large” and not trapping yourself into too narrow an idea of what your art should be. I’m all in favor of focus and think a sure road to ruin for any artist is to be equally interested in everything. You just can’t run in all directions at once, though many young artists try.

    The other side of the coin is getting stuck with a too small idea and repeating it endlessly. I remember when I was coming up as an art student in the 1960’s there was a painter Lucio Fontana who was getting a lot of attention for slicing a deep vertical gouge right through the middle of his otherwise unexceptional abstract paintings. You could always tell a Fontana of course, but once you’d done that there really wasn’t much of a second act. Though his work was physically large, I felt his idea of what his art could be was way too small.

  • I’ve always felt that the image itself is king – you cater to its needs, not it catering to yours.

    If it needs to be big, then make it big. If it needs to be small and claustrophobic, then make it small and claustrophobic. I used to try and force images to sizes that I wanted, but finally realized it’s better to try and let the image be what it needs to be.

  • I agree with you Alyson and letting yourself think bigger can be very fulfilling. I have a tree series that I felt should be on fairly big canvases (at least big for me). I did a set of two on 40×30 which for me was the largest size I had ever attempted of any subject. When working on them, I felt that they would just be for me because I wanted to try working larger instead of offering them to my gallery since my gallery at that time did not offer much wall space. I was extremely pleased to have them purchased for a new library that is opening soon in Austin. Public and corporate buildings frequently require larger works of art.

    I have a small studio, and it is a challenge to work on larger canvases, but when I feel the subject needs it, I make it work. Robert is right – let the image be what it needs to be on a size that works for you.

  • Gee, I’m sorry your teacher died, he was really good…If you go to his art gallery, under his name are two thumbnails which lead to 2 slideshows of his work…Just beautiful, a little breathtaking…He’s still teaching though- I, for one, am reconsidering the use of oil sticks just from looking today…
    I am just returning to painting big after 9 years of going smaller- I was hunkering in in anticipation of the mean economy…
    One thing I have learned, when painting big, try to sketch directly onto the large size- if you sketch small & expand later you lose detail…
    I miss the “wow” big works got me…I like the wow…Also, it might be nice for my portraits to have feet…

  • I love painting big. I used to always paint as big as I could get a surface (I’m dreaming of a mural that I want to do some time in the future). Then circumstances necessitated using smaller canvases and papers. I found this actually stretched me as an artist because I was approaching something I hadn’t done before.

    Years ago, when I was married, we were one of only two ataliers in the USA that did restoration of vintage and antique posters. We had some that were billboard size. One memorable poster was for the first Elmo Lincoln Tarzan silent film. It came in a 9 inch by 12 inch manilla envelope but when it was restored it was a billboard size.

    As a jewelry artist, I love making large pieces but it’s pretty hard to get people to wear them. It will happen. Most of my commissions are small pieces. It is good to work in a wide range of sizes, thus allowing, as has been stated above, the work to be the size it needs to be to be effective.

    ;)

  • Interesting post, I’ve recently started painting larger pieces as with before I’ve always not really gone over anything bigger than 20 or 30 inches. So recently experimented with a few 40 X 40’s and even 50 X 70’s and so on and its proven to be a lot more demanding than the smaller work. So yeah I definately agree that painting larger captures more imagination.

    This year I’d love to go all out and extra large on my works as I’ve done so much medium to small pieces that has filled my gallery to the brim. Also I think there a greater personal reward or satisfaction when creating larger pieces. My studio has had to take an upgrade however by moving into a larger room tho the girlfriend doesn’t approve lol. great post thanks for sharing and all the best.

  • I loved reading about George and taking a look at his paintings – what a treasure to have known him, Alyson!
    And I’ve enjoyed reading the responses to the post – especially Sari’s comment that it might be nice for her portraits to have feet!
    I paint small and I think of the pieces as intimate, inviting reflection, rather than claustrophobic. But I am intrigued by going larger, will figure out how to make space in my studio to try that one of these days when a subject requires it. I do feel rustlings in my brain that will need more space when they come out.

  • One thing I think is extremely helpful is to keep doing large and small pieces at the same time. Each different scale seems to bring out a different side of one’s inner personality.

    The small pieces actually can be more experimental and sometimes yield fabulous little accidental drips and smears more expressive than anything you can get when you are more deliberate and planning each step.

    Yet with the large pieces, when you pull it off successfully (which is hard!) there can be a real grandeur to the achievement. Also let’s face it, larger paintings are always the first to get the viewers attention. Every painter needs some of that.

  • I am just beginning to work on my first (to me) big painting, 30 x 30 inches. It is so different working on this scale and I am loving it! I usually do small, detailed work in watercolour or oils, so this big sweeping oil is great fun. Now I am getting ideas for more!

  • Love this post! Coming out of a successful holiday season that saw a lot of smaller commissions I am very hungry to work BIG, both in my commercial projects and personal works.

  • You are right..letting yourself think bigger can be very fulfilling..

  • Painting small is more of a problem for me than painting big. I’ve always had a hard time keeping the drawing on a small paper… 18 x 24 is way too small. I LOVE to paint large canvases although I’m only referring to 4 x 5′ or 6′.. It takes a long time, but I become completely immersed in the image and the process.

  • April Field

    I am a student, and I’ve been following your blog in hopes that it’ll help me once I start my art biz. I’m a metalsmith, and recently I started making bigger works. One of which can only fit in my apt if I put it on top of my printer. I agree, I try to find room for my art and avoid throwing anything out at all costs. I worry about storing my art where I won’t destroy it.
    I actually just put up a shelf and planning to put up more just for displaying my art. I figured, If I’m going to keep it in my apartment, might as well find a good way to show it off, rather than throwing it in the basement.

  • I love working big and wanted to work even bigger than 40″ x 60 “. My studio is running out of storage for large pieces so I recently bought a roll of Yes canvas so I can work even larger and roll the work. Any suggestions on what I need to put between the finished work to roll and store. I am using acrylics. I thought maybe butcher paper instead of glassine.
    patregan@aol.com

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  • Just found this post through a link from today’s post. Working big was a huge revelation to me in college–it finally felt like I was a “real” artist. Your teacher sounds like an amazing person, as well as artist and teacher. Thanks for sharing!