Today I’m making the case for painting small. It doesn’t matter what kind of painting you like to do – acrylic painting, watercolor painting, gouache painting, or oil painting – this episode applies to all kinds of artists! For a long time, I thought “bigger is better” when it comes to art. I wrongly equated size to quality and impact. This week, I’m telling you all about my experiments with painting small studies and small paintings. I’m convinced, especially for learning, small substrates can’t be beat!
Small paintings can be great for studies, trying new compositions, experimenting with your artistic style and finding your artistic style, getting lots of practice, and even for selling your art! Small paintings can be a great entry point for a wider pool of potential art buyers.
Listen to this episode of the Self Taught Artist podcast to learn more about why I’m loving painting small.
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Hello, and welcome back to this Self Taught Artist Podcast. I’m Lauren Kristine, your host. Welcome back to another week of the podcast. I’m so happy you’re here. Today, I wasn’t sure what I was going to talk about. And then it hit me, I had the perfect idea. And it’s we’re going to talk today about the benefits of painting small!
That’s right, painting small, not big. I talk a lot about my desire to paint big, and how I always want to paint bigger and bigger. But what about small? So that’s the topic of today.
I believe a lot of the art world has this idea that bigger is better. And I really did believe that for a while. And I believe in my mind, I equated size of my art to its quality and impact. Not true, absolutely not true. But there there was something so attractive about big canvas and big paper substrates to me. But for learning, I recently learned in the past month or so, that a small substrate really cannot be beat.
Today, I’m going to make the case for painting small. And it doesn’t matter what kind of painting you like to do. Whether it’s acrylics, watercolor, gouache, oils, this episode applies to all kinds of art.
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Alright. Jumping in to the meat of today’s episode. It starts with a story. Last month, I did something different and actually bought a pad of small paper for the first time ever. I’m not quite sure how it’s possible that I painted for so long and never bought a small pad. I think I just always wanted to maximize, so I bought bigger papers and completely forgot about the small ones. That worked fine. I think the smallest paper I used to have was eight by 10. And, you know, I used it and enjoyed it. And that was typically also the smallest canvas I usually work on is also eight by 10. So not giant, but still, you know a decent amount of space to cover. And that worked fine until I started doing lots more studies this year.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been really focused on some foundational elements like color mixing, color varieties, composition, and value. This year, I have been going back to basics, to dive deeper and go a level deeper into those important topics. As a result, I was painting a lot more studies. Now when I say study, what I mean is a very intentional practice. When I make a study, it’s not for fun. It’s more like eating my vegetables. I don’t really typically care to paint the scene so much. But painting a study is more done so that I can learn a very particular lesson.
So for example, last weekend, I painted a beach umbrella painting. By the time this episode airs, I probably will have posted it on social media, so you can see it there at LaurenKristineArt on Instagram. You can take a look at that and what I mean by a study. Now, it’s just a normal beach umbrella sitting in the sand at the beach. But the point of it was for me to practice warm colors versus cool colors and how they can be used in juxtaposition to show where the light source is coming from. It’s really cool stuff. But whew, it is hard work. So I do these studies for a reason. And it’s not because I really want to paint it, it’s so that I can learn something very, very specific.
But what I was finding is that my studies were taking forever and ever, and keeping me from the fun art that I really love making. Because most of the time when I paint, I’m doing it for enjoyment and painting what I want to paint. So when I’m spending all this time on studies, you know, I just wasn’t loving it. It’s kind of like eating your vegetables, but you have way more on your plate than you really want to eat. That was how I was feeling when I was doing these studies. And it really took me back to growing up. I played violin and viola. And I had private lesson teachers, and they would get so mad at me because I hated practicing in between lessons. I just wanted to do the fun stuff and they got frustrated with that. But that’s just the way I am – I love doing the fun stuff and the practice stuff, well, I’ll do it when I have to.
So I thought to myself, What if I tried to paint these studies smaller? Maybe it would take me less time, less paint, less frustration and I could still learn the lesson. That was my thinking. So I decided to try it out. And for the last month to six weeks, I’ve been doing that. It has been wonderful!
So as I mentioned before, when I was painting small, it was like eight inches by 10 inches. But now I’m doing some four inches by six inches and five by seven. That kind of size. I have loved it. When you are tight on time, especially as I know a lot of people are in the summer because kids are home and things get busy. And we’re you’re on vacation, as we’ve talked about, you know, things like that. When you’re tight on time, you can still make a full painting and feel productive when you’re painting on a small substrate.
In addition, you can get lots of repetitions in. Painting, as I’ve mentioned a million times, is all about practice. That is how you are going to improve and become a better painter. Practice makes perfect. Kind of like how that author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about, you need to put in 10,000 hours into anything to be an expert. The same thing applies to painting, although I don’t think it takes anywhere near 10,000 hours. So don’t be discouraged, but practice makes perfect. And painting small is one way to help you get lots of practice, and lots of repetitions in without taking a ton of time with each one.
The small size of the paper also has been great because it forces me to simplify the scene and really think about what it is I’m going to paint. So even for example, if I’m tight on time, and I just want to do a small painting during lunch in my lunch break and I want to do a floral bouquet, which longtime listeners know painting flowers is my favorite. You know I can do a small one on a small five by seven piece of paper. But I do have to simplify the scene.
I can’t fit in every piece of greenery, every leaf every flower, I have to pick and choose which ones are going to fit on the page. And this can be great for learning. Since there isn’t any extra room on the page, I get to work quickly and efficiently and really channel my energy into the pieces of the composition that matter most.
Once I have these smaller studies, I can use them to develop larger works if there’s something I want to dive into more fully. Once you’ve done a small study, I find that I have all the information I need. I know the colors, the values, the compositional ideas I want to use. I love using small paintings as a way to test out my ideas. I can try, for example, one scene or one bouquet of flowers two different ways and see which composition I like better. And I can do that without wasting a big canvas or a big piece of paper or a ton of paint.
This helps me to learn about compositional elements and how they work as well. Because a lot of times with composition, as I’ve been learning about it more and more, I find I just have to try it. I have to try something in two different ways. And really, that helps me to get the feel of that compositional rule, if it fits with my style, what I’m drawn to, what I like, etc. Because again, there’s no rules of composition that you have to follow every time they’re more like guidelines. And by trying things out on small substrates, I get to try those and see which rules I want to follow, and which rules I want to break. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken. And that’s the beauty of painting small.
Perfectionism can slow me down a lot and leave me at a standstill. So that’s the beauty of painting small, I really can just say to myself, “this is just a small study, just a small painting, not a big deal. Just try it.” Whatever you want to try, just try it, you can try different styles, like looser painting, for example, you can do that really easily on a small substrate, just grab large brushes (larger than you’d like) and see what you can do.
I’ve already mentioned this benefit, but you do use less paint, less materials, you can do little paper studies. This makes it very cost effective. No pressure, no expectations.
And another benefit of painting small is that there are lots of cheap frames available for four by six and five by seven sizes. A lot of times I love working on Canvas, even just a cheap Canvas because I can hang it on the wall and it looks good, it looks presentable. Whereas a piece of paper you have, you know, normally I feel like I have to frame it. And that takes extra time extra money, that kind of thing. But when I’m painting small in a four by six or a five by seven, that’s photograph size. That’s a standard size, and as a result, it’s really easy to frame. That just elevates the work and makes it look great. So some places you can go for cheap, four by six or five by seven frames are obviously the art store, IKEA, and thrift stores. You can find a lot of cool and funky frames at thrift stores, consignment stores, charity guild, charity stores, that kind of place. I love going through the frame options there. And you can make a four by six painting look really, really good by adding a frame to it. Let me tell you.
The other trick that you can use, even if you don’t have small paper necessarily to make your substrate smaller is to use painters tape on the outside rim. This will give your painting a really crisp edge. You paint and then at the end, you take it off and then bam, it looks awesome. It’s kind of like a mat that you don’t have to pay for. Watercolor artists, of course know about this trick. I know they’re probably rolling their eyes at me listening, saying this is the oldest trick in the book. But I see oil painters and Acrylic Painters forget about this trick, because we do get so used to painting on canvas where you paint all the way to the edge and even you wrap up around the edge sometimes.
So don’t forget that on paper, you can put tape around it and sort of create that mat like look. And it’s way more impactful than you expect it to be. There’s something about that crisp white edge that really offsets your painting in a lovely way, it makes the colors pop. And of course, it gives it an element of intentionality.
In art, there’s really no rules. And I think you just have to make things look like you did it on purpose. If you did it on purpose, then Bravo, it’s art. Even if it’s a happy little accident, or a mistake, there are no mistakes, they’re all happy little accidents. But those are just part of the painting. And if you just act like that’s exactly how you meant for it to be, then bam, it’s art. So sometimes you can use this as a trick to make things look even more intentional. And it’s such a powerful tool to have in your toolbox.
If you do paint all the way to the edge, you can do the same exact thing by adding a mat to your piece. And it can really elevate the art. This is something I see all the time with people who have children, and they go get their children’s art work framed. And then when you add a mat and a frame, and you put it on a wall, it’s amazing. It’s truly amazing. And I do think that the power of a mat or a white border can be very powerful in adding that intentionality, making it look like it’s done on purpose and just elevating the whole look.
Now of course, miniatures can be more than just studies or small paintings that you do for yourself, they can also be a great size to sell. Small paintings can be a wonderful entry point for a wider pool of potential art collectors. This includes young people, those with limited dollars or limited space in their homes or their apartments. And even those people who may not view themselves as art collectors at all. I think there’s often an intimidating aspect to the experience of buying a work of art, especially if you’ve never done it before, or you’ve never seen your parents or your friends do it before. A lot of people don’t feel like they know enough about art to make such an expensive and lasting or permanent decision. But they are less inclined to listen to those doubts and the naysayer in their mind when buying a smaller painting. So I find that small paintings can actually be a wonderful entry point to widening your collector base.
The obvious thing here also is that people have room for just a few large paintings in their home. But on the flip side, they’ll often have plenty of room for small paintings. They can go on bookshelves, in bathrooms, put on bedside tables, stairways, hallways, entry rooms, the possibilities are truly endless I think if the size of your art is small, because small means it’s flexible. So that’s just an added benefit of working small that you may not have even thought about.
The last thing I’ll leave you with is that painting small is really fun! I’ve felt that in my art practice as I’ve been painting small over the last four to six weeks. I really would encourage you to give it a try and see if you like it and it might surprise you. So let me know what you think.
You can continue this conversation with me on Instagram at LaurenKristineArt, you can send me a message there or to my email LaurenKristine Art@gmail.com. All that is linked in the show notes. Thank you so much for joining me today for another episode of the Self Taught Artist Podcast. I will see you next time. Happy Creating, my friends!
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