How Size Matters

Above is a smallish self-portrait in pencil. I don’t know how accurate a true representation it is. I drew in each feature as I would draw a collection of objects for a still life. Peter says the eyes are too high. Sheryl says the lower jaw is too narrow. Others have in effect agreed with both, saying the face is too long. So I hit upon the cheat of uploading it into the space above, then squeezing the vertical just a little to shorten and fatten the face. Now it may look exactly like me. Below is the drawing before being manipulated:

This being my fourth attempt at a self-portrait, I wanted to blunt the usual criticism that I make myself look too stern, so I tucked in a small smile at the corner of the lips. It was hard not to feel absurd, smiling the tiny smile into a mirror at yourself. But I think it worked. . . maybe. Fewer severity complaints have been received.

The size of this drawing is smaller than my other drawings–it measures at most 9 x 12. Although many of my oil-painted landscapes are that small, I normally draw on sheets that are 11×17 or larger. Thursday was my last Drawing with Color class, and I was feeling lazy and so chose to draw with pencil only, in black and white, in the same sketchbook that I used for the portrait. Small. Our model held the same pose for almost two hours (with breaks, of course). The combination of smaller size with longer pose resulted in a pretty accurate drawing:

All of this resulted in my newest insight: if the artist can’t be stepping back from her easel before making each mark on it, she might be better off working on smaller images so that she can better see what she is doing. “Duh!” I can hear you saying, “Why isn’t that obvious?” Perhaps I can explain it better, by analogy to a computer solitaire card game (“Eight Off”) that I became addicted to decades ago. When I later got a Palm Pilot, I moved heaven and earth to get the same game loaded onto the Palm, which has, as you probably know, a much smaller screen than any computer monitor. Suddenly it seemed as if I got smarter. But it was the game getting easier for me because the smaller screen enabled me to evaluate my possible moves in one scan. On the big computer monitor, my eye would take in a section of the screen, then have to move to another, which meant that I had to retain the first scan in my memory in order to meld the two pieces of information.

So if the artist must get far enough away to see her painting or drawing in a single scan, the larger the work, the farther the artist must back off. This is one reason for the long brush handles, but you can’t paint with handles that would be long enough to allow you to sit throughout painting a large portrait or landscape. John Singer Sargent, it has been reported, would step back after every brushstroke to examine its effect on the whole. He was a genius and every brushstroke of his probably had an effect on the whole.

Fortunately, my brushstrokes carry less freight. I say fortunately, because I prefer to sit while drawing and painting. My back hurts when I stand for long periods. If I am sitting, however, stepping back to view my painting involves getting up and moving around the thing I was sitting on (except at home where I can push off with my chair on wheels). This is not something I am inclined to do after very brushstroke! Frankly, I don’t know how I have been able to do as well as I have with the big drawings. Luck, I guess.

You would think that after this discussion, the answer for me would be to stick to drawing and painting small. An added bonus: small is easier and cheaper to frame. But no. I am glad to have this perspective on the advantages of going small, but I cannot give up going big, because big has its rewards too.

If smaller works better for getting the big picture down accurately, larger works better for small distinctions and intricate details. Sometimes you just don’t have room to make your point because everything is so darn small.

Fingernails, for example. Not that I care particularly about fingernails, but you can see their potential in the drawing on the right, which was the bigger one, whereas in the smaller one (a detail from the pose above), fingernails would have been ridiculous.

Truth be told, I’m not yet aware of all the reasons why I need to continue drawing and painting larger. Those insights are in my future, I hope. But in the meantime, I am resolved to sit less and move more, which is better for me anyway, back be damned!

Comments are closed.