The little things in life

Stuffed animal in a bowl, with Saran Wrap. 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Most artists will tell you they love working big. We love making statement pieces that grab all eyes when people enter the room. These feel ‘important.’ The bigger you go, the easier it is to keep the brushwork free. Yet, practically speaking, we paint many smaller pieces.

I’ve been updating my website by adding still lives from a 6x8 show I did many years ago. My kids were of an age to chase the moment’s crazes, like Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig. Whatever idiotic thing they chattered about, I painted.

Some are dated, like the woman who fell into the fountain texting. The shoes could pass, but the cell phone is so 2011. In some cases, I can’t even remember the meme. What prompted me to paint a stuffed animal in a bowl, wrapped in plastic?

Falling into a Fountain While Texting, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

The power of small paintings

Today I almost never paint this small. I’m not alone in that; it’s tough to love a tiny canvas. But by always going bigger, we ignore the power of small paintings. How many times are we in a museum and gallery and grabbed by a little gem in a corner? A small painting, artfully placed, can have the same impact as a monumental painting above the mantel.

Crista Pisano has made a career of painting jewel-like plein air miniatures, which is practical as well as aesthetically-pleasing. She doesn’t have to carry big, bulky frames to events.

From the consumer’s side, small paintings are a practical way to ease into art-buying. They seldom run more than a few hundred dollars.

Back It Up, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Why don’t painters tell more jokes in their work?

Painting can take itself way too seriously. I was reminded of this recently as I flipped through one of my sketchbooks with another small being—my grandson Jake. At eight, he’s unimpressed that I can model rocks and sea accurately. What he’s interested in is Action! Humor! Dragons!

“What have you painted recently that tells a story?” I asked myself. Well, Ravening Wolves, and In Control (Grace and her Unicorn). But for the last decade or so, it’s been mostly straight-up landscape with the occasional figure or portrait commission thrown in. Recently, as I’ve written, I’ve realized this isn’t enough.

Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

I’ll never be another Francisco Goya (whose Disasters of War should be required viewing for every voter) or Käthe Kollwitz. I’ve been spared firsthand experience with war, thank God. As a result, I’m simply not that deep, or that dark.

I’m sort of the Bertie Wooster of oil painting—trivial, amiable, wooly-headed, and somehow always bobbing along into events that are bigger than me. That realization is what got me thinking about these old still lives. There’s something about the triviality of modern internet culture being taken as seriously as a portrait of the president that still makes me laugh.

Small paintings are a place to explore our odd ideas. I need more of that.

Monday Morning Art School: more better, faster

My painting for Camden on Canvas, called "So Many Boats!" Sold at auction yesterday.
My painting for Camden on Canvas, called "So Many Boats!" Sold at auction yesterday.

One of the questions we are often asked at plein air painting events is, “Did you really finish that whole painting in one day?” The answer, of course, is yes—or sometimes two or three paintings. We have trained ourselves to be fast, but that didn’t happen by painting large set pieces. It’s by churning out small studies.

My buddy Bobbi Heath recently wrote an excellent post on how to do ten-minute daily exercises in paint. It’s complete and I have little to add, except the rationale for why lots of little paintings will get you to your stylistic goal long before a few major set pieces.

All the chaos of Camden. This was my 'also ran' painting for Camden on Canvas; it was a touch choice.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a book I frequently recommend. I’m up in Schoodic and can’t access my copy, so this will be a very loose interpretation of what they actually wrote. They described an art class where the students were divided into two groups—the first would be graded on quality, the second on quantity. It was the students pushed to produce lots of work who, in fact, made the best work. That is because talent, in the end, is really about perseverance and hard work. The artist must paint a lot of duds before he or she creates something that is truly brilliant.

But these duds do not have to be large, serious paintings—a fact I wish I’d realized much earlier, before I cluttered up my studio with so many big canvases. Often, painting students have lovely photos they took on vacation, or of the perfect sunset, and they want to immortalize them in paint. That’s a laudable goal in its own right, but it won’t actually make you a better painter. In fact, their emotional investment in the content might get in the way of pure painting success. Far better to grab a few objects from around the house and paint them, or paint the view out your front window.

Owl's Head, Early Morning, is a painting that started as a quick practice but turned out to be one of my personal favorites.

There’s much to be said for the humble still life. Eric Jacobsen is a wicked good expressionist painter, and he often paints still lives—the busier, the better. I’m not a still-life painter myself; I strongly prefer fresh air. But I do live in the north, where winter can make for unpleasant painting. During a blizzard, the best way I know to stay fresh is to set up a still life in the studio and hack away at it.

That’s why so many of my Zoom classes are based on still life. I understand when students say, “I hate still life,” and that they’d rather paint landscape or portrait. However, they won’t learn half as much from copying a photo as they will learn from painting from life. Still life—as Bobbi Heath says—is the next best thing to painting plein air, in terms of training and growth.

To be honest, I never get my oil paints out for a ten-minute exercise. I’ll paint an apple in gouache or watercolor; the clean-up is easier. (Switching between media teaches you new ways of applying paint, and different ways of looking at things. However, for a beginner, it can be confusing.)

Sometimes watercolor is just what you need for a fast sketch. This was the Pecos River, painted by me.

I have my own interpretation of fast warm-ups; I call them ‘practicing my scales’ or ‘practicing chip shots.’ They usually involve running down to the harbor to paint a few boats before my gallery opens, but they might also be something as silly as painting a basket of beach toys in my driveway. The important thing is the daily discipline, and it’s something I’m concentrating on right now.

My friend Peter Yesis has done a lot of these fast warm ups over his career—for a long time, they were his daily discipline. They served him in good stead at Camden on Canvas this weekend. Peter’s taken a long hiatus due to serious illness, but he knocked this week’s painting out of the park. The brushwork and paint application were assured; the drawing was perfect.

So, if your goal is to get better, fast, try practicing with small, unassuming paintings. They might just end up being masterpieces.