Painting small is easy. There’s something about the length of the human limb, the angle of articulation of the wrist and the length of a standard brush that makes creating gestural, exciting marks on a small scale natural and intuitive.
Scale that up. You can’t. Not in the way you think you can. what once was a wrist flick, has now become an arm sweep. That little dab that left that perfect little cat-tongue-shaped mark now requires a brush many times winder, so the spring rate of the bristles is now stiffer, it feels different, the marks aren’t the same.
It’s interesting to look at artists only through the lens of scale. How many can straddle the small to huge and how do they tackle it? Do the big pieces still look like the work of the same person that did the smaller ones? Many seem to find a scale they are naturally comfortable with and stick to it, be that large or small.
I like painting small, 18×18 or 25x25cm is a wonderful area to work in. You see the whole painting when sat and working with your face at a comfortable distance from the canvas. No leaning back (or walking back) is required. Your peripheral vision can take it all in. New marks (every new one affects the composition at every stage) can be judged and deemed either fit, or not worthy the instant they are made. you see everything, all the time. Paint on a 90x90cm canvas and you better be taking regular steps back, or risk falling into the “chasm of assumption” where all new marks are assumed to be safe and worthy, just because your instinct and current sight cone deemed them to be.
There are, thankfully, a few approaches to mitigate against the “chasm” Here’s a few that spring to mind.
If you want to see a composition in its entirety, sketch it as a thumbnail. Working ultra small like this (maybe 8x8cm) can be a super fast and consistent way to plot compositions that work. And trust me, if something looks good, solid and balanced at 8×8, it’ll still hold up at 90×90. Just grid up the scanned thumbnail in photoshop and grid up the big canvas with the same amount of lines and copy it over. You’re good to go.
If you normally paint small whilst sitting down, ditch the chair, get a floor easel and start painting standing. Try putting a box on the floor in front of you to stop yourself standing too close to the canvas and force yourself to regularly lean back, or preferably walk back to survey the progress. The longer you spend Zombie-painting, focussing on that tiny area of wonder, the more likely you are to be ignoring the whole.
The sooner you see the large scale for what it is and all the new possibilities it represents, the quicker you will move forward with the process as a whole. Stop trying to do what you did, the way you did it when you painted small and use this opportunity to try new things. You may be pleasantly surprised with where it leads you.