Working big or small?
I’m a big fan of David Hockney’s work, especially once he relocated to the United States in the 1960s, when he moved to the representative and figurative work that he is so well known for — semi-nude hipsters in the shower or on the bed. It feels joy-filled and impish.
California Copied From 1965 Painting in 1987 by David Hockney. (Image: LACMA)
I imagine him chuckling to himself as he painted: can you believe I can get paid to paint a hot guy in his underwear? that sort of thing.
Around 2007-2012 he returned back to his native Yorkshire (England) and painted some large landscapes — often 5 feet by 15 feet, composed of 6 or 8 individual canvases — that might be of a road through the woods or something similar. “To me,” I read from an online commentator, “they also play with a sense of memory, shifting focus in a scene, and the difficulty of grasping and remembering a whole moment. It’s very much the artist’s gaze, moving across the scene, recording pieces in an attempt to capture the whole.” This idea captivated me…
Winter Timber by David Hockney, 2009, 9′ x 20′ (from countryliving.com)
At that point, I almost always painted on fairly small canvases. 11x14” was one of my favorites — they’re large enough to get in some details but not get bogged down in tiny brushes to do so, and small enough to fill up or take shape quickly. You can go from inspiration to near completion in a single day.
Usually if I tried working on a large canvas it felt like I would be painting and repainting the surface over and over again, trying to get it right and struggling to successfully translate my idea to the larger size. Well, other artists can paint big I thought, but it’s not for me.
Then I got hooked on 12x12” squares, which seemed neat and tidy (all sides equal!); small enough to finish in a concentrated couple days; and the square shape pushed me to compose my images a little differently than those I’d grown up with on film cameras or the television. A couple years ago I started playing with the 6” x 6” panels that have been so popular lately. They make for little jewels of paintings — a small but complete thought, executed in an afternoon.
Somewhere in there, though, I also started playing with canvases that have a 2:1 ratio of width and height. Usually they’re on the larger side for me (18” x 36”) — nowhere near as big as Hockney’s but large enough that if you are close, you won’t be able to see the whole thing at once. When the canvas is horizontal, it feels just a little bit larger than the eye can take in — which feels like it invites you as the viewer right into the picture. As a vertical, it pushes toward a pleasantly wonky composition or human sort of scale. I do still find it challenging to execute a whole painting of this size in what feels like a fresh and lively style… This fall I started slicing some of my 12x12” panels into two 6x12” panels and those too are fun — the ratio I like so much invites a slightly unusual composition or subject, but the sizes are small and paint up on an impulse — which hopefully makes them more immune to the tendency to overwork (which leads to loss of spontaneity, energy).
Big, small… The in-process shot I posted last week is an exploration to connect the two… A bigger picture, supported by the smaller snapshots that perhaps bring more perspectives to the first than it could have as a stand alone. We’ll see.