Why are quick sketches sometimes better than bigger works?

Size Matters!

Here’s a secret for us painters: size matters.

I read a recent post from another painter. As a social media exercise he did some quick and loose sketches, and then did a much larger version in oils.

People commented on how the sketches were actually better than the finished piece. And they were right, and the Artist agreed and delved into why. Even though the big piece took a lot longer and employed more technical knowledge there was something missing that the sketches had.

Likely we have encountered these experiences in our own work. Something we dashed off had verve and sparkle and was exciting to look at, even though it wasn’t as polished or detailed as something we worked hard at.

But why?

In response the Artist did a pretty good job explaining what happened.

He observed
– It’s psychological
– It’s time related
– It’s simplicity
– It’s size

But there was something missing. Something simple.

The psychology of being creative is actually the most complicated part, but that can be easily ‘short circuited’.

When you sketch, there’s less or no pressure; you’re not making a masterpiece. There’s no guilt. You are not wasting precious, expensive materials and studio time; you aren’t making money. Not one has to see this, no one will criticize you, you are free to be you; it won’t take that long.

There can be deep-seated guilt over painting, a question of whether your efforts are truly worth using these expensive materials. So maybe you use cheap paints or left overs or old media or found materials or scrap canvas or whatever. And you aren’t obliged to follow the rigorous steps drilled into your head from art school; maybe you’ll use your fingers or rags or other tools; maybe the brushes or knives that are supposedly too big for the work.

That’s the clue!

And experimenting is fun, whereas completing layer number eight, that you are desperately putting down ten days later to fix botched layers six and seven is a nerve wracking chore and eating into your expensive studio time.

But all the above is really superfluous. At the root of creating lively sketches is quite simply the size of the brush (or tool) relative to the size of the support.

It is that simple.

Why does the liveliness of the sketch fail to transpose onto the larger, more serious work? Because most artists make small sketches using the same brushes they use when making their larger work!

After your sketch, do you use brushes that are ten times the size, because your support is ten times bigger? No.

And when oil painting, do you put out ten times the amount of paint onto your palette? Also no. (For other media, this is less an issue, especially water colours.)

When we use a big brush on a small support we are (often) forced to load multiple colours on the brush and make decisive, direct and ‘short hand’ marks on the surface. Otherwise you will make mud. Because you are sketching, you are not overworking any specific area of the painting. Blending on the canvas and over-painting (extensively, as opposed to minor correcting) and glazing and so on isn’t sketching, that’s full out painting. And you aren’t painting, you’re sketching. Making almost spontaneous gestures and then reacting to those gestures with other quick and near spontaneous gestures. You fill the support and then the sketch is done.

That’s the secret. The big brush to surface area forces your “painters brain” to make marks in a certain way that simply precludes any other issues.

Try it. Take a two inch good quality house painters brush and four colours in generous piles and on a scrap piece of board make a sketch. Do not blend. Just fill it as quickly as necessary.

And almost always these crazy fun spontaneous works are small. Or smaller than the big stuff you believe is your serious work.

Which brings us back to size. Size is scale. And scale is bound to the limits of color optics and the capabilities of the human eye, as well as the spontaneous relationships between the application of the paint and the reaction of the eye and brain and the emotional reaction this generates while painting. This spontaneity is a loop. When you do this loop that information is transferred into the work and the viewer recognizes this. Unfortunately the same spontaneous detail that works on the smaller scale eventually becomes impossible to execute on a larger scale. The reason is not just the size of the tools but the limits of the human eye.

This is why a lot of abstract art is so big.

Colours interact with the human eye most intensely on smaller scales. While the area of a colour can get larger (the field) the mechanical ability of the eye to compute this information remains the same.

Thus Van Gogh or Scott Anderson (https://www.scottreedanderson.com),

apply (at least) two unblended colours in each stroke that vibrate (compliment). Or apply the colours unblended side by side, where the strokes are small enough and the size of the canvas small enough that the eye can fully ‘compute’ (or process) what is happening.

But not with a Mark Rothko, or a Jackson Pollock drip painting. Rothko was layering transparent and translucent layers of paint. If he did this post card sized people would have reacted with a shrug. “Eh, so what, it’s orange?” But Rothko created big paintings.

The effect of his paintings, the reason they are so emotionally moving viewed in real life is that at the distance where the eye recognizes the layers of colour the size of the field is so large the human eye is no longer capable of fully processing all the information (coming off the surface) at the same time. His scale literally overloads the mechanics of the eye, which our brain then struggles to process and this dissonance creates an emotional reaction.

If one were to scale up a Van Gogh or a Scott Anderson to the size of a big Jackson Pollock or some giant Julian Schnabel thing, would the viewer get the same impression as the 18 x 24 in. original? No. Because once the viewer is far enough back from the surface to see the work as a whole the eye is simply not receiving the colour information in the same way. The intensity is gone.

So even if you scale up your tools the effect in the small work does not scale. Different techniques need to be applied.

When you do a mural on the side of a building, let’s say, you design to scale. Colours and details are simplified. The colour is applied like a paint-by-number within discrete areas. Careful blending and subtle gradations are simply lost to the eye. Thus large tools (spray guns, rollers) are used.

When standing too close the mural will stop ‘making sense’. The surface detail and large, flat colour areas become noticeable but have no meaning. But when far enough away the effect of optical blending and the brain’s pattern recognition skills put the work together in your head.

Chuck Close employs another use of pattern recognition and optical blending in his large, later works.

Close uses the cumulative effect of vibrating colour fields executed within near uniformly discrete squares, along with the brain’s pattern recognition skills to make huge representative paintings (portraits).

Techniques like this are far removed from small sketches that use complimentary colours loaded into a single large brush, yet employ the same principles.

So the lesson is relatively simple: size matters. When you want loose, vibrant spontaneous expression, use the biggest brush you can.

Happy Painting! Sean, Nov. 2020