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The Persistence of Scale

As students we're told to go big and make a mess. After leaving art school, I've been doing the opposite.

"Atlantic Civilisation", Andre Fougeron in Tate Modern. Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

I could've called this entry "Size Matters", but I didn't. I'm proud of me for that. When it comes to drawing or painting I've found that size does matter, but not always in the way that I assumed.

The message that my art school gave me about size (call it 'scale') was fairly black and white for the most part.

"Go big and make a mess".

It seemed to be a catch all response, a piece of knee-jerk advice to students that were uncertain about which direction to take. Which was almost everyone, including me.

Of course for some students, maybe most, loosening up and embarking on a huge all-guns-blazing messy painting is liberating, and unshackles them from their anxieties. I know a lot of artists who benefitted.

For me though, I didn't need to go bigger and make a mess. I had no shortage of manic chaotic energy, blank canvases didn't scare me, and I've never been tidy. What I needed to be told was to stand back, take a deep breath and actually think about what I was doing. Think about composition, colour, value. Think about what needed to be in the painting and what didn't. What was I trying to do?

The small drawings I've been making recently are perfect for that, because they allow my ideas to flow more freely. Coloured pencil doesn't make much of a mess, but there's still things that happen on that A4 page that surprise and excite me. I can investigate my subjects without ordering, stretching and priming a huge slab of cotton. Frankly, I can burn through all the shit ideas and get to the really juicy stuff more quickly. The stuff that truly deserves to be big, demands to be big.

Maybe that's obvious, but it wasn't to me back in art school. A finished painting, I always insisted to myself, had to be big.

I will clarify here, that some tutors did emphasise that I needed to be less careless and take a step back. I'm thankful for those times. But I never really scaled down, I just tried to be less careless on the same scale. The prevailing attitude in the studios, an attitude that seemed to seep into the whole cohort, was that bigger was better. More importantly, bigger was helpful, and I'm just not sure that it is. Not in the beginning.

"Metamorphosis of Narcissus", Salvador Dali, Tate

I think painters should be less afraid of working small, especially graduates. After all, some of my favourite paintings of all time are tiny. Salvador Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus", a painting that I credit with jumpstarting my fascination with Surrealism and storytelling, is only 78cm on it's longest side. "The Persistence of Memory", with the globally adored melting clock, is only 30cm. You would never know it by looking at them on a screen.

Going big is challenging of course, that's the point in art school, but going small is just as challenging. Maybe more. You have to be ruthless with your composition, distil the image down into its core components (you can't fit too much into an image if you just don't have the space to do so). Cut the fat away until it sings. Some of my small drawings do exactly what I want them to do already, so there's really no reason for me to scale them up, or translate into paint. But some will always demand to be heard more loudly. I'm much more ready to chip away at that task, this time with sharpened tools, but now I ask myself: "How big does this painting demand to be?"

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