Studio artists have a bit of lore passed down through generations regarding size in art. “If you can’t make it good, make it big,” they say. “And if you can’t make it big, make it red.”
What they’re onto, of course, is that extremes of scale capture a viewer’s attention. Very large or very small works command a closer look partly due to their novelty. Amid a gallery of sofa-sized paintings, gargantuan or miniscule pieces will stand out.
True miniature art is a genre unto itself. With a history that stretches back to the intricately decorated letters in illuminated manuscripts, miniature painters prize exquisite detail in works spanning no more than a few inches across. Traditionally, the size of a miniature is defined as a work that can be carried in one’s hand.
Small-format art is generally a bit bigger than miniatures. There’s no hardand- fast definition of its measure, either, but most art considered to be small scale is no larger than 12 or 14 inches in any direction. Whereas miniaturists can get carried away painting with tiny brushes or even single human hairs, artists who work small tend not to be so concerned with rendering minute details.
Since the beginning of this year, Naples painter Virginia Bryant has found herself creating a series of small, colorful abstract paintings on illustration board. They range from about 3 by 5 inches to 8 by 10 inches in height and width, from about postcard size on up to the dimensions of a piece of paper.
“I just wanted to see if it was possible to do something interesting small. It’s easy to push the energy button when you’re confronting a large surface. There’s an innate physical energy to it,” she says. “With smaller works, you have to be more focused and concentrated. Every move you make is important. Everything shows on a small surface.”
One virtue of shrinking size is that her tiny works are eminently portable. During a recent lunch meeting, Bryant opened what she calls her “Bohemian briefcase,” a tote bag made from cut-up pieces of unfinished paintings. She pulled out a half-dozen or so little paintings and propped them up for an impromptu exhibition.
Organic shapes swirl and pulse across the faintly gleaming surfaces of these diminutive paintings. Bryant employs “interference” paint, which contains specially milled mica flakes, to impart a subtle iridescence to her compositions.
She likes the ease of working small. Her forte is, literally, pushing paint around. Her abstract designs have a liquid, improvisational quality. Lines meander into curlicues. Pools of color billow and spread. “I love what brushes do with paint. It’s like paint becomes its own life form,” Bryant says.
Petite paintings have a high charm factor. They offer new decorating options and they tend to be more affordable than larger pieces by the same artist. Plus, as Naples art collector Richard Tooke points out, there’s an advantage for the spacestarved, too. “We’ve turned to small works because we don’t have any space left,” Tooke says of the collection he’s amassed together with his partner, Charles Marshall.
Tooke notes that pocket-sized paintings can still pack plenty of artistic punch.
“I compare them to small Renaissance sculptures that were about 12 inches high, but they had the feeling of being massive sculptures. They didn’t seem small at all. Small paintings don’t need to feel incomplete or as if they are only pieces of a bigger work of art.”
Artists who usually work larger feel intrigued and challenged by working on a smaller scale, he says.
The current mood of economic uncertainty may also play a role in the trend toward artistic downsizing. “Maybe we’re all contracting because we’re all wondering what’s going to happen next,” Bryant said.
“When the economy went bad, a lot of the artists we know turned to making smaller-sized works, say in the range of 18 by 24 inches, that were not so high-priced,” notes Tooke.
“You can sell three or four of those and get the same amount you’d have made on a larger piece. During the Depression, artists turned to doing landscapes and still lifes. People were not commissioning large paintings or family portraits. It was a matter of being practical and recognizing where the market was at that time.”
Artist Jane Borchers, a seasonal resident of Naples, says she’s been working small for the past decade. Her choice stems from an innate love of reading and the graphic arts.
“My earliest memories are of drawing in the margins of books my grandma was reading to me,” she said by phone recently. “Also, I remember having a safety pin and scratching a little drawing into my parents’ record player console.”
She and her husband, Richard, travel a great deal, dividing their time among homes in Naples, Minneapolis and Santa Fe. They visit other places for pleasure and to see their adult children, who are living on the West Coast. This peripatetic lifestyle figures into her need to work in diminutive scale, too.
As they go places, she records her impressions on the pages of drawing pads containing 9- by 6-inch pieces of paper.
“I like the paper. It’s a warm white,” she says. “I work with archival ink and little Japanese pens.
“All my adult life, I’ve carried tiny tablets and sketched, because I can pop them in my purse and it doesn’t call attention to me when I’m drawing. It’s kind of like my diary, in a way.”
Her graceful, fluent ink drawings capture smallscale images of everyday life: people she sees in airport lounges, libraries and during intermissions at cultural events. Borchers also has made portraits of family members and friends.
“I’m interested in the energy of living things,” she points out. “Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of drawings of trees. They seem to have personalities as different and interesting and individualistic as people.”
Intimacy and a desire to contemplate things at length are also part of working small for her.
“I tend to be a rather quiet person. I suppose to some degree that my drawing habits reflect my personality. I want to look deeply into the beauty and interest of what I’m responding to, rather than being scientifically descriptive. In a way, drawing is a form of loving for me. I don’t like to draw things that I don’t feel a warm sensitivity to.”
Janice T. Paine is program manager for arts education at the United Arts Council of Collier County. Her articles and reviews have been published in numerous national art and fine crafts magazines.