Painting Big

I worked steadily on this painting for the last two days. It is the first large painting that I have started in almost five years. (I had to think to come up with that time frame and it blows my mind; I can’t believe that It has been so long.) The painting is 3 X 4 feet while my previous two oil paintings were 12 X 12 inches. There is a huge difference in how I work with materials, but what I hadn’t expected is that there is a huge psychological difference as well.

The Psychology of Painting Big

Working on a large canvas is freeing. Your motions can be grander. The spaces that you paint are on a similar scale to your own body so you don’t have to shrink yourself into a tiny space. In order for this freedom to come through, however, you have to engender a grandness of spirit, an openness that can accept all of the expense, the uncertainty, and the mess of working large.


A pre-stretched, 3 X 4 foot canvas is around $50, not so much really, but enough to make you feel a bit precious about it if you let yourself. By precious, I mean giving rise to thinking along the lines of, “this is a big investment and I have to make it count – this painting needs to turn out right,” rather than, “this is exciting, let’s see what happens.”

With a 12 inch canvas you can squeeze out a tiny spot of paint and enjoy hours of creative entertainment; with a 4 foot canvas you squeeze half the tube onto your pallet and before you know it you are reaching for the same tube again. In order to paint with a sense of freedom it is necessary to overcome any stinginess regarding use of paint. I don’t condone wasteful practice, but you cannot frugally eke out the minimum amount of paint fretting all the while about how much it costs and that you soon have to buy more. Spreading paint as thinly as possible to cover the maxim area feels terrible, whereas the smooth glide of working with a fully loaded brush is like eating a good meal.


If you are not used to working large you may experience a certain amount of uncertainty or anxiety. You also may not. I really don’t want to put that idea in your head; it’s not like its something that you’re supposed to feel. I just thought that I would share my recent experience in case it has relevance to anyone else.

I started working on my large canvas a week ago with washes. It was very free and fun. Then I began to work with a smooth but substantial layer of opaque paint and for the next two days I experienced a sense of uncertainty not just about my painting but about my career choices, the seeming fragility of my life circumstances, an uncertain future, bad past decisions, etc. I can’t say that this stemmed entirely from my painting but last night after I brought the painting to its current stage I started to feel much better about everything.


Mess is mess. Oil paint is messy. When you work big you get a big mess. Again, this is a matter of not being stingy with your process. You have to be willing to accept the mess and work with it. Some painters feel happier letting things get extreme, but I find it important to clean up often, to reorganize my pallet, throw away rags that are too messy to be fun, clean my brushes wash my hands, and get back to making some more of a mess.

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