Painting on a Big Canvas

Man Painting
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Painting on a big or oversized canvas has its delights and challenges. Sometimes it's the appeal of working on a large scale in a loose style. Sometimes a subject simply demands to be painted on a large canvas, not squeezed into your "usual" size painting. Sometimes it's the ambition to paint a truly impressive and grand work.

If you dream of painting on a big scale but already feel intimidated when facing a blank "normal-sized" canvas, here are some tips to help you face an even bigger empty.

The Scale of the Subject

Faced with a lot more surface area on which to paint, you need to decide whether you’re going to paint your subject at the same scale as you usually do (and thus have more going on in the painting), or whether you’re going to paint at a larger scale (and thus have about the same amount of stuff, just painting it bigger).

Painting a subject bigger doesn’t guarantee a better painting, nor does more having a more detailed or complex subject. You need to find the balance between the size of the canvas, the subject of the painting, and your style.

Bigger Canvas, Bigger Brushes

Painting on a large canvas is the ideal opportunity to try working with brushes that are larger than those you’d generally use. It’s not simply a question of larger brushes helping you cover the canvas with paint more rapidly, but often a bigger brush also loosens up your painting style, as it’s harder to get caught up in detail.

Move back and forth, left to right and back again as you paint on a big canvas; don’t stand or sit in one spot and stretch to the outer edges of the canvas. If you do, elements (particularly straight lines) in your painting will tend to curve down at the ends simply through the way you move your arm.

You'll Need a Lot More Paint

A large canvas will obviously use up a lot more paint than a smaller one (well, unless you paint with extreme impasto on a small canvas). If you’re painting with colors straight from a tube, it’s simply a case of squeezing out paint onto your palette more frequently or squeezing out more at a time. If you’re mixing colors, however, you’ll need to remember to mix a greater quantity. Exactly how much to mix you’ll learn from experience.

If your budget for art materials is limited, consider using student’s quality paints for blocking in initial colors, and using artist-quality paints for the later layers. Or limit your selection of colors to the cheaper pigments rather than the more expensive ones (such as cadmiums).

Coping with the Sheer Size

If you find the scale of the canvas overwhelming, divide the area up into quarters (or even sixths) and finish it a section at a time rather than working on the whole canvas at once. (This approach is also one to consider if you're painting with acrylics and want to blend colors before they dry.)

If your studio isn’t big enough for you to step back far enough to assess a big canvas, set up a large mirror on the opposite wall. That way you can turn around and see the whole painting as if from a distance.

Allow More Time

A big canvas will take you longer to paint than your "normal" size canvas. Just how long is impossible to say, but if you find yourself getting impatient or, worse, bored, then painting big canvases is probably not for you.

Transporting a Big Canvas

You've found a buyer for your huge masterpiece, or a gallery that wants to show it, but how do you get it to its destination? If you can get it out of your studio door and it's not too far away, you could hire a small delivery truck to transport it there. If you can't get it out of your studio door, take the painting off its stretchers and roll it up. After it's at its destination, it can be put onto the stretchers again.