“Little things console us because little things afflict us.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensées
I have always painted small. This is partly because I have never had much space to work in – my studio currently consists of two square metres in the corner of my lounge room – and partly because I have felt myself unequal to the task of a really large work. You would think that the basic rules and techniques would be the same in a large painting as in a small work, and I think this is probably, largely, true. But I also feel that to go large is not merely a matter of following the steps one would normally follow, only executing them on a larger scale. I think it requires more meaning too. So for me it’s not so much a problem of how, although there is some of that, but of what. Somehow the meaning in the work should ‘live up’ to a ‘life size’ depiction.
This is not to say that small subjects are necessarily less meaningful, in fact I think I find the opposite is true – the observation of being itself, sometimes more easily perceived in the very small, is a doorway to wonder; to see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, as Blake famously put it. But this is meaning on an ontological level, which any painting is potentially a vessel for, and any painting succeeding at naturalism will convey. In fact, when a painting is small, I actually think it makes sense to focus on this level of meaning.
Good small paintings have a very important function – linked to Pascal’s quote above – small consolations are needed, not because we suffer little, but because we suffer from the little. Many small paintings are loved for this reason, not because they are small, but because they reflect that reality about our experience. But large paintings bring more, and address more, because in life, when we look up from the meaning in the small, we also find meaning in the breadth and variety of experience, as well as in events, in myth and in each other. This is why I look in awe at the paintings of the Renaissance and especially at the work of Michelangelo and Raphael, and still wish that I could apprentice myself to them, to learn how they made that leap.
For now I am content to paint small scale paintings, but I have this zany hope that one day I can execute something really big, ‘paint my masterpiece‘ in the words of Bob Dylan, describing the archetypal, never satisfied artist. I guess my small paintings are part of that long view, but when I paint them, I am completely absorbed in being, and that is actually enough meaning to keep me happy.
Thankfully, once a year, the Lethbridge Gallery in Brisbane holds a small-scale art award called the Lethbridge 10000. This year my work Linen, lace and tape (click for a really big detailed view) has been selected for the finalist’s exhibition. It will show from 8th June to the 18th. This preview of the gallery walls bears out some of my thinking above – there is a lot of wonder in those small paintings.