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Painting on a Big Canvas

How to approach painting on a very big or over-sized canvas

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painting an supersized canvas

One of the challenges of working on a supersized canvas is reaching every corner!

Photo © Carlos Davila / Getty Images

Painting on a big or over-sized canvas has its own 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 canvas. 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 turn a vast expanse of a big, white canvas into a painting.

Scale of the Subject of the Painting

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 a painting), or whether you’re going to paint at a larger scale (and thus have about the same amount of ‘stuff’ in a painting as on a smaller canvas, 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 of painting.

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 you’ll learn from experience.

If your budget for art materials is limited, consider using student’s quality paints for for blocking in initial colors, and using artist’s quality 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 of the Canvas

If you find the scale of the canvas overwhelming, try dividing the canvas 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 to Finish a Big Painting

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. Once at its destination, it can be put onto the stretchers again.

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