5 Lessons Learned When Painting on a Big Canvas

Human Nature, by Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a big canvas.

I have now finished my first big canvas painting. It is called “Human Nature.”

1) Smaller Paintings Can Take As Much Time

About two years ago, when I left my day job, I had a dream about creating a big painting. But my job is to teach art, and I don’t have much spare time, so it felt impossible to fit in the schedule. Now when I think about that, I kind of feel that the lack of time was an excuse. I think I was intimidated even by the thought of painting on a big canvas. The usual question raised: “What should I paint?” And then: “How could I maintain my focus for such a long time?” I exaggerated the time that painting would take. I thought it would take months and months. But when I started painting, I realized that I could use broader brushes and be less detailed. If you have ever tried to make small paintings as finished and polished as possible, it takes a long time. Adjusting the details on a big canvas is much easier.

A detail of Human Nature, by Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a big canvas.

2) Use an Easel, at Least in the Beginning and Finishing Phases

My canvas was not huge. It’s 60 cm x 50 cm (appr. 23.5 x 19.5 inches) Still, it was hard to see the whole painting when it was laid down on the table. I painted parts of the canvas so that it was on the table but set the foundation and finished the final details with the help of the easel.

Creating a painting on a big canvas. Painting in progress. By Peony and Parakeet.

My easel also has sentimental value. My father who passed away a long time ago has made it. He was a skilled woodworker. We didn’t talk much, but I think that making the easel was his way to encourage me to paint.

3) Eat the Elephant One Bite at a Time

I got the courage to start the painting when I realized that I could combine painting with building an art class. My upcoming workshop Nature in Your Mind (do sign up!) has instructions for the techniques that I used. I treated the canvas as my sketching board for the class.

A detail of Human Nature, by Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a big canvas.

For example, the project for the first week of the class is “Rising Butterfly.” I practiced the techniques on a big canvas and then sought for the easiest and most enjoyable way to create a butterfly on a smaller canvas.

Rising Butterfly, a painting on canvas. By Peony and Parakeet. The project for week 1 of the workshop Nature in Your Mind.

This kind of experimenting transformed the big canvas to my playground. The size was no longer intimidating.

4) Big Brushes are Great for Details

Thin lines, little dots, all look so much better when working with a big brush! It has changed my attitude towards broader brushes. I have started to use them on smaller paintings too.

A detail of Human Nature, by Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a big canvas.

It was surprising that sharp lines can be so easy with a big brush!

A detail of Human Nature, by Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a big canvas.

5) Big Canvas, Big Story

If you have been following my blog for a while, you know that my style is detailed. I know now why I wanted so badly to create a big painting and why I was so intimidated by it. You can express a much greater story on a big canvas. It’s much easier to create images that are like events or scenes on a big canvas. When one detail connects with another, it’s like moving from one chapter of a book to the next one.

A detail of Human Nature, by Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a big canvas.

A detail of Human Nature, by Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a big canvas.

A detail of Human Nature, by Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a big canvas.

My story is about human nature: how we are spiritual beings, have imagination and ideas and are conscious about the circle of life. I doubt if I could have expressed all this on a smaller canvas.

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11 Responses to 5 Lessons Learned When Painting on a Big Canvas

  1. Lin Powell says:

    I really like this painting. I will never be able to produce art the way you do, but it does not lessen my admiration for your techniques and your artistic ideas. Some days you are my inspiration for getting me started with playing with my art tools.

  2. Mary W says:

    This painting is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I could look for hours and enjoy every minute. It feels relaxing and exciting at the same time. Very organic, I think if I were to visit another planet, this could possibly live there. IF you ever have prints made – I certainly want to be able to get one. I just love this piece so very much and I don’t care for abstract art – LOL. You have certainly changed me in many ways and all for the better.

  3. Kathleen Abley says:

    Thank you for this list Paivi. It is honest and truly helpful. I love your painting and find your blog inspiring.

  4. KAREN NOWVISKIE says:

    I love your style and it’s translation to the larger canvas!

  5. Mackie 'dArge says:

    So incredibly beautiful, Paivi, and as Mary writes, a canvas that would be at home on another, organic planet…but your spirit is so huge I envision canvases the size of walls in your future…. You are an extraordinary teacher, and I am so very thankful that I have you in my life.

  6. Amit Misra says:

    Thanks for the practical lessons. Some of them are not apparent, and are new to me.