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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How to Know when Your Artwork is Finished?

Healing Power, a finished artwork by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

This is my latest painting called “Healing Power”. Painting this piece was so much fun so I decided to work with acrylics on a canvas. I’ll show you the main phases on creating this painting while giving my view on how to know when the artwork is finished.

Finished Artwork? – How to Analyze?

I have heard many advice on how to decide when your artwork is finished. The worst is: “When you feel like it is”. Often you are just tired, fed up and that’s not a good point to finish. Take a break instead, sleep over night and then continue!

Then there are more technical approaches like this one including an infographics or based on historical studies and interviewing artists like this one. But as my students usually want to bring more content and self-expression to their art I have composed a simple and short check list focusing on those only. And instead of diagrams, I show how I deal with the issue in practice.

1. Do You Have an Opinion?

Every time I begin creating, I have pretty conventional ideas. Like here, I thought that I would make a flower painting and express “tranquility”. But to truly express tranquility, I show also include anxiety. I should have an opinion, a personal view on the difference between tranquility and anxiety.

Now you say: “But this is just flowers and nothing deeper”. I don’t think so. If you want to express yourself, you should express an opinion of some kind. This doesn’t mean you have to begin with an opinion. It’s more like vice versa: stay open to what is going to appear! But if you don’t have any more thoughts than “flowers”, “tranquility”, “pink”, you are not finished yet.

Painting on canvas with acrylics

So while thinking about opinions, I got anxious and added some of it: brownish red!

adding contrast with dark paint, acrylic painting

Another way of asking this: “Does the painting have both light and darkness?”

2. Do You Have a Focus?

When I continued the painting, it felt good to add rectangular shapes on it. Then some more colors, then some directional brush strokes. But directional or not, I really didn’t have a clue where I was going. Maybe this could be a flower bunch and the white part on the bottom could be a pot. If so, I should make them more clear.

acrylic painting in prgress, no clear focal point

Another way of asking this: “Is it easy to know where to look at first?”

3. Have You Told a Story?

I continued the painting by turning the it upside down as it seemed to be even easier to build a pot with flowers that way. When I was at step 1 (see the image below), the painting was a bit too busy so I added dark thin layers to make it easier to look at (step 2). But then, what does this painting mean? Does it really connect with my thoughts? No, not really!

Steps for finishing an artwork, by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

After a break, I turned the painting upside down (3). I saw a woman there, wearing a hat and taking care of the flowers. Maybe that could be a start for a story? I continued painting, trying to make the woman clearer.

Then it hit me: she was some kind of an angel, holding some kind of a magic ball. And finally: this is about healing, a subject I have been thinking a lot lately. My older dog Cosmo has had stomache problems and I have worried about him. I have also thought about many of my students, either in the middle of the sickness or having someone close to worry about. If only I could have the magic power to make everything what’s wrong, back right!

Another way of asking this: Does every element on your artwork contribute or lead to what’s most important?

Healing Power, a finished artwork by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

This finished artwork is for you who would like to have that magic ball of healing power.

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Bringing Life to Illustrations – Coloring the Air

The Chain of Generations, an art journal page spread by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

This is an art journal spread called “Chain of Generations.” I made this to express how decorative arts and crafts have connected women through generations. I feel I am part of that long chain, one foot in crafting and another in creating art.

Spinning wool

From an Accidental Start to an Intentional Theme

The making of the art journal spread began almost accidentally. I had doodled a border on the right page a long time ago. Then many months later, I had quickly drawn a woman from 1920s and glued it beside the doodles.

A few weeks ago, I saw wonderful photos of Ukrainian folk art (pinned some to my Pinterest board Fantastic Folk Art). I got an idea of women connected with flying ribbons. I made a quick sketch with a pencil and then added more details with a drawing pen. I also got started with the coloring, but finishing felt too much work back then.

Coloring tips for an art journal page spread by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

This happens to me often: I begin with one idea and end with another some time later. I think it’s one of the best things in creating art and especially in creating art journal pages. When there are no fixations, surprising connections can happen. Like here, the women on the right are from different eras: Rococo and 1920s, just perfect to tell the story about how folk art and fashion and their timeless connection.

Inspiration from Atmosphere

While coloring the spread, I thought how I have always felt disconnected with folk art of my country Finland. Instead, I have always loved Russian and other Slavic countries’ approach to it. Finnish folk art feels very plain and unimaginative to me. Before the success in IT and education, Finland was a poor country. Many who come to Finland are surprised how few historic buildings there are and how modest the life seems to have been.

I have been born in Eastern Finland, near the Russian border, but visited Russia only three years ago. The grand atmosphere of the big churches in St. Petersburg made a big impact on me. The mosaics at Church of the Savior on Blood (yes, all the “paintings” are made from tiny mosaic pieces) lighted by the candles inspired my coloring.

Church of the Savior on Blood

The atmosphere in these kinds of old, precious buildings is amazing. As the theme of the spread was not only practical but also spiritual, an atmosphere of an old church felt a good choice to bring in.

The Chain of Generations, an art journal page spread by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

Coloring “The Air”

Imagine that I had colored the spread so that I had stayed inside the outlines only. The page would have been much flatter, contained much less atmosphere and emotion. When I color, I also try to color “the air”. I try to think not only about the light but also how the air feels on the face and how it interacts with the light.

Coloring tips: coloring "the air" by Peony and Parakeet

Things don’t have only one color when they are exposed to light. When coloring, think about the air and the lights flowing through space. Color over the outlines and show those less obvious, but so essential streams!

The Chain of Generations, an art journal page spread by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

Buy the E-Book – Coloring Freely!

Coloring doesn’t only have to be calming. It can be expressive and inspirational. Purchase my e-book Coloring Freely to learn more about coloring freely with colored pencils. The book can be used with any coloring page or with any blank page. Buy now!

Intuitive Start for Art Journaling

I Love Art Museums, an art journal page with colored pencils by Peony and Parakeet. Art museum inspiration.

My latest art journal page is about one of my favorite places: art museums. On the page, I have used both organic and graphic shapes to express the interaction between art and architecture. That interaction is something I enjoy examining when handling art museum inspiration.

Inspiration

Last week I went to Kunsthalle Helsinki to see an exhibition of Erling Neby Collection. Erling Neby is a Norwegian businessman who collects concrete and geometric art.

Arne Malmedal, Untitled at Konsthalle Helsinki, Finland

Arne Malmedal, Untitled at Kunsthalle Helsinki

This kind of art makes me remember the time when I was in my 20s and very certain of what kind of art I like and what I don’t like. Simple-shaped abstract paintings were in my comfort zone back then – it was “good art” that I was excited to see and experience although I have never been able to stretch my personal style to that.

At the exhibition, the reflection of the yellow painting was especially inspiring. It made me think how art is never disconnected from its surroundings, whether physical or mental. Thus, an illustration about art museum would not need to separate artworks from the architecture but express the holistic feeling of the experience.

Techniques

I used a couple of black pens and colored pencils for creating the page.

1) Free doodling and coloring.
Making an art journal page with colored pencils by Peony and Parakeet.

2) Drawing sharp graphic shapes with the help of a ruler and a round object. Drawing graphic shapes with colored pencils, by Peony and Parakeet

Emotional Connection

When I draw, I always want to get an emotional connection with the subject. Without that, I start to worry about the result before the first stroke! When making this page, I did not think about art museums in general. Instead, I thought about tiny details that I saw and tiny moments that I remembered from my last visit in Kunsthalle Helsinki. I focused on the feeling and let my imagination work with that.

A detail of an art journal page with colored pencils by Peony and Parakeet.

Inspirational Drawing

Working from tiny details towards the big picture is something that is not easy to explain in a single blog post. To explain it shortly, it is starting with an intuition and then slowly bringing the page towards the intention. This way of working is in the main role in Inspirational Drawing.

I Love Art Museums, an art journal page with colored pencils by Peony and Parakeet.

Inspirational Drawing is built so that you can enjoy developing the three dimensions of drawing:
1) increasing your imagination
2) improving your technical skills
3) using inspirational source material.

You will learn a creative process in detail through art journaling exercises. Course videos will not only show you how to do, but I also talk about the emotions and the inspiration behind them. I will answer your questions and help you adjust the process so that it will work for you. You can start enjoying free drawing without questioning what to draw or how the process itself will take care of that!

>> Reserve your spot now! 

Creating Collage Mandalas

Blue Eye Mandala by Peony and Parakeet

If you like cutting papers with scissors, create collage mandalas! And if you need more inspiration for cutting, read this post first: 5 Reasons to Enjoy Cutting Paper with Scissors)

Circles Are Everywhere

Daisy flower

For some people, mandalas have spiritual meaning. They usually represent universe or unity. As the word “mandala” means “circle” they can be almost anything and seen almost anywhere. I am often inspired by the circular shapes that I see in nature. Mandalas are usually symmetric, so they are surprisingly fast to make. The mandalas that I made are very straight-forward, yet eye-catching.

Basic Instructions for Creating Collage Mandalas

Creating collage mandalas from hand cut papers, by Peony and Parakeet

1) Cut a centerpiece and other pieces (3 to 5 different shapes, 6 to 12 pieces each) from decorated papers. I cut the pieces freely with scissors not worrying too much about their similarity.
2) Glue the pieces on the solid background paper. I used Golden Soft Gel Gloss gel medium, but you can use almost any glue. Measure the middle point of the background paper and start attaching the pieces from there.
3) Draw some more shapes with color pencils.
4) Doodle the finest decorations with a white gel pen and a thin black marker.

Red Energy Mandala by Peony and Parakeet

If you study my mandalas carefully, you’ll see how carelessly I have cut the shapes. They are not identical or perfect. I think that the result is more human when using scissors instead of cutting machines or shape cutters. Look at that photo of the daisy flower again, doesn’t the flower look more like hand-cut than machine-cut?

Blue Eye Mandala and Red Energy Mandala by Peony and Parakeet

I made my mandalas as greeting cards. I think they would make great gifts!

Create more luxurious collage art: Buy Doodled Luxury!

Experiencing Art

Expericence Art in an Art Museum, a digital art journal page by Peony and Parakeet

I read from an article how strongly people respond to art. It claimed that art museums are like churches. A visit to them is an experience which can change you. That reminded me of the unforgettable experience which I have illustrated in this digital art journaling page.

Art Museum Experience

About 15 years ago I visited a modern art museum in Nice, France. I was traveling alone, attending a conference which was located near the museum. Walking in the isles of the museum I began to think of my busy life and how I approached it. Suddenly I noticed that I was staring at a painting. I could not take my eyes off it. It. Half of the painting was painted black and another half was white. It was the kind of artwork that many people would have commented: I could have painted that!

But really, if I talk about myself, I could not have painted that! Still, it was not only the visualization of my thoughts, but also some kind of solution to my anxiety. I realized that I loved that painting because I so strongly believed in black and white: how good it was to pursue extremes. I had difficulties to accept that most of the days are practically various shades of grey. There in the museum I was in my church seeing my ideals. When I left the museum I decided to make some compromises, make my life a bit easier. It did not anymore mean that I had to work against my values. It was more about accepting human errors as a part of the life.

Even if I never saw that painting again, thinking about it still gives me consolation and perspective to life. And even if I often write how you need to experience art by creating it yourself, art can truly offer experiences in many other ways too if we just open ourselves to it.

I have experienced ART by Peony and Parakeet

What has been a significant work of art for you and where did you experienced it?

If you art journal – now there’s a subject worth documenting! (Read my tips on how to get inspired by fine arts)

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