Detail from Pancha-Mukha Shiva by contemporary Indian artist Kailash Raj Miniature, watercolor on paper, 20.3 x 27.9 cm
There is no reason why downsizing your art need send you downmarket. Despite society's apparent demand for 'bigger' art, there are lots of historical and cultural precedents for really small art.
A recent podcast from Artists Helping Artists on why all artists should work bigger included two of the most often-cited reasons for making bigger pieces of art: Greater fluidity in the work and better sales opportunities.
I have felt the call to work bigger on numerous occasions whether due to a real, subconscious need or a perceived one, but a lot of my best work is small.
So what if, like me, you feel more comfortable - and, yes, more fluid - working smaller? Does that mean your prospects for sales are diminished?
Shri Nathji Bedecked for Goswami Vitthalnathji's Birthday ca. 1840 India (Rajasthan, Mewar, Nathadwara) Opaque watercolor and gold on paper 21.9 x 15.2 cm
Margaret More (Daughter of Sir Thomas More) by Hans Holbein the Younger Vellum laid on playing card, Diam. 4.5 cm
Miniature Portrait in leather locket 17th century Hand painted on copper Comes with small transparent mica plates featuring different hair styles and clothes!
Self–portrait Frida Kahlo 1938 3.8 x 4 cm
The Painter: To the Moon Marc Chagall, 1917 32 x 30 cm Gouache and watercolour on paper
Letter to Alfred and Monika Schmela containing tiny sketches, Richard Tuttle,1978
My own experience tells me that this is not the case as my smaller pieces are easier to sell. (There may be a cultural element to this: Most people in Europe have far smaller houses compared with their US counterparts so a 'large' space to fill over here would be average size over the pond.) There are also lots of precedents for the sale of small art - both historical and contemporary.
Really Small Art – Islamic Miniatures
When I went on a painting trip in India many moons ago, I was enthralled by a collection of miniature paintings depicting life in the royal courts or stories from Indian mythology.
Indian miniatures are one of four regional schools of Islamic miniature painting – the other three being Arab, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish.
The oldest preserved Islamic miniature paintings date from around the 1000 AD, but it was not until the 13th century that it became a significant genre, reaching its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Islamic miniature paintings were usually created as part of a manuscript, as a frontispiece or an illustration, but drawings and individual paintings were also made whether as sketches or to be independent works of art intended to be placed in an album.
European Miniature Portraits
From the east, the genre spread to Europe in the form of miniature portraits which were to flourish for another three hundred years.
These small-scale portraits were adapted from the tradition of manuscript illumination, in which vellum pages were decorated with images in watercolor and so initially they employed the same materials.
Ranging in size from 2.5 to 15 cm in height, the portrait would then be either housed in a metal locket, which could be worn or carried on the person, or placed in a frame and displayed in the home.
The German painter, Hans Holbein (1497–1543) working in England at the court of Henry VIII, and François Clouet (c. 1516–1572), a French painter at the French court, were the first prominent miniaturists, although their careers were not exclusively devoted to this art form.
The art form developed into a specialty for English artists, where painted miniatures spread from their initial prominence in Elizabethan court life, to the middle and upper classes as the centuries rolled by. The technique was also practiced throughout continental Europe where enamel miniatures were the most common and enamelers also supplied enamels for watchcases and snuffboxes.
By the second half of the 18th century the new technique of painting with watercolour on ivory invented in Italy by Venetian pastelist Rosalba Carriera became the most common in England.
In the 19th century the advent of photography made small-scale portraits widely available quickly and cheaply, causing a gradual demise in demand for painted miniatures.
The Small and Intimate Art of Frida Kahlo
Despite having produced some very large canvases - her largest being The Two Fridas, a whopping 173.5 x 173 cm - Frida Kahlo is well known for the many small, intimate works she produced during her lifetime.
The smallest painting Kahlo ever made was a miniature self–portrait on wood from 1938 measuring a mere 3.8 x 4 cm. Kahlo painted it for the Spanish artist José Bartolí, with whom she was romantically involved for several years and he kept it all his life. The painting was auctioned at Sotheby's in November 2000 and sold for $225,750!
Marc Chagall is another artist who varied the size of his works dramatically. Homage to Apollinaire which he painted in 1911/12 is similar in size to The Two Fridas at 200.4 x 189.5 cm and yet, one of his most famous pieces, The Painter: To the Moon painted in 1917 is just 32 x 30 cm!
Artist Richard Tuttle: Man of Small Things
As well as larger installation pieces, throughout his career contemporary mixed–media artist, Richard Tuttle has made and exhibited many small collages as well as prints and artist’s books.
In 2005, in Time magazine, Richard Lacayo reviewing Tuttle's retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, called him “the man of small things.”
A Minimum of Means
But the sub-text to the article "Richard Tuttle works with humble materials for delicate effects." indicates that in this case Lacayo was not thinking of the work as 'small' so much in terms of size as in the absence of grandeur of its conceptual approach.
"In the 1980s, when so much art was big and declamatory, it was always a relief to come across one of Tuttle’s meticulous drawings or his gentle constructions, making their case that the smallest gesture could carry weight... Everything Tuttle does seems to be asking the same question: What’s the smallest things you can do in a picture or with an object and still lift it out of the realm of the ordinary? What’s the smallest conceptual pressure that can be brought to bear on something and still have it qualify as art?" Richard Lacayo
The Power of the Small
So if you're instincts are calling you to buck the trend and make your work ever smaller, don't be afraid, there are plenty of precedents. The most important thing is to make the art that you want to make. Who knows, one day you might be selling your miniatures for princely sums!