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Small is Beautiful

‘By doing something half a centimetre high, you are more likely to get a sense of the universe than if you try to do the whole sky.’

Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti

There’s no denying the fact that larger paintings can dominate a room, their sheer scale making it nigh on impossible for you to miss them. However, small paintings can still pack a powerful punch which is why for many artists throughout history, small paintings have been an important part of their oeuvre.

Rembrandt, Self portrait, signed and dated R[HL] 1630. Copper, 15 x 12.2 cm. Bredius 11. Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
Rembrandt, Self portrait, signed and dated R[HL] 1630.
Copper, 15 x 12.2 cm. Bredius 11. Stockholm, Nationalmuseum

Dutch Baroque painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn created nearly 100 self-portraits in his lifetime. This Self Portrait (1630) is just 15 x 12.2 cm and it has a few stories to tell. Having been originally purchased in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, for the sum of just 35 Florins, it featured in several collections before finally ending up in the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1956 until it was stolen in an armed robbery in December 2000. The painting was recovered in Copenhagen in 2005, just in time for the Dutch Golden Age Exhibition.

The paintings from the Golden Age were generally small, designed to cater to the Dutch population’s quintessential affection for their land and home during the 17th century. In the twenty-year period from 1640 to 1659 alone, a staggering 1.3-1.4 million paintings were produced in the Netherlands which is quite something when you consider that the population at mid-century was around 2 million. Reports of the time describe large numbers of paintings on display even in relatively modest households, and inventories show that small oil paintings were well within the reach of many Dutch citizens, costing in some cases less than household linen or a piece of furniture (Grijzenhout and van Veen, 1999, p. 1)

Like the Dutch population of the Golden Age, this affection for the home is never stronger than today, as, across the globe, we find ourselves spending more time at home during the COVID crisis. 

Museum Study 5 painting by Tony Beaver
Tony Beaver, Museum Study 5, 34.5cm x 34.5cm, oil on canvas, framed 2020

As we started Cavaliero Finn exhibiting artwork in a house rather than a gallery, we have always shown small paintings alongside larger works. Houses lend themselves to having interesting places to hang small art whether on a pillar, over a fireplace, sitting on a mantel or over a cooker high or low, above and below, or side by side, there’s always room for a small one.

Tony Beaver: Museum Study 18, 20cm x 20cm oil on canvas, 2020
Shown here with: Ikuko Iwamoto, Spiky Bowl, 8cm x 15cm diameter, porcelain

South London based painter, Tony Beaver frequently plays with scale in his paintings, generally with his trademark black background recreating the style of the Dutch masters. Instead of a portrait though, Tony’s subjects are more unusual, his most famous being the humble potato, elevated in status as it hovers in the black space each potato like a Dutch portrait, each one different in personality, no one the same.  Tony says:

“I like the way a small painting offers up the subject like a jewel in a box or a photograph of a distant planet

Tony Beaver
Tony Beaver: Green Chinese Bowl, 25cm x 35cm, oil on canvas, 2020
Ashraf Hanna: Cut and altered vessel

Often working in small scale allows the artist an opportunity to paint on different mediums, like panel or wood, or in the case of our artist Gill Rocca, cast enamel. Sometimes these materials are not feasible on a large scale due to the weight, cost or accessibility but these varied surfaces can create interesting textures that often can’t be achieved on canvas. A particular favourite of ours is Gill’s stunning miniature series. We are drawn to the tactile, object-like quality of them, the fact that they can be held in the hand. The artist manages to achieve the almost impossible in these paintings, encompassing the vastness of nature on the smallest of surfaces. This work is proof that you don’t need something large scale to capture a big expanse.

Miniature+LVIX painting by Gill Rocca
Gill Rocca: Miniature LVIX, oil on cast resin, 7.5 x 7.5cm, 2020
Bespoke frame with AR/UV 29 x 29cm

Recently Gill was interviewed for Create Magazine by Alicia Puig, who asked her about translating work from large to small scale. She was asked if this affected how she approached her creative process. Gill replied:

‘My Miniatures series started as a reaction to the larger canvases that I had been making for several years. There is a physical demand to working in oil on a large scale but there’s also a sense of gravitas and my large paintings were becoming incredibly detailed as a result. I wanted to make something that was more intimate, yet still powerful. To try and convey an expanse of light and space on a very small scale. Working in miniature taught me new techniques and solutions. The challenge was then to achieve the feel of the miniatures in the large paintings.’

Gill Rocca
Print and miniature painting by Gill Rocca
Ceramics by Ashraf Hanna and Nicholas Lees

Actor James Nesbitt is a big fan of Gill’s work. His collection was recently featured in FT How to Spend It and you can see how the miniature painting on his mantelpiece (in the image above) sits well with the ceramics and balances the scale of the larger framed print, which is also by Gill. 

Large cracked bowl painting by Tony Beaver sits happily alongside miniature by Gill Rooca in James Nesbitt’s house. 

Also featured, sculpture by Matthew Chambers

Another artist fond of the small painting is Mia Cavaliero.  Mia first started to use small canvases to make a series of vessels to hang together for our group show, ‘Beauty in the Everyday’, which we curated in a nineteenth century, disused, furniture factory in Brixton in 2016.

Alone - semi abstract landscape painting by Mia Cavaliero
Mia Cavaliero: Alone – March 2020, Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 25 x 30 cm, 2020

“There is something about the 10 x 12 inch canvas that I find very satisfying. I have started to use it to make landscape paintings. I actually trained as a sculptor and I love to use a variety of mediums with paint; this size of canvas is great for that, I find the paintings take on a sculptural and object-like presence. Sometimes I hang them in an installation, but the individual paintings actually hold their own very well and can occupy a large space as well as a small one.”

Mia Cavaliero
Abstract painting - Untitled Mia Cavaliero May 2020
Mia Cavaliero: Untitled, acrylic on canvas.,45cm x 35 cm, 2020

Small paintings don’t need a small space. They can be very powerful and hold their own in a large space and this is particularly true of small paintings which are very detailed. The space around the work encourages the viewer to really take note of the painting. 

This is especially true of the work of painter David Edmond whose recent beach paintings offer us a good dose of escapism as our movement is restricted right now.

What is particularly interesting is the landscapes David paints, while generally quite small, are layered and abstract yet the figures are very detailed. This juxtaposition is interesting and draws in your eye. David is not afraid to leave large areas unpopulated and creates a sense of space that appears almost to expand beyond the canvas, like a snapshot of a bigger world.

Shown above: Three paintings from David Edmond’s Beach Series
First image: Beach 6.2 (top right), Beach 5.9 – (bottom right) and Beach 5.5 – (left)
Detail from Beach 5.5
Detail from Beach 6.2

Detail from Beach 5.9
Detail from Beach 6.2

There are no overriding rules for hanging small paintings but look out for tips on hanging art and how to achieve that balance in your own home which will we share on social media (June 2020). If you don’t follow us already you can click on the links below.

Our artists’ smaller paintings are priced from just over £200.  If you would like to discover similar smaller works to the ones we have shown as examples above, do check out the following artists on our website:

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