Art and Scale

Sacha Jafri working on the world's largest painting at 17,000 square feet, Pyong Sumaria, 2020 via Art News; Sold for $62 million in 2021

Feature image: Sacha Jafri working on the world's largest painting at 17,000 square feet, Pyong Sumaria, 2020 via Art News; Sold for $62 million in 2021

Art and Scale - the Purpose Behind the World’s Large-Scale Paintings

Art explores the creative visions of the artist, and the masses they choose must be equipped to elevate their skills in their most authentic light. But what are the limits for these canvasses? These influential works are powerful because their messages are more significant than the canvases—which is the essence of their impact on art history. Artists today create works smaller than the tip of a needle, but what about large-scale pieces? Today, the standard canvas size purchased is about 16 by 20 inches. This seems to be the case in many museums and galleries; however, they all have their fair share of works that cover an entire wall and require seating so viewers can step back and view a work in its entirety. The artist deliberates this choice, but the reasoning has changed throughout history. 

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, courtesy of xennex via Wiki Art, Fair Use)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, courtesy of xennex via Wiki Art, Fair Use

Breaking Down Size/Size Simply for the Sake of It

How does an artist decide to use such large canvases? A large painting can be full of purpose, from the details within a work to an excuse to display skill. The intent behind a painting’s scale brings a sense of boldness to a work. At a surface level, it is impossible to ignore the painting, which makes its messages challenging to overlook. Large canvases also display the artist’s skill. More space for a painting allows an artist to display their full capabilities in using texture, light, and balance.

Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist, 1950

This massive painting also has a misleading name. It is one of his larger ones, standing 7.2 inches by 6.5 feet. Even though Pollock named this “Lavender Mist,” there is no purple in the entire work. Pollock also chose this size canvas to appeal to his painting style. Pollock would walk from one end of the canvas to another while applying paint to feel he had complete control of the work.

Jackson Pollock, Number One (Lavender Mist), 1950 via Arthive
Jackson Pollock, Number One (Lavender Mist), 1950 via Arthive

Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884

While Pollock’s works are scaled to accommodate his artistic process, Seurat’s accommodate his technique. Seurat decided on his canvas size to elevate the revolutionary techniques he used in his work. He employed Pointillism, using tiny dots like pixels to gradually create a piece that reveals its full form only when viewed from a distance. The dots must be as small as possible and the canvas as large as possible to achieve the clarity and resolution needed in pointillism. As a whole, this iconic painting stands at a staggering 6.7 feet tall by 10.1 feet wide.

 Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 via Wikipedia
Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 via Wikipedia

Today, however, some works can be perceived as large simply for the sake of it. To some eyes, utilizing scale without skillful intent can be interpreted as artificial and performative relative to other paintings. For example, the scale of the Birth of Venus has more purpose than “Blue Panel.”

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Panel , 1980

This large work stands at approximately 9 feet by 8 feet. No, your screen is not displaying an error screen; it is an altered canvas covered in blue paint. The work is meant to represent the eastern coastlines using plays on fundamental shape and color. If an artist’s canvas is supposed to illuminate their skill or their craft, why is this canvas so large? The technique for a work like this is little beyond an extra coat of paint. It could be an example of the size of a painting carrying the bulk of its grandiosity. This is not the only work of this kind he completed in his career. A few years later, he expanded his horizons, digging deep to create a work so profound that it deserved its own original name—Blue Panel II. 

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Panel , 1980 via North Carolina Museum of Art
Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Panel , 1980 via North Carolina Museum of Art

Of course, there are many exceptions. Mural art is designed to take up a full exterior wall of a building. The canvas is hundreds of feet tall and wide and requires special materials for artists to bring their visions to life. Scale, here, is not used simply to create something larger than life but to create something bold and eye-catching on barren, sterile-feeling walls in towns and cities. Mural artists choose these large canvases because they are seen by the masses, whether walking in the city or commuting to another place. The purpose of scale here is to make art accessible for all people and work for everyone to see, experience, and enjoy. 

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt via Fine Art America
The Kiss, Gustav Klimt via Fine Art America

Curatorial Science behind displaying large paintings

How do curators and gallerists hang such large paintings securely throughout an exhibit? While these works are examples of innovations in expressing the human experience, their placement also required changes in the gallery space. After all, if we commend artists for navigating the complexities of scale in their work, we must also celebrate the advancements in curatorial science and engineering because they ensure the masses can observe their masterpieces every day. Even though these works are massive, the materials used to create them caused them to weigh hundreds of pounds.

For example, museums use special mounting systems to secure the painting to the wall while balancing its weight throughout multiple parts of the work. Gallery walls include additional reinforcements to ensure they do not warm or bend under the weight of multiple large, heavy paintings. The frames alone add 20-30 pounds of weight to the paintings. Sometimes, these frames even exceed 100 pounds!

The Musée de l
The Musée de l'Orangerie museum in Paris (Photo:  Stock Photos  from EQRoy/Shutterstock) via MyModernMet

Throughout history, artists have captured our minds with the transformative power of enormous artworks, elevating how the world engages in the human experience using mediums larger than life. When looking at them, we feel smaller than the messages the artist conveys, allowing for the unique experience of immersing oneself in a work.


So, if you find yourself in a room with a mammoth masterpiece, give yourself and the art the time and space to sit on the bench, immerse yourself in it, and consider its message. And if you aren’t one to find solace in the messages of these works, think about the work it takes to make sure these paintings are safely displayed for you to see each and every day. 


©ArtRKL™️ LLC 2021-2024. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. ArtRKL™️ and its underscore design indicate trademarks of ArtRKL™️ LLC and its subsidiaries.

Back to blog

Categories

Recent Posts

[Together Apart, Covet the senses of three.] Exhibition Installation View

021gallery: 「 Together Apart : Covet the senses...

This exhibition unites the unique styles of artists exploring the relationship between art and life through their distinct expressions.

Other
André Lhote (1885-1962), Les Rugbymen, circa 1917 (detail). © André Lhote, DACS 2023

Cubism

Cubism, a 20th-century art form, featured abstract and avant-garde styles as seen in the works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and André Lhote.

Rosella Parra
“The Wonderland - Porcelain” by DodoChang. Photo courtesy of DodoChang on Instagram.

5 Potters You Need to Follow on Instagram

Discover 5 potters to follow on Instagram, from whimsical designs to unique plant pots, adding artistic flair to your feed and home.

Lily Frye