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Thinking about size

If you go to any gallery show, the chances are you will see some huge paintings. Indeed, some are so big they might equally be described as murals. How much of that comes from the artist wanting more space in which to work, I wonder? It’s a value judgement, of course, but too often with contemporary art it seems to me to be a substitution of size for content.

Of course, simple marks can be transformed by increase in scale. Compare a single brush mark on a post card piece of paper with one drawn with full arm extension on a large canvas. In the first case, that mark is generally seen as a line. It marks off one area of the image from another without much in the way of detail. At the larger scale though, it becomes an element in its own right, it has internal structure and texture. That doesn’t mean that the huge sweeping mark is better than the small line. It’s just different. Increasing scale doesn’t, of itself, add artistic value, but it does open up the possibilities.


I read a quote from Mark Rothko about this. He wanted people viewing his work to enter into them.

The reason for my painting large canvases is that I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.

Mark Rothko

He saw them as objects of contemplation, as an experience in itself rather than a record of an experience. Rothko’s paintings are indeed very large. Sitting close to them, as he wanted, it is easy to lose the world beyond the canvas. It fills your peripheral vision. After a while, the world beyond the picture fades away.

That experience is indeed a function of the scale. I tried making some versions of these works on 10” x 10” canvases. I don’t know how Rothko constructed his pictures. My approach was to build up layer after layer of colour in varying shades, wiping back, adding more colour and so on. What I got seemed to be a reasonable approximation of a Rothko surface. My relationship with it was, however, very different.


This seems to be distinctive to Rothko, for me anyway. I had nothing similar, for example sitting in front of one of Gerhard Richter’s Cage series. To be fair, that was in a crowded show, not in a normal quiet gallery. I think there is just so much going on in the ‘Cage’ paintings that it’s easy to find oneself deconstructing them, working out how the layers lie over one another. This seems to be an analytical rather than a contemplative relationship. One of these days I intend to sit again in front of the ‘Cage’ series and see what happens.

I missed the exhibitions at the RA in London of work by Richard Diebenkorn and of the Abstract Expressionists. It is unlikely I’ll get another opportunity to see their work and make the same comparison. Watching film of Pollock at work, it is however possible to imagine achieving a similar contemplative state. His movements as he paints are like a ritual dance of some sort, with the marks and drips are forming a record of it, like some form of dance notation.


Modern art is not the only place to find the monster canvases, of course. David’s painting of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” is about 2.6 m x 2.2 m. (There are five versions, all slightly different sizes.) Napoleon refused to sit for it, saying that the character that comes through was more important than the likeness. The resultant painting is meant to impress, to dominate the viewer. It is about Bonaparte the Emperor than Bonaparte the man.

So-called ‘History Paintings’ are all large scale. The term typically refers to any picture with a high-minded or heroic narrative, as illustrated by the exemplary deeds of its figures. The message must however be edifying and worthy of depiction.

Although perhaps not strictly speaking ‘history paintings’, the apocalyptic works of the Victorian painter John Martin also come to mind. Similarly, the revelatory, epic landscapes painted in nineteenth-century America. In all these works, the role of the viewer is almost to pay homage.

I’ve identified three distinct modes of relationship between the viewer and the very large painting; contemplative, analytical and deferential. I’m sure there are other ways of thinking about this relationship. In particular, I’m not sure if my ‘analytic’ response is driven by me being an artist myself.

I wonder though. Would a non artist react in the same way as I did to the works by the likes of Richter or would they just lose themselves in the colours and shapes?

What do you think?

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The chain of creative inspiration

This post looks at how long buried memories can resurface and trigger creative inspiration.

Albert Irvin

Back in December 2018, I went to an outstanding exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, Albert Irvin and Abstract Impressionism.

In 1959, Irvin visited an exhibition called The New American Painting at Tate, curated by MOMA New York and toured to eight European cities. It brought the boldest and best new artistic talent from across the Atlantic to London. The exhibition redefined what was possible for a generation of British artists.

For Irvin, it was an epiphany.

Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism will bring together works by Irvin and the major abstract expressionist artists that inspired him, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Sam Francis and Adolph Gottlieb from UK collections and works by Grace Hartigan and Jack Tworkov on loan from the USA, giving a unique chance to see so many of these important artists’ works in this country.

RWA website

Gateshead and public art

I had come across Irvin before, sometime in the late 1980s. I was still working as a planner then, in Gateshead, with responsibility for the Town Centre. One area I was working on was improvement of the physical environment of the centre. One of the projects I identified was a dismal and uninviting roadway under a railway bridge. This underpass led from a housing estate on the opposite side of the railway line to the town centre.

My idea was to line the underside of the bridge with vitreous enamel panels. Many stations on the recently opened Tyne and Wear Metro system used this system. The photo, of Jesmond Station in Newcastle, shows one example, with artwork by Simon Butler from 1983. Making these involves screen printing the image onto the surface before firing. The panels were robust and resistant to damage. In an unsupervised location like this one, they would have been ideal.

Jesmond Metro Station, Newcastle

This is where Albert Irvin comes in. I had already had contact with the Regional Arts Association, (Northern Arts), through a minor involvement in Gateshead’s Public Art Programme. I approached them again for advice on a suitable artist. The artist they suggested was Irvin. Sadly, I never saw his work in the flesh, only some murky colour transparencies in a hand held viewer. Even more sadly for me, the project never secured funding and soon afterwards I moved to Wiltshire. Looking at Google Maps, it seems that the bridge has now been rebuilt with a rather pedestrian tiled wall. The link shows the view in 2021.

Since then, I’ve only been back to the Town Centre once, when I photographed the soon-to-be demolished multi-storey, ‘Get Carter’ car park. The housing estate had gone, only partly redeveloped, largely with the usual mixture of sheds found anywhere.


I had forgotten much of this until I went to the show. Nothing I saw reminded me of those murky slides, but something triggered the memories, and they came flooding back. The comparison between the superb paintings and the tiny 35 mm slides, though, was dramatic. I was, I must admit, unimpressed by the slides, so the paintings in the show had a huge impact on me. I must have sat in front of Almada, for instance, for a good half an hour, mentally disentangling the layers, trying to work out the way they had been built up.

Another painting, Kestrel, looks much simpler, but that simplicity is deceptive. In this case how it was made is irrelevant, all that really matters are the colours, which simply sing out.

It was via this exhibition that I became aware of Irvin’s screen prints. I was lucky to see them, since they were only displayed up to Christmas. Printmaking seems always to have been an important part of Irvin’s creative practice. For me, they captured just how well he handled colour. It is to them, too, that I return for inspiration, in the form of the catalogue of his prints published in 2010 by Lund Humphries. The way he worked is well described in the book, and also seen in this YouTube video.

Irvin and screen printing

The two prints below are striking examples of his exuberant approach to colour and also capture some of the recurring motifs he uses – starbursts, quatrefoils and mock Chinese characters abound.

I’ll come back to all this in another post, looking at the way I think these and other influences have worked their way into my own work.