Kerrie Woodhouse

Whimsical Watercolour

The best painting size for beginners (7 big reasons to paint small paintings)

art tipsKerrie Woodhouse

If you are a beginner painter, no doubt you have asked yourself the question,

What is the best painting size for beginners?

The right answer to that question, I believe, is the size you are most likely to actually paint.


Now I'll have to admit that the idea of throwing paint at an enormous canvas or creating magnificent flourishes on a large scale wall mural sound like the ultimate in liberating creative expression.

I’m sure they are and in my head it always seems better than in reality. Currently, even a half sheet of watercolour paper is fairly daunting and a nice clean giant canvas is… well, expensively intimidating.

Why bigger isn’t always better when it comes to painting sizes

I’m deeply practical of course, but it is more than just the challenging practicalities of working large. I think part of the intimidation is down to the good old inner critic and the lack of confidence in our technical abilities leading to the worry that you will be wasting expensive supplies. (By the way, click here if you need help with that inner critic…)

I firmly believe that we can only improve at anything we give time and effort to. The solution then is ‘to make more art’.

Yes. That old chestnut. Every art guru you will ever come across will eventually end up telling you that the best thing to do is to produce more. But in order to make more art it has to be easy, inexpensive and fun.

And definitely not scary.  Don’t you agree?

I think one solution is size. Apart from the fact that everything small is automatically cute making small paintings has a lot going for it. Not one to do anything by halves I gave this little theory a fairly extreme test recently.

Every month I create a series of paintings of a particular subject. My aim is to create at least 10 paintings in each series. Some months it is easier than others. One of the more time-challenged series I did was my Garden Paths. Having run out of time to complete my preferred number of 10 paintings in my monthly series I decided to do the final 2 in ACEO size.


What is an ACEO?

ACEO is the acronym for Art Cards Editions and Originals and became popular in the early 2000’s. You can find them for sale on eBay!

They are a fun way for collectors to own a piece of original art within limited space and budget. The only real rule about them is that they are miniature paintings of a fixed size -the size of a business card - 2.5”x3.5”.

I have to say it was definitely easy, inexpensive and fun. In fact, I can't wait to do it again.

You will also come across ATCs (Artist Trading Cards). These are exactly the same as ACEOs only they are not for sale. Artists swap these mini artworks with each other - fun, right?

So how small is too small in painting size?

I do have to say that even ACEO size can feel a little bit of a stretch. There are artist that work even smaller, creating ‘inchies’ or other forms of miniatures that would fit on coins.

Working this small presents a different kind of challenge. This may or may not be your thing. The only way to find out is to experiment and see what feels good to you. If your goal, like mine, is to keep producing art then there is a happy balance to find between being small enough to complete fairly quickly but large enough so as not to be too restrictive.

My currently favourite is an A5 size, which is roughly 6 x 8 inches. When I took up the challenge of World Watercolour Month I went through a couple of A5 pads of watercolour pad. It felt just right to be large enough to accomodate my loose style but small enough for me to be able to actually finish a painting every day for the entire month.

Popular painting sizes are postcard sized, 4X6, 5x7, 6 or even 8 x 10. The other advantage of this is that these are standard frame sizes so if you produce something you love you can pop it in a ready made frame. Easy peasy.

The best thing to do is have a play with some smaller sizes and find the one that fits you best. It’s definitely worth it - in fact I can think of at least 7 big reasons to consider painting small paintings.


7 big reasons to paint small paintings

1. Skill development

The basic skills you need on a large painting are still required by a small one, such as composition, value contrast, colour palette etc

2. Cost

Materials cost is cheaper - paper or canvases are smaller and you use a lot less paint.

3. Confidence building - quicker!

You still get to practice techniques like nicely graded washes but they are so much more easily achievable on a small scale. - great for confidence building. You still get to learn how your paper behaves, how fast your paint dries, how thick or thin your paint needs to be to achieve the effect you are after. Only, you get to see the effect of your efforts so much quicker.

4. Time

You have one less excuse to not paint since a tiny painting can be completed so much quicker. This also suits my impatience. You will definitely finish the painting in one sitting and not have it sitting on your easel as your enthusiasm for the whole thing dwindles.

(It’s not just me is it?)

5. Less guilt and/or misery

If your painting doesn’t turn out you don’t feel quite as depressed since the investment in supplies and time wasn’t so onerous as to induce any form of guilt. In fact even starting over really doesn’t seem like a big deal. And you learn an awful lot from painting the same painting twice.

6. New challenges

Working smaller presents some new challenges like really learning to simplify a scene and learning to pare back to just the essential marks.

7. Easier storage

Storage is no longer a big issue, nor is shipping if you end up selling your painting or gifting or exchanging it. (ATCs are a lot of fun too!)

In essence, the idea of painting small is consistent with contemporary entrepreneurial wisdom that we should in fact be trying to fail faster. Not that I love the negative sound of that but if we accept that most of us will have to turn out plenty of meh paintings to get to the good ones we may as well do them quicker. 

We learn by doing. 

Let’s make the doing easier.

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