Monday, May 25, 2009

Canvas size and proportion

Franz Xavier Winterhalter 1805-1873 Madame Rimsky Korsikov

I am illustrating tonight's posts with the art of Franz Winterhalter, who was a fashionable portrait painter to the royalty of 19th century Europe. He has been derided as superficial and overly flattering to his sitters, but I have always enjoyed his technical virtuosity. He paints flawless textures and I like his color. I can't claim he has anything to do within tonight's subject but I like to show art in nearly every post.The images were, of course, provided by our friends over at art renewal .org.

I am going to write tonight about selecting canvas sizes on which to paint .
I suggest that you paint only about six different sizes and stick to stock sizes when you paint. The advantage of stock or common sizes is that you don't necessarily have to have all of your frames custom made, but can instead buy them off the rack. Here are some of the most common stock sizes for frames. Artists specify frames using the height first by the width, they would say for example, 24 by 36. A 36 by 24 is a vertical. My friend from Maine, painter Scott Moore insists "if God had meant for us to paint verticals he would have placed one of our eyes above the other".
Here are the smaller sizes;
  • 5 x 7
  • 8 x1 0
  • 9 x 12
  • 1 1x 14
  • 12 x 16
The most common middle sizes are;
  • 16 x 20
  • 18 x2 4
  • 20 x2 4
The larger sizes are;
  • 24 x 30
  • 24 x 36
  • 30 x 40
If you choose two sizes from each of these categories, one elongated and one more square, you will have six sizes. You should be able to find premade frames for those sizes from almost any supplier. If you want to have custom frames made, by which I mean closed corner 22k. gold frames, you will be happy to be able to put the picture into a ready made frame. That's a good thing for when you send it to a show or gallery where you know your paintings will be stacked by tongue swallowing interns. Here are some sizes that although less common are in routine use in the trade:
  • 14 x 18
  • 22 x 28, Sargents usual non-portrait size
  • 20 x 30
  • 30 x 36
  • Sometimes artists use what are called double squares such as 12 x 24, or 24 x 48, etc. There isnt really a standard size double square, but they are nice for panoramic pictures.

There's another Winterhalter, isn't that lovely? Shes a countess, looks real high maintenance to me.

Artists I know often paint these sizes but you can't generally expect to find a premade frame for these sizes. You will save a lot of headaches by limiting yourself to six sizes. Having interchangeable framing is real handy. I have actually considered this summer only painting three sizes. 16 x 20, 18 x 24, 24 x 30.

Often times the proportion you choose for a painting is a function of how deep the view you are painting is. In the woods I am liable to choose a more square shape. Along the shore where there is a great expanse of distance I am likely to choose a wider shape.
When you hear hucksters on the radio advertising "over the sofa" sized oils, they mean a 24x36. That's a great landscape size just the same..

There's a story I heard concerning painting sizes. A well known artist visited one of his galleries unannounced and his painting wasn't hanging. But his frame was. The unscrupulous dealer had taken the frame he had bought for his own painting and put it on a painting by another artist. After that he often sent galleries odd sizes, instead of a 24 x 36 he would send them a 24 x 34, and that solved that problem!

I should tell you, that I don't quite obey this six size rule myself, I paint 26x29 canvasses. I have done lots of them. That's a size I got from Willard Metcalf. I find it designs really well for me and it has a delicacy of size and shape that I like. I usually have to special order those 29 inch stretchers. I have never seen a 26x29 from anybody else except for Metcalf. Wetcalf was raised in a spiritualist family. That was a common religion in the late 19th century. Often they would hold seances and try to communicate with the dead. They were interested in mystical numerology too. I think this size may have come from Willards interest in numerology, but I don't really know that. But 29 is a prime number and 26 is twice 13, another prime number. I just like the way I can design the shape, maybe it is magic.

Empress Marie Alexandrova of Russia. Love the dress. I wish women dressed that way today. I don't guess its ever coming back though. What fun it must have been for portrait painters then.

I make between 40 and 70 paintings a year, I throw about a third as many more away unfinished because they have some sort of an irredeemable flaw. So if I paint too many sizes it really gets complicated and expensive having many dedicated frames that only fit one painting.
Tomorrow I will talk more about things to paint on.


willek said...

Nice post Stape. Practical. Sensible. Frames have always been a problem for me. Now I buy two styles of wide (3") frame stock in two colors (Dark Brown and Dirty Gold) and cut my own with a crude jig for my table saw. I join them with a framer's clamp, glue, and colored panel nails. They are crude but acceptable. But it complicates my life and takes my attention away from the task at hand.

BTW, that dark frame? It is really nice. Sometimes I find myself painting for the frame. Willek

Stapleton Kearns said...

There is a series of posts on framing out there in the future. They drive me crazy, always getting damaged. The client always wants a different one. When Stapleton rules the world,frames will be made of wrought iron.

Unknown said...

You're right, Stape. Those dresses are never coming back. Heck, I don't even buy anything that has to be either dry cleaned or ironed, neither of which is likely to happen at my house. And since, for me anyway, all clothes eventually become paint clothes (whether intended or not) it is better to stick with simpler attire. Can you imagine trying to get alizarin out of that fabric?
Oh, and the post at hand? I like 11x14 for small and 24x36 for larger. All the long horizontals, 12x24's, etc. are nice sometimes too.

Unknown said...


Geat post. I had a similar situation with galleries taking my better frames for other artists paintings. I solved the problem by writing my name on the back of the frame with a large black marker.

jeff said...

Someone should inform the galleries that taking frames that the artist paid for is stealing. Unless they want to buy the frames. I like the idea of using your name on the back with a sharpie.

The other thing is that there is a ratio of the horizontal and the vertical that is appealing to the us subconsciously, which 16 x 20 seems to fall into. If your in Europe, where they use metrics you would be buying 40 cm x 50 cm stretchers which is not quite 16 x 20.

jeff said...

The Winterhalter's are very fine paintings indeed. You forgot to mention the whale bone frames that held those dresses up and the corsets.
I think it took ages for them to get dressed, and they needed help to do so.

There are some very nice self portraits from the late 18th century by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun and Adleaide Guiard in which both are painting in some very fancy dresses. Guiard is by far over the top with her regalia.

I have book on Anne Vallayer-Coster, one of my favorite still life painters, and there is a portrait of her in some very expensive finery. Clothes defined your status in these periods.

Coster being one of Queen Marie-Antoinette's court painters must have been always dressed to max.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I wear the same thing every day, paint splattered jeans and a
t shirt, often with the name of a rock and roll band on the front. Today's was the Paladins.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I always wondered how they would explain that they had sold your frame, but still hadn't sold your painting.There's something ominous there. I think they might stick you for it somehow.

Stapleton Kearns said...

When I was in Paris painting I went to the Sennelier store on the Seine near Notre Dame to buy stretchers. I asked if anyone spoke English and they called an older guy out of the back room. He and I went down to the cellar, where the stretchers were stored in big racks.. They didn't sell individual stretchers.You bought 4 assembled. They came in numbered standard French sizes. I had brought along an English system tape measure and I bought sizes that were larger than a standard American size. When I got home I would restretch the canvases on American size stretchers. After I had finished I thanked the man for being so helpful and introduced myself. He was Jaques Sennelier.