This is a story about thinking outside of the box. Sometimes the best way to think outside of the box is to know how you ended up there in the first place.
So allow me to give you a bit of background information of the box in hopes of giving you the freedom to explore the opportunity of getting out of it every once in awhile. Here goes.
If you are a two-dimensional artist or photographer, you’re no stranger to the term - standard sizes. Standard sizes are those easy to find pre-stretched canvas sizes and frames that as near as I can tell, at least began their existence in the 17th Century as canvas became the support of choice among established artists. When you try to nail down the exact reasons sizes such as 8” X 10”, 11” X 14”, 18” X 24” and 24” X 36”, you can quickly find yourself in a tailspin with different countries, systems of measurements, roll sizes, and subject matter, all complicating how we got to where we are today.
In the process of all of this, one thing we know is that art suppliers have been trying to please you, the artist and while being able to somewhat systematically manufacture products at the same time. If those making stretcher bars were doing something different than those making standard picture frames, we would have a mess on our hands. Frankly, this still does happen to some degree. As an example, you can find an abundance of 1.5” depth heavy duty stretchers, but you don’t find nearly as many floater frames with a 1.5” rabbit to accommodate this popular gallery wrap style stretcher. Go figure.
As standard larger sizes like 30” X 40”, 36” X 48” and others, keep larger works alive, one popular small size that many artists use is 9” X 12”. I think I can credit much of the popularity of this size today with a cool little story. Back in the 80’s, Graham Stiles was the gallery director of the GWS Galleries (Greenwich Workshop Galleries) in Southport Connecticut. My wife Linda and I knew Graham fairly well and eventually replaced him as the directors of GWS when he decided to move on. The 80’s were amazing years for art sales, so much so that many of the artists Graham Styles was representing were selling regular size paintings for tens of thousands of dollars. He wanted to find a way to offer especially new collectors, paintings at a more affordable price. His idea then was a small painting show, or as he would call it, BIG SHOW IN MINIATURES.
Now at the time, Graham was also representing one of the all-time great true miniaturists, Pat Longley, who was a significant member of the Miniature Art Society of America. So I’m sure Graham knew all too well what a miniature painting truly was. There was and still are strict criteria an artist needs to follow. Things like the size being 25 square inches or less, and any subject matter can be no larger than 1/6th its original size. But Graham wanted a larger format and it was he who finally decided on 108 square inches, or basically a 9” X 12”. While his first miniature show in 1983 offered works of art as low as $300, he had two paintings by master painter Peter Ellenshaw that were priced at $5,000. This was significantly less than the $80,000 Ellenshaw’s larger works would sell for and thus, these new smaller offerings were accepted very favorably by collectors.
As near as I can tell, Stiles was the first to do this and also to call it a miniature show. The concept not only stuck, in the coming years it was copied by many galleries nationally, and still to this day you see miniature shows across this country using his same maximum format of 108 S.I. or 9” X 12”. Plus, if this wasn’t enough, the size also seemed to be adopted by many of the plein air painters and shows, making 9” X 12” a very popular canvas size for well over three decades now.
As it is, big or small, this is the box many artists and photographers live in today. A standard one, and I don’t know about you, but standard doesn’t sound very creative for several reasons. The first of which, that it can make art into a bit of a spec series. One where most artists find themselves conforming to a size, rather than having their canvas size and shape conform to their concept. If the first thing you’re thinking when you look at your subject matter is, what standard size will fit what I see? It’s not a great beginning. Your canvas size, no, more specifically, the format you choose, is a very important tool. It allows you in many cases to better tell your story. So both size AND shape matter.
As artists, this means photographers too, we find all sorts of ways to convey a sense of distance, height, lowness, speed, focus, width, panorama, depth and so forth. We can do this with paint color, application, values, movement of the focal point, lines and edges and more. But what if cropping your image, or maybe more accurately, making your canvas or photo the right size in the first place, could help advance your cause? Bringing energy by forcing the viewer to more easily see the story you are trying to tell is your job as an artist. You are basically offering a static point of view, often one you are trying to convey a message with. Cropping, not only removes what may be seen as useless information, as in too much sky, it can force the eye to absorb the information left in a more powerful way.
Think about this image, a bird in a tall tree. If the story is to convey height, what would make the tree look taller, a vertical 24” X 36” canvas, or a 12” X 36” one? The narrow tall one, right.? The same would apply horizontally, in making a lake look wider, or a car look faster.
This technique can also be used with the creation of interesting diptych and triptych images, whereby one broad panel conveys the forest and another narrow panel conveys a single tree.
Yes, this technique can create additional expense and customization in framing, but your artwork is worth it when the time calls for it. This technique can also be overused as well. But I think you’ll find that busting out of the box now and then, with respect to standard formats and sizes, will go along way in waking up your artwork and getting your point across more powerfully.
See more examples below