Size Constraints on a Princess Bride Painting

With my 9th painting, I ran into a bit of a conundrum and drove home a good lesson for myself. To this point, I feel like I had shown a pretty steady improvement in my paintings. They certainly weren’t masterpieces, but I was encouraged by the practice showing tangible results. The other side of this coin though is the fact that this sort of straight line progress was not in line with my colored pencil experience. When I was learning to use wax-based pencils to draw, overall there was improvement as I practiced and learned, but I had plenty of pieces that just didn’t work out. More of an “up and down line graph” with a trend line overall in the right direction. That’s normal in my opinion – so I figured I was probably due for something I might not be totally happy with.

Well, that “not happy with it” painting did come along in the form of a scene from the Princess Bride movie. I actually went back and forth over whether to even show this one, or to just skip to the next one. Ultimately though, I decided to keep in line with my previously expressed sentiment, which is to share both the successes and struggles. Not everything an artist does is going to work. It’s okay not to share them of course, if it’s something that you really dislike so much. But there can also be value in sharing the rough spots with others too, especially if you learned something from it.

And in this one I did learn something useful. Sometimes with pencils, because the degree of control is so fine, I could get away with suggesting detail and making small things look okay. I am not an expert at such a thing, but it’s at least in the realm of possibility. With oil paint though, I simply don’t have the skill at this point to maintain precision control in a small space. When I painted my kids, I ended up almost bumping into this limitation, as there were two in the scene and they naturally ended up smaller than my other subjects. In this Princess Bride scene, I attempted something even smaller. I didn’t even consider that this would be an issue, but I found out quickly that it was.

This painting came as the last of five during the frenzy of holiday weekend painting I’ve been writing about. At this point, having completed four paintings that I was feeling pretty good about, I think maybe I overestimated myself or something. I was also probably spent creatively/artistically. I was still buzzing from the excitement of painting, but it wasn’t the same level of energy I had earlier in the weekend. I get the sense that perhaps I overdid it? It was incredibly fun, but maybe that 5th painting was akin to having a delicious pizza all to yourself and eating the entire thing even if you aren’t hungry. So, combining these two factors (small subjects, plus possibly overdoing it a bit) brought me here. I attempted one of the scenes from the Princess Bride when Peter Falk’s grandfather character was reading to Fred Savage the sick kid:

As you can see, the detail just isn’t there. I was able to piece together some shadows, but there just wasn’t room for satisfying color variance or interesting combinations. The Princess Bride being a 90s movie, I didn’t exactly have stunning high definition detail to lean on, but that should not be a deal breaker. “Filling in the blanks,” or creating interesting colors and details myself, is a skill that I aspire to get better at. I hope that I could have at least made a passing effort to that end if I had more real estate on the page. But in this case, it just wasn’t to be.

Looking at the positives, at least I can say this does look like a grandpa reading to a kid. And it’s probably recognizable to fans of the movie. But, in isolation, I really don’t think this looks like Peter Falk at all. Perhaps it’s his mustache and mouth area that doesn’t form accurately? It’s just overall a rough looking painting that doesn’t look “good” to me in totality. As I said previously, I think this comes down to a combination of small space and a painter not yet skilled enough to handle it, and possibly just fatigue of painting so much in the span of three days.

I actually even came back to this one later to see if I could remedy some of the issues, but didn’t have much success. Even after the painting was dry, any detail I tried to add just looked like another version of the same general thing (a painting that doesn’t look right). There came a point where I just said to myself it was time to move on. As someone said (Primus? Neil Hamburger?), “They can’t all be zingers.”

5 comments

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  • Hi Jon,

    I LOVE the grandfather’s face, (whether it looks like Falk or not doesn’t matter to me). You got the nose with the glasses just right, and that’s not easy. Also the mustache is very good and the cheeks too! How big a canvas or paper do you work on? If you work on small canvases (less than 9” by 12”) you might try reducing your subject to just the old man’s face and shoulders, which would make a very interesting portrait even if not a recognizable scene from the movie. In any event, there are no failures, just paintings we learn more from than others. Best wishes,
    Phoebe Wagner

    • Hello Phoebe – thank you for that! Definitely appreciate your perspective on this one. My usual size is 9″ x 12″ paper just for ease of storage. And I think that’s great advice about going with the head and shoulders view. It really is my favorite perspective and gives me the best opportunity to practice features.

      I regard you as a pretty adventurous and experienced artist – do you vary your sizing often? Or do you also have a favorite size/material that you typically return to? It seems like I’ve seen many different mediums, approaches, and techniques in the artwork you share, so I was just curious if you mix up sizes drastically as well?

  • The likenesses and especially the facial expressions are great in the pencil drawings!

    I have the opposite problem: I am happy to sketch in oils with a brush (even if things go wrong), but not great with pencils. It seems like too much control, if that makes sense.

    • Thanks for the comment Tommi – yes, that does make sense! That’s very interesting because I’ve had some similar thoughts lately about the greater flexibility/adaptability of paint. Recently, I started trying these paintings without any sort of pencil sketch – basically just doing an underpainting as my outline. Some other artists I’ve been trying to learn from on YouTube talk about “molding/shaping” the paint, which is definitely not flexibility pencils give you.

      I wonder if that’s at the heart of why I’ve been loving paint so much? It feels less rigid in some ways – a very different experience I think

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