Welcome to another discussion on the elements of design. Today I’m focusing on Size. Although all elements are equally crucial to producing a good painting, I consider the understanding of the elements from my previous two articles, shape and line, to be the most important of the lot. Shape and line are the two marks of which paintings are made after all. Size, however, certainly comes close behind. It establishes correct relationships between lines and shapes. In other words, it puts everything into perspective.

All my shapes are actualized
In large and small and middle-sized.
It seems completer
with varied meter,
And less boring than when
otherwise.Frank Webb

Size in Creative Composition

What do we actually mean when we talk about size in reference to design in painting? As you probably know by now, I’m a proponent of creative composition. My definition of creative composition is that we can and must learn to manipulate the elements of design to create a well thought-out composition. Ideally, there is nothing that happens on our paper left to chance – from design point of view. We are responsible and accountable for our entire painting. And deliberately manipulating size is part of the deal. With this in mind, let us look at what size is and how we use it to control our paintings.

Size describes the measure of shapes and lines as well as the intervals between them. When we’re conscious of size as we design our paintings, size plays a crucial role in getting our point across. The same goes for viewing a painting – size determines if the big relationships read well. I often emphasize the importance of negative shapes. Notice again that “size describes the measure of shapes and lines as well as the intervals between them,” in other words, the measure of both positive and negative shapes.

Size shows proportion of parts and scale. We place one mark down to show off the size of the other. In size, all is relative. Within a picture frame, all sizes are relative to each other as well as to the picture frame itself. It is interesting to recognize that we measure, to a large extent, in relation to our bodies. Our brain uses our body size or the size of our body parts as reference when judging the relative size of objects. This comes handy when we want to establish scale in a painting that would be otherwise difficult to read.

We also use size to suggest spatial placement, that is we establish scale and depth through manipulating size. One of the examples is that we try and avoid using mathematical perspective. Why? Because obeying perspective results in a very uncreative way to make a painting. Perspective dictates distortions of shapes in ways our painting doesn’t necessarily need, including their size.

The basic principle of describing depth through size is quite obvious: objects in distance are smaller the more they recede, the closer to us they are the larger they get. This is very elemental, but again, our job is to be conscious of these effects when working on our designs. Only when we know the rules, we can break them.

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.Pablo Picasso

This all takes us back to the idea of creative composition. When we manipulate size in our paintings to our advantage, we can get greater contrast and interest in some areas. Or we can simply express better our ideas. And it is our choice. What I mean by this is that, for example, we can use “reverse perspective” to exaggerate the size of a background shape, thus increasing depth and contrast while still keeping our picture flat. Resorting to the use of perspective would forbid us from such possibility, resulting in very boring spatial organization that we see so often today.

The psychology of size is also worth mentioning. The more grand, large and massive something is, the more power and prestige it evokes and the more it shows-off the smaller shapes, whatever they may represent.

Let’s consider again what I talked about just now. Let’s say we want to paint a mountain that is located at the farthest plane from us, the observer. Remember that the mountain is our subject. If we used perspective (or simply didn’t manipulate size consciously), we’d have to diminish the size of the mountain in favor of the foreground shapes as it is them that lay the closest to us. Even with scaling the mountain to the foreground shapes accordingly, there is no way we would express the mountain in its full glory. Such result would tell us that the mountain is actually not that important. The mountain would not look grand and big – but instead quite insignificant and unimportant. If we added a touch of aerial perspective for good measure, the mountain would become a mere backdrop, fading away into abyss. When we think about our composition creatively, however, we enlarge the mountain to take full advantage of our power to explain our picture as best we can. We give it power, we make it the grandest gesture in our painting, we tell the story of a mountain, not a story merely including one. Take hint from Cézanne, look at his famous Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings which demonstrate his masterful handling of space and size creatively. Look at the image below which shows one of his many “Mont Sainte-Victoire” paintings but do google more and study the size relationships in them.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne

Size in Practice

Now that we are clear on what size is and how it functions, we can proceed to talk about its usage in an actual painting scenario. Our goal is to achieve unity through dominance which includes repetition but also conflict. Conflict is caused by dissimilarity. Here it is necessary to note that through their sizes, we feel the forces and weights of shapes, both positive and negative. And that’s the mindset we need to adopt. Painting is not a collection of things, but shapes. Shapes of various sizes, each having certain visual weight. It is important to realize that one size or interval should be dominant. At the same time it’s a good idea to avoid extreme size differences in order to be able to achieve balance and avoid “dead” (static) space. With recognizable subjects it is important to keep sizes in scale. The amount of abstraction also depends on how close we get to the subject. The more we “zoom in” the more abstract the subject becomes. These are some general guidelines but let’s now take a look at a specific example.

Painting “sizes”

Below is an actual painting and an illustration where color and value are removed from said painting. Line is used to illustrate the shape construction of the piece. This should give you an idea of how a painter sees. Despite the abstract nature of the piece, this is also true for other works that are more representational.

The painting
The painting broken down to shapes of varying sizes.

This next painting shows more representational treatment of a real life subject. You can see that the image also consists of a very rich composition of shapes varied in size despite the more descriptive rendition.

The painting
The painting broken down to shapes of varying sizes.

Edgar Whitney’s “Papa, Mama, Baby” is a very nice way to think about size. Obviously, Papa is the largest, weightiest shape, Mama is smaller and Baby is smaller yet. Generally we place Baby between Papa and Mama, always closer to one. This is to achieve balance. However important the sizes of Papa, Mama and Baby are, they mean nothing without context. The distances between Papa, Mama and Baby are as crucial. Similarly their relationship to the picture frame is also of great importance. As I said, in size, all is relative.

Now that we theoretically understand what size of shapes is as well as what we want to do with it, we can confidently apply this understanding in our next painting. Right? I don’t know about you but speaking from my own experience I know I had a hard time bridging theory with practice. Here I think the quote by Robert E. Wood is spot-on:

Most students have a good sense of design until they try to paint specific subjects.Robert E. Wood

Why is this the case? I think partly because as soon as we are met with a specific – recognizable – subject, our brain switches to what I call a “user mode”. I touched on this a little bit in my previous article on keeping a sketchbook. We simply know how a thing operates and we no longer perceive it as visual image but rather as a thing that operates in a certain way to achieve its purpose, hence we don’t want to break it so it can no longer carry out its function. This goes for natural objects as well as man made. Of course, man made objects are even harder for our brain to accept as abstract shapes but all things, regardless of their origin, are understood by our brain as functional objects. It is what I mean when I say we need to get back to being a child when we work. We need to regain the innocence of a child’s eye, which sees and perceives and not judges and processes in the same way we do. From this point of view their lack of understanding undoubtedly makes children superior observers.

If you’d like to test yourself and try to improve your shape perception I recommend you to do a simple exercise. Make an abstract painting. It doesn’t have to be painted and it doesn’t need to be full size. Simply doodle it into your sketchbook. Make a rectangle and within this rectangle, play shape against shape until you get a group of shapes that touch, overlap and cross. Some are contained within the rectangle, others go off the edges. Don’t look only at the positive shapes you are actually drawing, try to perceive how the space around them is affected and what shape it takes after you put down your positive shape. Below is a selection of such sketches from my sketchbook. They’re not perfect, but they are fun and they teach us to learn from what we’re doing. It is important to recognize that in this exercise we’re not searching for inspiration without, but within. This is something I never hear instructors talk about. Don’t always rely on reference. Rely on yourself. Make what you feel your shapes should look like and go from there. You’ll know what to do. Feel the weights and try to balance them against each other. Don’t like it? Do another, improve it so it’s more in tune with what you feel is right.

Selection of abstract sketches focused on shapes and their sizes from my sketchbook.

Don’t fear to fill your rectangle with the shapes. Crop some shapes so they go outside the border. Try to create a good rhythm, or pattern. At the same time, keep in mind the principles we mentioned above: Papa, Mama, Baby. Go for harmony through dominance but introduce contrast as well. Keep in mind that one size (positive or negative) should be dominant. A good advice that served me well throughout the years is to always say one thing in any one painting. Save the next for another painting.

Finally, fill page after page if you need to. Start small so you don’t think about it as something precious. I do six on a single A5 page. Start with fewer shapes and from there work towards more complex configurations. Explore and experience. Try to feel the weight of the shapes you put down. Balance them against each other. Try to apply repetition with a bit of contrast so you can achieve consistency within each sketch. Most of all recognize that you cannot make a mistake. Ideally, all you put down on the page comes from within. Draw from your gut. Try to keep you mind under control by not letting it overthink what you do.

For inspiration and more exercises, check out Steven Aimone’s book titled “Expressive drawing”. I’ve got an article on it on my website if you’re interested. I very much recommend you to get the book if you want to accelerate the process of switching from thinking “things” to thinking “shapes” and for more similar exercises like this.


We need to view our painting in its entirety, meaning the big gestures are what matters. What are these big gestures you may ask?

Most times there’s only a few major “players” in any one painting. These make up the painting – form a pattern. These are the largest shapes, the big gestures, the large divisions. Everything else is a filler. An important filler, but filler nonetheless. Imagine a building without a proper framework. How long, if at all, would such building stand on its own? Regardless of the amount of fancy ornamentation it may have, it wouldn’t last a day – realistically it wouldn’t be possible to build at all and no one would attempt to do so in the first place.

That is why I keep coming back to patterns every single time I explain most any topic. These principles are universal in that we need to know what to do with all the tools and building blocks that are at our disposal. Teaching you about elements and principles of design would make little sense without explaining the bigger picture, the whole idea about why these elements and principles even exist. You may have all the tools in the world but without knowing what you want to build, they are useless to you.

How can we see rhythm, or pattern, in regard to size? Earlier I showed you two of my paintings broken down to sizes, shape by shape. The big gestures, however, are hidden from us if we look at the painting that way. The way I designed these paintings is quite in reverse to what I did earlier – namely described all the sizes one by one as equals – instead I designed only the largest divisions. As I said, rhythm is achieved and expressed through the big gestures, not broken down to individual little shapes. Instead it’s how the large gestures “read” within the composition as a whole.

In other words, we need to recognize which are the sizes that matter? I’ll leave you with a final set of illustrations highlighting only the sizes that matter in one of those earlier paintings. The sizes that give the composition purpose and explain, through size, what is it we want to say. On the images I marked the relationships between sizes with capital letters so you understand the interaction between the individual relevant areas of the painting.

The painting
The large gestures or rhythms highlighted.
The large gestures or rhythms highlighted.

And that’s it for today’s article. I hope I managed to explain and emphasize that when we make sure we have a good variety of sizes, our painting has good rhythm, or pattern. This is our ultimate goal in any one painting – at least as far as design is concerned. There are other considerations, namely Idea and Expression. Design-wise, however, when we establish good pattern, our painting will hold together visually as one unified whole and that is something we as artists should strive for. That’s our job.

Of course, when we want to keep our work on a more representational side, the sizes cannot be absolutely arbitrary. But despite this requirement, we have the creative freedom to choose the angle from which we approach the subject, we can go closer or further back from it and we can select the best crop for our picture. The size relationships will shift as we move and crop. We must look for the most pleasant way we can find to show the subject. The stronger the pattern the stronger the resulting painting. It is the underlying pattern that will assure our success.


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