Why paint in miniature? Part one: inspiration
Lots of reasons, the practical ones that lead to me beginning to make 2”x 3” pictures, rather than ‘normal’ sized was initially lockdown! Having to order paper to paint on lead to a delay in the supply chain, I was down to a few sheets, maybe only enough paper to last a day or two. I couldn’t not paint. My solution was to halve them, then to halve them again, then I realised that going small could be a virtue, and I though I’d give it a try.
The micro background details are what make my favourite pictures come alive, almost literally. One of my favourite pictures is ‘man reading (St Ivo) by Rogier van der Weyden, painted in the first half of 15th century, the textures and almost hyper real depth is what you first notice, but what I love is the scene beyond the window: tiny swans swim on a teaspoon sized lake, people smaller than a rice grain are toing and frowing in front of fingernail sized houses, there are daisy sized forests populated with ant sized horses and beyond that a river and a bustling town, all an inch or so across. Please have a look on the nationalgallery.org.uk website. Rogier, or his studio, repeated these micro scenes in many works, he wasn’t the only man of his age to go small.
Another favourite for magnifying glass detail is Hieronymus Bosch, he may be well known for his mind bending scenes of post apocalyptic bird world and naked water park debouchery but there is so much in the background. Bosch was the master of single-hair brush detail with astounding skill and control, to be able to convey so much with a speck like dot or an eyelash-sized line is breathtaking. My favourite use of twitter is following Boschbot, everyday there are new marvels of brush work to discover!
Pieter Bruegel the Elder also studded the background of his works with microscopic details. Take a close look at the distant views found in his 1565 picture Hunters in the Snow (Winter), you can find it at artsandculture.google.com Trees with filament fine branches surround towns populated with tiny figures, many of them skating on the frozen ponds, living life in microcosm.
My personal favourite of Bruegel’s is The harvesters, the background of this picture captures the essence of a hot summers afternoon, the harvesters themselves may be tired and drowsy, but in the distance tiny villagers play on the village green and monks strip off their habits to take a cooling dip in a lake. The landscape beyond falls into further distant layers of detailed forests and towns, dissolving into a sea with a scattering of tiny ships, fully rigged. You can have a detailed look by following the link below.
Earlier illuminated manuscripts are also a treasury of the world in miniature, the work that springs to mind are those I was very fortunate to see on a visit to Winchester cathedral, they have an amazing ancient library of chained books, some of which have been shelved there for centuries, my visit coincided with an exhibition of a few of these treasures, displayed in a very dimly lit room, high up in a tower. The fresh, vivid colours and bold brush work nearly leaped off the parchment. They were peopled with humour and wit, I could almost hear the monks chuckling as they painted a micro world, probably only seen by a handful of people since they were painted, centuries ago, but still almost alive and very immediate.
There are famous miniature painters and portraitists, my favourite is Nicholas Hilliard who painted miniatures for the Elizabethan court, and later for King James. Amongst his varied creative work, Hilliard was a also a goldsmith and lots of his miniature works were designed to be wearable portraits ‘picture boxes’, very fashionable amongst the wealthy. Hilliard’s famous large scale portraits of Queen Elizabeth contain exquisitely fine details, especially of the Queens symbolic jewellery, have a look at the Pelican and the Phoenix portraits, you can find them at npg.org.uk the National portrait gallery website.