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Studio Craft: Cutting down a large painting

“The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” by Rembrandt

Ask the Expert: "I have a large painting thatoverall didn't work out, but there's a section Ireally like. Should I cut it down and stretchthe part I like?"

A:That's the sort of decision only the artistshould make. Probably the most famouspainting to have been deliberately reduced to afragment by the artist is Rembrandt's "TheConspiracy of Claudius Civilis". This latecommissioned work was rejected by the patron,and the impoverished master trimmed it to aquarter of its original scale in an attempt to sellit. Though still rightly recognized as amasterpiece, it's impossible to disregard the sadstory (and the unusual, ad-hoc composition) inviewing this piece.

That said, in practical terms not every painting isgoing to be a masterpiece- that's a fact everyartist has to acknowledge. Some artists primeover abandoned works and re-use the canvas;others just tuck them away, intending to finishthem later.

Before you decide to trim down your canvas andframe the fragment you like, it might be wise totake a step back and make sure this is what youreally want to do.

Have a cooling off period: Put that paintingaway for a day or two. Maybe don't even look atit for a week, then give it another glance withfresh perspective. You might realize a pathtoward finishing the entire piece, or alternatelyyou might find yourself doubly sure it's better tomove on. Either way, you'll know for certain.

Ask a friend: Before cutting into that canvas,ask the advice of a friend you trust. If you knowanother artist who understands your style andobjectives, they might have some feedback thatwill help.

Plan the cropping carefully: If you decideultimately that trimming down your painting isthe best course of action, position the final cutsas carefully as you can. Hans Hofmannfamously said, "any line placed on the canvas isalready the fifth." The edges of the canvasmatter: they provide scale and proportionrelative to other elements on the canvas, asmuch as any painted line. If you decide to cutdown your canvas, make sure to purposefullyselect where the new edges should be. Place astretcher frame or window matte over thecanvas and imagine what the finished work willlook like in the new proportions. Alternately, takea photograph and crop it until you're sure thecomposition works.

Leave enough extra fabric: Make sure to leavea generous amount of canvas to wrap aroundthe stretchers. You can always trim it off later.

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