Little Things Can Teach Us a Lot

Here is the second of my series of index card oil paintings as I go through the month learning about tonalism and the artists who worked in this style. At this point, my attempts are much less about applying the principles of the tonalist style as they are about learning to paint on a very small scale. For me, that’s really a good thing.

My landscape painting style is very loose, with lots of thick brustrokes and broad sweeps of color. Creating landscapes now on 3 x 5 index cards is requiring me to learn a lot of very different skills. Instead of big round brushes, I’m working with tiny script-liners and small detail brushes. I’m struggling to find the right medium, the right consistency, the right way to hold the brush and put the paint on these tiny little gessoed surfaces.

It’s fun, yet it is very challenging.

This little painting was a lot of work. I fussed with it. I tweaked, I twiddled, I painted and re-painted. I suppose the fact that I tried doing this alla prima made it more difficult than it might have been had I allowed the sky and grassy areas to dry before I added in the trees. Had I been painting this on a “normal” size canvas — an 8 x 10, a 12 x 16, or maybe a 16 x 20 — of course I would have approached it in that way, working on various sections at different times.

But an index card? Somehow the feeling I have as I paint on an index card is that it’s really all for fun, a chance to try new things, and not a time to get too serious about the art I’m making.

My objectives with this painting were two-fold:

  • To practice using small brushes
  • To create well-defined lights and shadows

I might not have successfully accomplished these objectives, yet they were very much on my mind as I fiddled around with these twelve — yes, count ’em — trees. Just being aware of what we need to do is an important step toward improving our painting skills.

I’m finding a lot of satisfaction in these little 3 x 5 landscapes. I can see where I’m going wrong with different techniques, and I can also see lots of little things I like. Those rocks in this landscape, as an example. They turned out far better than I’d anticipated. I do like some of my lights and shadows, and most of all, even though I fussed a lot over this painting, I had fun doing it.

I’m learning what to do and how to do it. I’m learning what not to do and how to avoid it. This little project will definitely make me a better artist. It might seem silly to spend time painting index cards, but I can highly recommend it. After only two days, I’ve already discovered that little things can teach us a lot.


  1. True growth is always in the little things. They compound and form the bigger picture. I once heard someone say, it’s tragic to do big things in a little way, we should first learn to do little things in a great way.

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  2. Great idea, whilst I was away from my normal setting of larger canvases, I set myself to paint on 2 x 3 boards. I really enjoyed it, as I wasn’t feeling pressured by β€œ making it perfect β€œ .

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