For this year’s Petite December, our annual exhibit of small works, we invited miniature artist extraordinaire Thomas Doyle to make selections. Known for his fascinating sculpted scenarios, often depicting human figures calmly confronting exaggerated calamities, his work has a appeared in museums and galleries across the U.S., Europe and Asia, and has also been used to illustrate articles in publications including Newsweek, Time, and The New Yorker. Here, he shares the skills it takes to go small and what impressed him about our artists’ diminutive works.
The Art League: When did your fascination with miniature scale art begin?
Thomas Doyle: I started, as a lot of people do I think, as a child making miniatures and playing with toys and action figures. I was always really interested in the environments that the figures went into because it really brought them to life to me. I started making miniature artwork in about 2003, after spending time painting and printmaking in school. I just applied those art techniques to miniature work. That’s how I ended up with doing what I do now.
TAL: Are there advantages to doing work on such a small scale?
TD: Yes and no. I think miniature work can be quite potent because it taps into something in people—there’s an intimacy because you have to get so close to it to really understand what you’re looking at. That’s probably the biggest advantage to it. Some people would argue that it takes up less space in your studio and that’s true, but I’ve made works at miniature scale that are 16 feet long so that doesn’t always apply.
TAL: What are some challenges?
TD: Making miniature work could be challenging because of the skill sets required. Also, in some cases, it can easily be dismissed as something that’s just cute or a novelty, and not taken seriously as a medium. I think that has changed quite a bit over the last 10 years as more fine artists are working in miniature. Another challenge with three dimensional work is documentation because with the scale it’s hard to see everything at once and also see the details because it’s so small. You can take a picture of a large sculpture and understand what you’re seeing. [Miniatures] requires you to get closer both in person and in documentation.
TAL: You just said something interesting, that creating miniatures can be challenging because of the skill sets required. Aside from having really good eyesight, what particular skill sets are helpful?
TD: I would say eyesight and a steady hand. It really depends on what you’re doing. The work that I do is very different than a lot of the work that I judged in the show—there you have watercolorists and painters and people doing miniature ceramics. I use a very different skill set but I would say in most everything it’s patience and a willingness to be detail oriented.
TAL: What miniature artists’ works do you admire and why?
TD: There are contemporary artists that I have shown with, Patrick Jacobs is one of them. Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber do amazing work as well. The reason that I admire them so much is that they tap into a sense of wonder and fantasy that I felt as a child and that’s what I’ve attempted to do myself.
TAL: What is the market like for small scale art?
TD: That is quite objective based on the artist and his or her sales record. However, there is a benefit to small works obviously because people can collect them. They typically come in at a lower price and people have room for them so there’s a strength there.
TAL: What was your general impression of the work that was submitted for Petite December?
TD: I was impressed. I didn’t know what to expect. As is always the case when jurying a show you don’t know how strong submissions will be, but I was impressed and pleased that there were not only so many strong works but also such a variety of media.
TAL: What advice would you offer to artists who are interested in creating small-scale works?
TD: Be patient. Your conception of good work will keep changing. I think that’s true with every artist, whether you’re doing 10-feet canvases or working at a small scale. As you grow as an artist, you will look back and say, “Oh, I could have done this differently.” With miniature and detail work, I think that’s even more so.
This is pertinent in particular to my type of work where I’m pouring in as much detail as possible, whereas a piece like Rana Geralis’ Going on Horseback (an honorable mention in Petite December) is really not as concerned with detail. It’s concerned with capturing and observing. But there is an overlap there too where I’m trying to observe and distill things down to tell these stories. So I would say spend time looking, be patient, and good is often not good enough.
Below, the works that really caught Doyle’s eye and what he had to say about them:
Best-in-Show Award winner Snow Day by Carol Stalun
“I was drawn to it because it is figurative, a very gorgeous tableau, and the composition was really interesting to me because of how empty it is near the bottom with a field of snow. Then, just seeing the really bright red figures and sleds there, it actually seemed as if somebody had built a miniature scene and photographed it. It’s one of the rare works among what I judged that I felt could be blown up to eight feet wide and work. It is pretty lovely.”
Four Honorable Mentions:
Wet Lands XII-Fall Colors by Cindi Lewis
“I love the composition but also the economy of brushstrokes. I felt like I could picture each brush stroke hitting the surface and the gouache, and I love how it really brought down the essence of that scene. It’s wonderful.”
The Point Overlook, No. 1 by Stacy Smith Evans
I like the delicacy of this piece. There is a certain sort of ghostly quality to the mist and the fog over the foliage and it has a quiet contemplative simplicity that I was really taken with.
Going on Horseback by Rana Geralis
I am always impressed with very small paintings that break something down to its essentials—knowing that it was a very small work and knowing it was done with a real economy of brushstrokes. I really appreciate the abstract quality of it.
Crane Unfolded by Wendy Donahoe
Just conceptually it is a fascinating idea to take a sculptural object, an unfolded origami crane that is very beautiful in its own way, and render it so finely at that scale. It is clever but also really, really well executed.