by Bob Bahr
Wes Siegrist knows that he doesn’t just have to demonstrate his painting process at the upcoming TexArt workshop. He also has to explain just what his genre of painting is all about. Siegrist and his wife, Rachelle, paint miniatures.
“I will emphasize that I don’t just paint small, but paint miniature,” he says. “There are societies and exhibitions associated with painting miniatures. It’s its own little world. But just like calling something a wildlife painting can be elusive and slippery at times, in discussing miniatures you have to know that it’s not just small painting. It’s miniature painting.”
So what makes a painting a miniature?
The rules that many miniature societies have deal with scale. It varies slightly, depending on what country you are in, but basically the painting can’t be much bigger than 5″-x-5″. There are rules on how big the frame can be. A large frame makes a dramatic presentation for a miniature painting, but societies and exhibitions focusing on miniatures have limits on frames as well. Additionally, societies have rules on how many brushstrokes are used per square inch. Detail is valued in miniature painting, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that tight representation is a must. The scale of the subject matter counts, too. The generally accepted rule is that objects in a miniature painting must be no larger than 1/6th of their actual size. So, for example, a human head must be 1 ½” or smaller in a miniature painting. If you paint a bee on a tiny canvas and it is depicted actual size, you have not painted a miniature.
Miniatures also don’t have to be paintings, but that’s a whole other topic of discussion. “I’m obviously a painter so I’m biased in that direction, but it’s open to many art forms,” says Siegrist. “Only two art forms are looked down upon: computer art and photography. Regarding photography, that’s what decimated miniature art historically, so it is not welcomed.”
Siegrist is referring to the fact that miniatures were used as mementos for a few centuries, from the early 1500s until the mid-1800s. Loved ones sat for quick miniatures that went into lockets, for example. Siegrist points out that in these portraits, people generally posed as they were. These were not staged portraits on horseback or with sumptuous clothes or costumes. As such, miniatures from this era offer historians crucial information about life for these people. But around 1850 photography took off, and the artists who made money painting miniatures were priced out of the business by the cheaper and faster new medium.
Miniature painting didn’t die, but it did change. The painters suddenly found that they needed to define what they do, in part to keep their painstaking work from being preempted by photographers who might merely touch up their photos with a bit of paint. “It’s similar to the problems with giclées with a bit of a change on top of them,” says Siegrist. “You didn’t need rules and regulation until it fell out of favor and became the subject of exhibitions.” Societies sprang up and miniature painters banded together to protect the integrity of their traditional process. The public eventually came to appreciate what these stalwarts were doing with their rules and carefully curated exhibitions. “There was a revolt against the latest and greatest, a movement that went along with the Arts & Crafts movement,” says Siegrist. “People wanted things made by hand.”
By the late 1890s societies and exhibitions of miniature paintings were established and flourishing. Still, what was once a widespread way of working was now diminished to a few hundred artists. Along the way, a painting process that was frequently a craft turned into fine art. “Miniature as a craft was a charge levied against miniature painters in the mid-1800s,” says Siegrist. “The painted to sell. They were not trying to paint for fine art, but just for the market. The miniatures were primarily functional in their original intent. It wasn’t until later that miniatures were not something to be worn but to be displayed. Even today miniature art is sometimes conflated with jewelry in exhibitions.
Siegrist isn’t particularly moved by this logic. “Doing it for the market? Why would you work so hard to do something so hard to do when you could just paint it bigger? It is fine art, not just some kind of little memento. There are high-end collectors and premium museums interested in miniature painting. Ultimately the question of whether it’s art or crafts is the decision of the museums and collectors. Somebody is seeing it as high fine art and not craft, because they are hanging it with other paintings.”
Wes and Rachelle Siegrist are a bit lonely in their endeavor. Siegrist suspects that they are the only artists making a living painting miniatures full-time in America, and they may not have much company worldwide. There are plenty professional artists who occasionally paint miniatures, and there are hobbyists keeping the genre alive. Wes said what he’d like to see is more miniature devotees filling the crucial leadership roles in societies. “The real issue today–the crux of it in terms of a future for miniatures–is if enough artists will volunteer and take up the leadership positions,” he says. “Without societies and exhibtions it won’t stay up. We need societies to host shows.”
And in coming to TexArt, to spread the word about miniatures and to demonstrate his painting technique, Siegrist is helping to promote the genre. “It’s also in a sense homecoming for me, because I have demonstrated at the SKB workshop, and I attended it several years,” he says. “And at TexArt, I’ll I have a captive group of professional artists that I am going to be speaking to about miniatures.” Ω