Normally, I would be launching into Update 2 of my latest painting here but I wanted, instead to discuss an important crossroads I come to in my art, a personal enlightenment or awareness of sorts that has been developing for some time. It affects directly the piece I’m currently working on, as well as all the pieces I’ve created in the past and hopefully all the ones I will create in the future.
When I plan out my paintings I do my best to incorporate the principles of good composition. I usually go through my books and notes and refresh myself before each painting. I feel the more I go over those principles the more it’ll become part of my subconscious thought. I take my craft seriously and do the best I can to produce the best painting I’m capable of. I also have a tendency to put a lot of detail in my paintings – it’s just a natural predisposition on my part. I put detail everywhere. I’ve been under the impression that good composition includes lots of detail. I’ve always taken it for granted and never questioned the thought that the more detail I included in my paintings (along with following all the other composition principles) the better my paintings would be. And yet, when I finished a painting, there was something about it that made it appear to me less than professional. It was good – but there was something missing. I didn’t quite know what that something was.
I surely tried my best to incorporate all the principles of good composition. What was I doing wrong? Not enough detail or realism? I also knew that when I saw meticulously drawn portraits, ones that looked like photos, I was impressed by the technical skill, but unimpressed by the artistic nature of the drawing. As far as I was concerned, the drawing was leaving the realm of art and entering the realm of photography. I preferred paintings and drawings that looked as if they had been painted and drawn. If a drawing was completed to that extent, why not just photograph the subject. So, it wasn’t more detail that was the answer.
Of late, however, emerging from the deep recesses of my mind is the thought that I have been putting too much detail in my paintings and, instead of making the painting better, I am actually doing the opposite. Many of you out there may already know that detail must be judiciously used, but it’s a revelation to me! I wonder if the amount of detail I include is cancelling out or masking some of the other design principles I’ve worked so hard to include. My paintings are too technical, emotionally lacking. In his article The Power of Suggestion, written for Artists Network, Richard McKinley, a noted pastelist, in talking about “painting the essence”, recounted an early experience in his career when he was completing a portrait: “After spending meticulous hours placing every strand of hair on a head, the instructor pointed out to me that I couldn’t really see all of those hairs, especially from root to tip. Instead, I was putting in what I knew about hair, instead of what I was capable of seeing. By showing me that the texture of hair was more evident where there was contrast, facilitated by the presence of intense light, I was able to let go of what I knew to be true about hair and paint what I was capable of seeing, which was the “essence” of hair.”
But, how much detail is OK and when does detail begin to work against the painting? Too much detail can make the painting confusing and busy. It makes the eyes stop everywhere on the painting, rather than where I want the viewers eyes to concentrate. It draws attention away from the point of interest. You can get detail overload.
I’m attracted to detail in paintings, but at the same time I admire looser, more painterly paintings, paintings that rely more on the emphasis of shapes, value and color relationships, contrast and lighting, with minimal detail. They seem to elicit more of an emotional response in me, rather than an admiration of technical skill for copying detail. I prefer the emotional response. A landscape artist whose paintings I’ve come to be very impressed with is Peder Mork Monsted, a Danish landscape painter who lived and painted in the late 19th and early 20th century. When I first came across images of his landscape paintings I was emotionally drawn to them – they seemed so poetic – and, at the same time, I loved the level of detail in them. However, thanks to an article by James Gurney about detail in paintings, when I looked more closely at them – when I looked at that detail – I was surprised to see that the detail was an illusion. Monsted was so skillful at painting that he could produce a convincing suggestion of realism. Wow!
I’ve mentioned before that paintings are meant to be viewed from a distance. No one gets up close and personal unless they want to see detail. Detail can’t be seen from a distance. Why produce detail that has to be looked close up, when you will be looking at the painting from a distance and all you need is the suggestion of detail. If you can give the impression of detail that looks good from a distance, there’s no need to put in real detail. At least, that’s the way I’m beginning to think. The illusion of detail, such as was done so expertly by Monsted, seems the best route. James Gurney was spot on when he wrote about Monsted’s handling of plants “One can be faithful to the character of the plants without copying or imitating every detail. Instead, nature must be re-created or represented in paint on the canvas.”
Other compositional elements of a painting are more important than merely being skillful at copying details. Details are OK to include in a painting but they must add to a good basic underlying structure, rather than be the focus of the painting. While I’ve been attentive to other aspects of composition to draw the viewer’s eyes to the center of interest, such as the rule of thirds, sweet spots, contrast, value and flow, I’ve completely forgotten about the importance of detail, and how it fits into a good painting. I really don’t want to create a painting merely to impress others about my skill at painting detail. I don’t want to create a picture. I want to create a painting. But where do I draw the line? How much detail is too much detail?
In an interesting article in the July/August 2015 issue of Artist Magazine entitled “Painting without Painting”, Jimmy Wright, a notable pastelist, interviewed Duane Wakeham, a famous landscape pastelist in his own right, on the subject of detail in landscape paintings. Wakeham recounted an en plein air outing between two painters in 1930’s Santa Fe. “At the end of the session”, Wakeham goes on, “ Gustave Baumann turned to the other, Louie Ewing, and commented that Ewing’s painting had too many details. ’Louie’, he said, ‘yours is a picture. Mine is a painting.’” Wakeham was impressed by the story and said that he wanted to create paintings, not pictures. Me, too.
Detail should be confined to the areas where the focus is intended and less so in the rest of the painting. Elsewhere, suggest detail, don’t do detail. A painting should be composed in such a manner that there is a tight focus and more detail on the center of interest and less emphasis on the periphery. This is, supposedly, the way our eyes perceive the world. We focus in on things of interest and all that surrounds it is less detailed. However, we do look over a scene often and, although we focus on a single object in one instant, we look elsewhere and focus in on something else. It still remains that, in a painting, there is a center of interest. Something we want the viewer to see, and that is where we place emphasis.
This is an important point in my love affair with art. With your indulgence I hope to continue this discussion in the next installment. Articulating these thoughts in writing is very helpful to me and I hope some of this will be helpful to you as well.