Friday, 5 November 2010

Editing details out of your artwork

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – July August 2009. Follow the link to receive this free monthly newsletter.

In an article on his blog titled “Editors”, Seth Godin wrote:

“Turns out that for the last seventeen twenty-seven years, every single movie that managed to win the Oscar for best picture was also nominated for best editing.”
It takes times to make things simpler, because you need to understand first the essence of what you are trying to express.

It is easier to cram everything into your picture, to go into minute details. By editing, you make a stronger statement. See building your composition as telling a story. To lead the viewer, you want a strong narrative line and that will only happen if you bring out some elements while downplaying others.

Does that mean there should be no details in your work? Not at all; details are good when used in a judicious way. A few strokes can evoke hundred of tiles on a roof and a few patches of bright red fill a meadow with poppies. They are what I call “telling details” because they bring sense and meaning. Another important role of details is to bring an area of the painting in focus.

Honfleur door - The paving is just suggested as well as the stones on the wall

Physiology and psychology are on our side when we leave details out. As visual artists, we are helped by how vision is as much the work of the brain as it is perception by our eyes. In other words, our brain is really good at filling gaps and adding details we expect to see where there are none. In this way, a painting with fewer detailed areas is more personal, as each viewer fills the gaps in his own way. It is also more interesting because it creates some sense of mystery.

Practically, what does that mean?

  • If you paint a brick wall, don’t paint every single joint.
  • Paint the tree, not its leaves.
  • Make a thumbnail or a small study of your subject. Drawing or painting small will force you to forego details.
  • Work on the whole painting at once, not square centimetre by square centimetre.
  • Go from the general to the particular. Work on large planes and masses first before you add details. This way, you control the amount of details you want to add in.
  • Paint with big brushes.
  • Try this: when you pick a brush, put it down and take one size up instead.
  • Try this: Execute the whole painting with only large flat brushes and no small pointy riggers or sable round brushes
There is no better way to end this short article than by quoting the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

"I have made this letter longer because I have not had time to make it shorter."

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