Details (Death to)

“It’s all in the details” — a statement considered wise when the subject matter is policy. What about when the subject is art? Recently, I visited an exhibit of Dutch and Flemish paintings from the 17th-18th century, wherein the details were really important. Before photography, paintings were valued as records; the tiniest of details were appreciated. But in this day and age, details can be a hindrance to artistic expression. Representation, as opposed to abstraction, is even looked down upon in some quarters. Abstraction is the ultimate in detail-elimination.

Only last week one of my followers commented, “Your drawings are magnificent.  Great attention to detail.  Superb!”  Alas, his approval, to the extent based on my attention to detail, may be misplaced. I have to acknowledge a contrary judgment–that in general, attention to detail is not a good thing, and that in particular, my attention to detail is more of a handicap than an ornament to the quality of my output.

Which is just a long way of saying, I expend too much energy on details.  At one point during the Red Chalk workshop, Rob Liberace asked me to dial back on the details–I was making a virtual skeleton out of our lean model.  Referring to the portrait above, “Kitsch,”  Cameron Bennett suggested last Thursday.  Ouch!

Two experts within a short time identifying the same weakness–there must be something to it.  How did I get to this pass?  Certainly my plein air painting never permitted excessive detail.  One theory–my speed in getting to a near-finished state leaves me all too ready to look for areas to refine.  Instead of reexamining the broadest strokes to make sure those are as perfect as I can get them, I start on what I used to consider the next step–developing the details.  Another theory–I am just not that good an artist.,

Take this week’s portrait from a live model, posted as the cover image for this blog.  As soon as I caught Rebecca’s likeness and properly placed and sized all her features, I spent considerable time working on the details, or what I was then considering the nuances of her features–especially her mouth and eyes.  It was at the end of that session that I got the “kitsch” remark. Ouch–that still hurts!
Here is the current portrait next to the earlier one done in black and white. Big improvement anyway. (But we had less time to work on the black and white, I think.)

At least when copying a work done by a master, I cannot be criticized for the sin of detail. The detail, or lack of it, comes already supplied. Here is this week’s homework assignment, from a self-portrait by 20th century Italian artist, Pietro Annigoni.

The whole point of copying, may I remind those of you who abhor the slavishness of copying, is to train the copyist’s eye. If I cannot see how my ear is different from the original’s ear, how can I expect to paint a good representation of a real, live ear? So there is the original, on the right, with my copy on the left. Sitting on my easel, my copy looked virtually perfect to me–I fantasized Cameron accusing me of tracing the image.

Here, not so perfect. A decent copy, but far from perfect. I gnash my teeth in frustration! How did the bloody head get so elongated in the original, with me not noticing? This is why artists resort to projecting drawings onto their canvases from photographs, a practice frowned on by purists, and one that certainly does nothing to train the eye. Fury it is that motivates them!

I hereby resign myself to getting beat up upon by Cameron this Thursday because there is no way I am repainting that ear. (In order to narrow the head, I would have to move the ear.)

But back to the topic–Death to Details. With this new anti-detail directive freshly absorbed, giving a nod to Peter Granucci here as well since he also has tried to wean me away from focusing on details when drawing from a live model, I took out a painting that had never satisfied me.  This was a painting based on a drawing made with a live model.  I had no details to refer to –the painting itself was several references removed from the original drawing since I had painted over it several times trying to find a version that pleased me. Could I solve this painting by eliminating even more details?

The only part of this painting that I liked was the hand and the drape at the bottom, so I felt free to mess with the rest of it.  I tried muting the background.  I changed the hairdo.  I refreshed the skin tones and created large splashes of light. Finally, taking a cue from the hand that I did like, I outlined the figure in black.  Suddenly, it looked interesting.  I never use black ordinarily, so this was definitely weird.  I scumbled (a technique for applying a glaze but with a dry brush) more black into the background and it got even better.

Ultimately the color, and maybe the contrast may save this painting.  But my curiosity to obliterate detail is what motivated me to revisit this painting.  Maybe that makes no logical sense, but hey, that’s left brain for you!

Meanwhile, and D, I’m talking to you, don’t praise my attention to detail.  It’ll just make me squirm uncomfortably.

This blog started out over two years ago (!) with no particular angle on my painting adventures, but has begun to develop as a chronicle of my efforts to grow as an artist. So I have come up, finally, with a name for it: Painter’s Progress–playing on the phrase “Pilgrim’s Progress”, a religious tome from a time period when details in paintings were expected and desired.

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