Recently I painted a watercolor of a car driving in a hazy snowy scene through the woods. I was struck by the minimal colors in the scene, and could see how a painting could spark from it. Using three colors I painted a watercolor, and was happy how it turned out.
First let me say I do very much enjoy detailed paintings, and I consider myself very much in the realist camp. However I also appreciate those paintings which convey detail with minimal effort from the artist. As a writer and an amateur magician I can appreciate conveying a message without filling in all the lines. It’s why I love old radio shows, the presentation is as large as a person’s imagination.
For some paintings I enjoy being more detailed, but I also love the technique of implied detail. Joseph Zbukvic is brilliant at balancing the two, but he’s not the only one. I recently looked at one of Norman Rockwell’s paintings, The Love Song. It shows two older musicians playing music, and a young girl daydreaming of her prince. While he is considered very detailed in both the musician’s coat, and the picture calendar on the wall, you can see implied detail.
Different artistic styles, yet both used implied detail. I think it’s why I enjoy some impressionist paintings more than others. Some are far too abstract for me, while I others I like better because of implied detail. I can appreciate this I think because of the struggle I had as a newer painter.
I’ve mentioned before the debate about big shapes, and how initially I misunderstood what they were saying. Something similar happened when I would hear artist tell students there was too much detail, or too much rendering. At the same time I heard that becoming a better draftsman, or better at drawing, was vital.
These seemed contrary to me, as I’ve seen some beautiful, and extremely detailed pencil drawings. What I didn’t understand is the problem was not painting a detailed painting. It was actually because of more than one reason that they advised this.
A simple truth is that you can become so fixated on illustrating a small detail so much it will hurt your overall painting. Another issue is that you can use limited detail to direct the attention of the viewer much like slight of hand with a magician. This method involves more detailed rendering of the focus of the painting, and less detail on the supporting areas. In other words it’s an actor’s spotlight, or a smart phone’s portrait mode.
Another truth about being overly detailed at the beginning is it can distract you from becoming well rounded in the general skills of painting. It goes back to not seeing the forest for the trees. Once you have a well rounded grasp of the basics down, you can explore. Some artists will be very detailed, almost photorealistic, others will be far less so. Neither is wrong, as long as you learn what is necessary to paint well.
Drawing is important, knowing when and what to put in, and what and when to leave out. Great artist, whether in paint or in pencil, know both how to draw great detail, and how to draw just enough detail to convey an idea. Minimalist and photorealistic are not better than the other, they are just different tools, but the basics are vital regardless of which you pursue.
The truth is one painter may paint a very detailed version of one painting, and very little detail with the next. Just as the same songwriter may write one extremely fast piece, then a ballad, after they have learned the basics well. In music and art, the basics are the building block for whatever you want to build, but the foundation has to be strong.
A singer or musician can be versatile if they know how to do several different types of music well. There are also those musical artists who focus on a particular genre and are said to have mastered it. Neither is less, and there are experts in both camps, just as with painting.
Whether you paint a detailed landscape, or focus on just the highlights, I would encourage you to do three things. First keep actively learning as much as you can, second practice as much as you can, and third enjoy painting no matter what style you find yourself gravitating to. However you are conveying detail, do your best to have fun.