Saturday, April 28, 2012

The "Tension" of Details in a Painting

This week I am working on two new Saguaro paintings intended for a show in March of next year.  Some of you guys may know that I have to work on paintings far in advance of their delivery date due to the fact that the paint is so thick that it needs extended time to dry.  Good thing I have the super-dry Arizona air to help me there...

Recently I exchanged paintings with a wonderful California painter named Ken Christensen.  Ken is a member of the "New Fauves" painters group; a group of contemporary artists working roughly in the Fauvist manner.  ( you can visit Ken's website at )  When I saw the beautiful painting that Ken sent me, I found myself thinking about how much and how little detail is necessary in a painting.  I found myself thinking this because Ken struck such a perfect balance of essentials - without feeling compelled to paint the hair on a fly's neck from a mile away.

This is what I refer to as the "tension" of details.  It's a little like tuning a guitar or violin - the strings reach a point where they are of the right tension and the sound of an instrument in tune comes pleasantly to your ears.  Ken's paintings do this very, very well.  He may be one of the best I've seen yet.  Though I am still a devoted admirer of my mentor Jean-Claude Quilici, who also strikes a beautiful balance of detail and non-detail in his work.  Awhile back Ken mentioned to me via email that when he lived in France one of his favorite painters was Jean-Claude Quilici -  a fact that put a smile on my face and perhaps told me that Ken too had taken a lesson in Quilici's own ideas about how much detail was essential for painting.

Much of this, I am sure, boils down to temperament.  I am a painter who delights in essentials.  Broad swaths of color, thick paint, etc.  I get uncomfortable with smaller and smaller details - though the sensible side of me knows that details are essential.  I would be most happy putting on paint with a trowel if I could - but I know that small touches can enhance the bigger ones.  So I usually press on all the while trying to balance the little with the big.  Though I see the big more prominently.  I still marvel at painters who can do a painting in a day.  Commonly I will work a week on a painting.  I remember one December a few years ago, I worked on one painting all month.  People tell me this is a long time - but I think about Michelangelo lying on his back working on the Sistine Ceiling for 4 years and it seems like nothing at all.

Too little detail in a painting can be irritating and unsatisfying, at least to my mind.  Case in point, the longer I've lived the less I actually liked the great Fauvist master Matisse.  A few years ago my wife and I saw a show of works at the Phoenix Museum of Art and there were several Matisse paintings featured; honestly, some of them looked like bad preliminary sketches.  Like he had simply blobbed on some shapes with a turpentine wash coat and to my surprise - signed them!  My wife even shaking her head.  Mind you, that is not to say that Matisse's entire body of work is bad or irrelevant - not at all.  But that those we saw were very low quality, and not reflective of some of the better Matisse paintings I've seen in the past.  I've always believed that those artists we commonly consider "Masters" can't simply be considered so because their name is in the corner of the paintings.  You must earn it every time.  Every time.  A true master, if he were a baseball player, for example, would step up to the plate and try to hit the ball over the fence every time.  He would try to put it out of the stadium if he could.  At no point should you step up to the artistic plate and think that you can maintain things if you only hit a double.

On the too much detail thing, I don't really feel the need to call anyone to account.  Realists, if they are good at what they do, have already proven that they can paint and have excellent powers of observation.  One that comes to mind who is a great talent is the artist Mario Robinson   (  What Mario can do with only his pencil - such portraits that will leave you breathless and amazed.  Mario's work is more than realism because his portraits evoke a mood and sensibility which is hard to describe - but which is plainly evident when you see them.  It is realism, yes, but MORE than realism, and that's a great feeling to evoke.  Another "more than realist" painter who is well known but whose work I only just saw in person recently at the Scottsdale Salon,  is Joseph Todorovitch.  His painting "Receive" was breathtaking.  Joseph is no secret in the art world, but it was the first that I had seen of one of his original oils with my own eyes, and it left a deep impression on me, even after viewing nearly 200 works at the Scottsdale Salon.  Most realists who are good at what they do have proven that they can paint - though realism is not the temperament I seek in my own work, and I openly reject realists who think that those working in other forms of painting are not as skillful as they are.  One can point out, in fairness, that there are realist artists who don't paint every hair and grain of wood - but who work in realism generally.  They too have extended the frame of realism as it is sometimes considered.   

The crux of this "tension of details" discussion is really this - that an artist must find the working style that aligns best with their temperament.  Perhaps what is most enjoyable is seeing the variety of temperaments at work when you see the myriad of different ways that emotion is put down on canvas or paper.  It's like looking for poetry.  Too many words and it's prose - too few words and it's not poetry.  That is the "tension".  That's the beauty.