Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is The Devil In The Details?

Warning:  The wearing of steel-toed boots is recommended for the reading of this blog.  We can not be responsible for any discomfort from toes being stepped on.  Thank you.

We all know that the number one rule in art is, "There are no rules".  There are, however, axioms, tenets, general suggestions, standard way of doing things, my way, and what the hell are you thinking?  One of the non-rules is, "you can't learn to draw from copying photographs".  I agree.  Copying them only gives one a thin veneer of reality.  So, put those polaroids away and go copy an old masters painting!  Another accepted non-rule, but would be a rule if it were open for a vote, is "do not put all the details in your painting in focus".  I know I stand the risk of sounding like the self-taught, totally ignorant hack that I am, but I have to ask-- why?

The argument behind not having everything in focus goes like this:  The human eye does not see everything in focus at the same time.  While we're looking at an object, everything else in it's periphery loses detail.  Thus, we should make our paintings with the point of interest having the highest amount of detail, and everything else with a lesser amount because that's how our eyes see.  As a matter of fact, having everything in sharp focus is the mark of an amateur.  Or so says Virgil Elliott, the writer of Traditional Oil Painting.  I love that book.  Of all the art books I own, it's one of only three that I keep with me in the studio.  (The others are John Carlson's book on landscape painting, and Rockwell on Rockwell).  In fairness to Mr. Elliott, I've seen that opinion from a whole lot of other artists too.

But here's why I question that (Oh, no! It's not a) rule.  I want my paintings to be very realistic, so why shouldn't I make everything as accurate as I can, then let the eye of the viewers see it as it would the real thing?  In other words, should I paint the way the eye interprets the scene, or let the eye interpret the scene in the painting?  Now, a disclaimer:  I am certainly aware of hard and soft edges, and I'm not saying that everything should have a hard edge.  What I'm asking is why can't I paint everything with the same level of realism and detail?  Let me show you a few examples of what I'm thinking about.

At the top of the page is a detail from one of my all-time favorite Andrew Wyeth paintings, The Patriot.

I stood for hours in front of this painting when I saw it at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine.  What I love about this painting is the exquisite detail Wyeth gave everything.  If Wyeth only wanted the focus to be on the face of his subject, he could have merely indicated the medals and buttons on the uniform.  Instead, everything is in such sharp focus that you can read the inscription on the medals.  Wyeth isn't telling you, "Look only at what I want you to see,"  He's letting your eyes do the work.  When I look at his face, I don't see the medals in focus at all.  I see this painting in the same manner as if the man was sitting in front of me.  

Another of my favorite Wyeth's is Weathered Side

This is not a great reproduction of the painting, but again, look at the degree of focus he gave every element in this scene.  The composition leads your eye into and up the side of the Olsen House in Cushing, Maine, but each object is sharply rendered.  The window panes high up on the house are as crisply realized as the bucket at your feet.  The clapboards are not a mass of color, but as detailed as the shingles beside you.   Wyeth didn't paint this the way our eyes see it, he painted it the way it is.  We do the rest.

Now let's look at Jean-Leone Gerome:

If you click on this, you should probably get a bigger version.  Yes, there are soft and hard edges here, but look at the way he portrays the tile over on the extreme right edge.  Keeping in mind the change in light and corresponding values, the detail is as clear as the closer tiles on the left.  Again, Gerome let's our eyes wander wherever we want over this image, he's not dictating what is important.  His composition does that.  I like that in a painting.

I know that the idea of a central focus point comes from the great landscape artists like Constable, and later with the Impressionist and, of course, John Singer Sargent, and it shows in many modern paintings today.  I truly like that style of painting.  And I sure know I'm no Andrew Wyeth or Jean-Leon Gerome!  I'm old school I guess, but to me, I just don't see the Devil in those details.



Karla said...

This is an interesting post. I enjoy seeing the details in paintings. Some are so out of focus that it looks "sloppy". Maybe if you have to blur things to make the subject stand out, the subject wasn't that interesting to start with.

Susan Roux said...

You bring up a very interesting point. I think our personal artistic journey would be much simpler if we didn't get caught up in what "we think we should do". The best art is always that which flows out of us naturally of subjects we are passionate about. Look at your dresser painting!

I've battled with such things and think I'm finally at a place to embrace the true me. Any well known artist from the past was not caught up with following the traditions or trends of the masses. There will always be lots of artists already doing that. If your voice wants to cry out in a different direction, embrace it! If you want to detail something to death, then do it. Keep doing it and doing it, until you do it as best you can. There are taste out there for every type of art...

Katherine Tyrrell said...

I've stood in the museum in Rockland with my nose as close as I could get to Wyeth's paintings. I'd agree that there's an awful lot of sharp rendering going on - but I'd also argue that Wyeth is not wholly accurate and there's also an awful lot of selection and abstraction going on at the same time.

So yes - there's lots of details - but not so many that work becomes hyperealistic (which is what you get when EVERYTHING is rendered in the same level of detail).

The realism in Wyeth's case is also linked to the medium he uses. Many artists working in egg tempera have lots of small marks and detail - however a number of them push the boundaries of realism with the colours they use.

I have a hazy recollection from reading "Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography" that he saw himself as an abstract painter not a realist.