Ruthless pruning

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter essay.

Coast Guard Inspection, 6X8, oil on canvasboard.

The above witticism has been attributed to many people because it’s a universal truth. President Woodrow Wilson put it thus: “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

On Wednesday, I wrote and designed an ad with exactly 24 words of new copy; it took five hours. Then I made a short promotional video. I spent 12 hours to make two minutes of finished video.

This won’t surprise anyone in the creative fields. Editing is an important skill in any creative endeavor.

Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, 24X36, oil on canvas.

When I started blogging experts recommended that a blog post be kept to a thousand words. Today, I try to keep it around 500-600 words. There are many things that interest me, but if they don’t support the main trunk of the narrative, they’re ruthlessly scrubbed out.

This has changed my writing style, just as ruthless editing has changed my painting style. There are things I used to be able to do with pen or brush that I can no longer do. Losing some skills is the price we pay for pursuing mastery of others.

I’d like to blame simplification on our sleek modern sensibilities, but the quote at the head of this page dates from at least 1657. It was written (more wordily) by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. For centuries, writers have aimed for spare simplicity.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard.

There are, of course, actions and reactions in public taste. Following hard on the heels of Pascal’s geometry came the French Rococo, with painters like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Antoine Watteau and François Boucher creating absurdly exuberant paintings. But rococo had a limited run; within a few decades, tastes swung back to the neoclassical.

There’s a limit, apparently, to the frenzy the human mind can tolerate. At the same time, there are paintings that seem empty to us. Dutch Golden Age church interiors come to mind, as do most of the experiments of 20th century op art. There isn’t enough there to hold our interest. Editing is a delicate balance.

I’ve written before on the question of simplification in painting, most recently here. It’s not a question of taking things out for the sake of simplicity, but of ruthlessly paring away what doesn’t matter. That makes room for what’s important. That’s not necessarily content; it could be rhythm, texture, color or line.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on archival canvasboard.

“When in doubt, take it out” is another pithy aphorism that can also apply to painting. I’ve spent vast amounts of time trying to squeeze an idea into a painting or essay only to realize it was superfluous from the get-go.

In painting, the best time to do these edits is before you pick up a brush. Paper and charcoal (or pencil) are cheap and forgiving. Andrew Wyeth was a careful planner; his preparatory sketches are worth studying. Just as an outline is invaluable for the writer, a sketch is invaluable to the painter.

Paintings almost never benefit from last-minute additions or changes to the composition. These decisions need to be taken early on. Jan van Eyck may have moved feet and hands and added the little dog to the Arnolfini portrait, but he did so in the underpainting. The essential composition was worked out long before he got to the end.

What is essential?

That’s a question that operates on both the technical and the spiritual planes.

Beautiful Dream, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Tom Root recently attempted to make a pithy saying about simplification. “It’s not simplification, it’s essentialization,” he wrote. While that’s unlikely to be printed on tee-shirts, it does get to the nub of the matter.

When I told him I wanted to share his quote with my students, he elaborated that he was riffing on a quote from the teacher and painter Henry Hensche: “I have never liked the word simplify, because it makes people think simplistically, there is nothing simple about what we are trying to do, I prefer ‘to eliminate all but the essential,’ and the essential is achieved by suppressing or eliminating as much detail as possible.”

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14X18, $1594 framed.

What is essential in painting? That’s a question that runs on two tracks, the tangible and the intuitive. In tangible terms, we need to look at the classic design elements of art:  color, tone, line, shape, space, and texture. We might call this ‘objective critique,’ since there are standards for each of those elements against which we can measure a painting’s success.

In intuitive terms, we could have asked:

“What do you notice first? Second?”

“Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”

“What is the point of this work?”

While we might have to work harder to come up with answers to this latter set of questions, they’re equally as important. A work can be technically perfect but pointless.

Skylarking 2, 18X24, oil on linen, $2318 framed.

The idea that both are equally essential is one that comes from western philosophical thought. Traditionally, Christianity understands that there are spiritual and material matters, but it rejects any division between the two. That’s Dualism. It’s always treated as heresy, and for good reason. It inevitably elevates one side of creation and devalues its counterpart.

When art rejects meaning, or art rejects formal structure, it too elevates one side of its being and devalues the other. That’s how we end up taping bananas to walls or having to look at the impossibly-overloaded kitsch of Thomas Kinkade. What is essential, then, must be a combination of the two.

Penobscot bay overlook, 9X12, linen, unmounted, $250.

That doesn’t mean that you, the artist, have to be able to put into words what is essential about your painting. Visual art and writing operate on two separate tracks, and your ability (or lack thereof) to spin words has nothing to do with your ability to paint.

My students are going to do a 45-day watercolor challenge in the new year, but I also like my pal Peter Yesis’ New Year’s Resolution. He’s going to do a daily sketch every evening. Since drawing is the basis of all painting, he’s definitely on to a good idea.

Simplification—essentialization, as Tom Root called it—is the net result of hours and hours of practice. Perhaps in the New Year, you can commit to a discipline that will get you closer to the essentials in your painting.

Monday Morning Art School: simplification

This exercise, so critical to the success or failure of painting, is also important because it stresses the beauty inherent in all objects.

Prom shoes, 6×8, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, $348 unframed

A major part of learning to paint is learning to see, and in the process, learning to draw. Part of this is not getting caught up in the details, but perceiving the big shapes and how they fit together. This is fundamental to how painting has been done since the middle of the 19th century.

This means we stop thinking of the object we’re looking at as things we can identify, and start to see it as a series of shapes, or more accurately, a light pattern. That’s very difficult at first. That’s why my students have studied draperiesand reflectionsover the past few weeks. They’re tough subjects, because they’re ever-changing. There’s no cheating with prior knowledge.

A rude little notan I did of my own house.

A few years ago, my student Sheryl drew the lobster-boat Becca & Meagan, which is moored year-round at Rockport Harbor. It’s painted a signature red, and I have painted and drawn it many times. Sheryl measured and drew, and I patiently corrected her. This went on for most of the class, until Sheryl finally insisted that I sit down and take measurements with her.

Whoops! It wasn’t Becca & Meagan at all. Its owner had launched a new boat, Hemingway. She was painted the same red and moored at the same buoy, but with her own unique configuration—“flat, wide, and deep on the keel,” as her builder said. I was so used to seeing Becca & Meagan that I had stopped really seeing at all. I was looking straight at one boat and seeing another.

Another rough notan of my house. That was back before my painter mislaid half our shutters.

Likewise, if I set a teacup in front of a student, he’s guided in part by what he knows about teacups—they’re rounded, squat and hollow. That gives him some checks on his drawing, but it also allows him to assume measurements and values. That can be very misleading.

He has to stop seeing a teacup and start seeing an array of shapes, planes and values. For most of us, that takes time. First, we must do a drawing to figure out what we’re looking at. Then, we need to ruthlessly simplify our drawing into a series of values. When we catch ourselves thinking “window” or “door” or “boat” or “tree”, we must stop and force ourselves to relabel those objects as merely light or dark shapes.

Yep, that’s a carrot, a lemon and an empty box. You can make an interesting painting out of anything, if you start with the simple shapes.

All objects can be reduced to a certain, limited number of shapes, which build on each other to make a whole. When you see things as abstract shapes, you expand your possible subject matter. A plastic pencil case is not, inherently, much different in shape from a shed. A shed, in turn has the same, simplified, forms as a house. If you start with a shed, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

Notanand all other value studies are, above all, about cutting the picture frame into shapes, what Arthur Wesley Dow called “space cutting.”

Dow wrote the definitive 20th century book on composition, which sets down fundamental principles still used today. He taught his students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values in the visible spectrum to specific values—perhaps black, white and one grey. He wanted students see all compositions as structures of light and dark shapes. The success or failure of a painting rests on whether those shapes are beautiful.