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.