The popular text message shorthand TMI, as most of us growing up in the cell phone era know, means “too much information.” Normally not a good thing–except when it comes to my realism oil painting strategy.
To be specific, I find it useful to paint as much information as possible in the beginning stages and opaque layers of my photorealist paintings, so that I can pick and choose where to obscure it during the final (semi-transparent) glazing layers. There’s perhaps a bit of inefficiency involved in this approach, but it allows for a more organic development process overall, and a greater degree of control during the final artistic choices of what to emphasize or subordinate into shadow.
“Dying In America” (detail). Before and after the final shadow glazes. Note the subtle loss of detail/information in the rose petals.
The human eye is capable of seeing every detail of any given view, but the brain, our computer processor of sorts, is wired for efficiency and baseline survival, and as such is instinctively tuned to only allow us to focus on what is most important in any given view. Details and countless bits and pieces of any scene get stitched together from memory, assumption, and expectation, while a vast majority of the remaining minutiae are simply discarded as inessential to whatever task is at hand.
Some of my favorite realism artists were masters of this concept, knowing exactly what to emphasize or subdue in order to pull the viewers attention towards their focus and tug at their heartstrings with an effective narrative or use of symbolism.
Notice in John Singer Sargent’s portraits how little attention was paid to large areas of dress, allowing inessential areas to become black or brown silhouettes with no detail. He created a hierarchy of importance within the picture that mimics the way our brains naturally function, using the aforementioned technique to subordinate certain areas.
John Singer Sargent. “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),” 1884, oil. The dress and background, which comprise nearly all of the painting, are almost entirely flat areas of dark value.
Andrew Wyath used the technique of reserve just as brilliantly towards the goal of depicting scenic vistas and landscapes with a completely lifelike–yet surprisingly graphic and simplistic–appearance, setting the often somber and peaceful mood with just enough detail to draw us in and keep us looking.
Andrew Wyeth. “Sea Boots,” 1976, tempera. Details in the boots and foreground tempered with the geometric simplicity of everything in the top half of the composition.
Andrew Wyeth. “Barracoon,” 1976, tempera. Just enough accurate rendering in the figure and folds in the fabric, juxtaposed with large open fields of color and diffused texture.
And so I too try to keep the artistic concepts of hierarchy, subordination, and reserve in mind while envisioning my final result, with the goal of creating a visually appealing image, rather than chaotic overload containing a factually truthful amount of information, yet lacking cohesion and harmony.
I think these concepts become especially important when painting anything approaching the photorealism genre. Micro details are common and often necessary to complete the desired illusion in this style of painting, and yet conversely, a closed-minded and strict devotion to every detail of one’s photo reference or still life arrangement can result in a less aesthetically pleasing work of art.
“Dying In America” (detail).
Visual information, as with most things in life, can in fact become too much of a good thing. To make sure I hit my desired sweet spot on the information spectrum, I’m not afraid to paint more detail than will ultimately be needed, only to lose it in deep, rich, believable shadows. The most effective of these shadows will still contain the faintest traces of the details underneath, yet not so much detail as to clutter and distract from my desired focal point.
“Dying In America,” 2015, oil on linen panel.