Art In History Art Blog
This post is another holiday from my art history pieces; in fact, another in my series of artistic tips, though my theme applies as much to studio painting as to painting plein air. From the title one might suppose I was going to talk about fantasy, or more generally about work not springing from observation of the world. In fact, the opposite is true: triggering the imagination is the key to painting convincingly realistic works.
The idea for this post came from a comment I have heard many times, and heard twice in relation to my latest exhibition of paintings of rocks: "I can't believe how little detail there is when I am up close, because at a distance it looks like a photograph!" What this says is, there is a distance beyond which all visual clues are consistent with a certain interpretation of the scene or object, and when that happens, the imagination fills in all the rest.
In fact, this is not just how we interpret paintings, it is how we interpret the world. We are constantly analyzing available clues, comparing it to our storehouse of past images and their meanings, and coming to a conclusion about what is in front of us. We see a distant horse - a shape, certain proportions, perhaps the tail - and immediately say "I know what that is". At that point we convince ourselves that we can "see" the horse in all its detail, because we have filled it in from our past sightings of horses, or pictures of horses. We have a fully elaborated reality, most of which we just created ourselves.
Most of the time we have an abundance of clues from nature, enough to make accurate interpretations of what we see with seldom an error. However, we all probably remember instances of "sensory deprivation", when the clues were truely minimal: for instance, driving at night along a country road. We will build up a false interpretation of the scene, only to have an additional clue come in the nick of time, trashing our assumption and suggesting a wildly diffferent reality. Scary.
In paintings, we have whatever clues the artist gives us. If the goal is naturalism, then the artist must try to mimic the kind of clues which nature gives us for our day-to-day job of interpretation. The easy way is to give the viewer everything you can, more than enough, though the danger is that you will include elements that in the end conflict with your intended interpretation. Then the "photograph" never happens for the viewer; something is wrong. But the more interesting approach is to give the viewer just enough: a few details carefully observed and selected that do the whole job. My painting "Beach at Boca" seems to me to do this, creating a complete ambience, seemingly populated with detail, without really describing anything except the large forms and the light.
This is my ideal: to have the viewers experience the truth of the scene in front of me, while doing all the heavy lifting themselves!