The Devil Is In The Details

12.02.11

Velazquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650

Detail. What does it mean? We tend to think of it as small parts, articulated bits that add flavor. As the saying goes, "The Devil is in the details", which interestingly comes from an older phrase, "God is in the detail", meaning, details are important. But in painting, I would suggest that the word should be liberated from its cliched context and our definition not be limited to finessed particulars of description. In short, detail is what or where the artist brings the viewers attention, either articulated on a large or small scale. The Thesaurus uses such words as 'particular',' specific', 'fine point',  and more negatively, 'triviality', 'nicety', and 'incidental'. But the words that more closely evoke what I'm writing about are,  'subtlety', 'feature', and 'precision'. The masters understood this. Velazquez is the epitome of an artist who bore down into a subjects marrow. The paintings evoke identification through representation, but are not about adding incidentals of realism. They are about stripping away all unnecessary triviality and cutting to the core of form in light, where souls are revealed. It is the simplicity and essence of description that takes my breath away when looking at his work. That is where the genius is found. Painters who feel compelled to spoon feed viewers with unedited answers and who assume this increases the value of a work are giving no room for the imagination and are not seeing to a deeper level. This is not about the favoring of a particular stylistic approach, but instead, penetrating through banality into the heart of the matter. It is in fact more difficult to choose what to leave out, than to carelessly add what isn't necessary.

Canaletto, The Stonemasons Yard, 1726-30

One of the supreme realists of the 17th century was Canaletto . Trained in a guild as a stage painter, he was one of the most renowned painters of his generation and became a favorite of the British Royalty for his scenes. Here is a painter who put in an abundance of facts, right down to the cornice of a far away building. Though on close inspection, one can see that his love for the plasticity of marks and their expressive potential far surpass mimicry. His masterful insight was in how he orchestrated this plethora of information into a synthesized whole that transcends the particulars. Miraculously, while one may be wowed by his technique, you are never left thinking that the parts are unnecessary.

Giacometti, 1960

That is the key, understanding how to coalesce the whole from a synthesized matrix of well selected parts. This is where the magic is found and is no trivial task to create. Giacometti obsessively worked over and over a canvas striving for what he felt to be expressively essential in a portrait. The detail was in the synergistic gathering of attempts! Color was stripped to neutrality and marks cut and slashed hunting to find dynamic relationships that only he could feel the rightness of. That search for his emotional response to his subject created a timeless vision. Where is your attention when you paint? What information is essential and what is extemporaneous? What are you choosing to emphasize? What relationships add to the whole and which distract? That is the question of detail.  

1 Comment »

  1. Very nice and authentic article. You described the meaning of Detail in clearly manner. Your thought and ideas are nice.

    Comment by Alphabet Photography — May 30, 2012 @ 6:02 am

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