Artists often agonize over the completion of a painting. The bugaboo for many realists is the detailing. Details are the crowning touches and yet, more often than not, they can rob the painting of its vitality. There are many great artists that manage to solve the “detail” problem. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is brimming with life and her famous smile is one of the most detailed details of any painting. I have viewed her close up and have seen how da Vinci has broken down the form of her lips into hundreds of tiny planes.So why is it that when other artists pay special attention to details, they do not come up the same results? I believe the answer lies in the swing of the big forms. In other words, details only work when they maintain the integrity of the big forms and their place in space.
Da Vinci, Mona Lisa
Stepping back and looking at the Mona Lisa as a whole, you can see that her head “sits” in the middle foreground, while her chest and hands rotate towards us, “locking into” the foreground.
Here you can get a sense of “leap-frogging” from her hand in the immediate foreground, to the corner of her breast, and then further back to her lips.If da Vinci had painted too strong of contrasts or gave too much, or too little, volume to her lips, he would have killed the lively dynamic of the swing of the forms through space.
There is no simple technique for placing objects in space. The contrast of light, dark, and color play a role, as well as high definition, perspective, and expanding the forms. All of these contribute to bringing objects forward. Transparency, less contrast, and blurring help make forms recede.
Rembrandt, Young Woman at the Window
Very similar in the setup as the Mona Lisa is this Rembrandt. Her head “sits” in the middle foreground and the corner of the breast comes forward.
If you look for it, you will see how Rembrandt is wrapping the figure in light; he is swinging the light current around, behind, and up front on her form.
Notice the meticulous detail of the leather cord and metal key around her neck.
The earring also has extremely fine detailing, yet it occupies space way behind that of the cord and key.
Picasso, Mother and Child
An interesting contrast to the above paintings is this Picasso. It is all form with very little detail. It is extremely deceptive in its simplicity. All the forms work in space as they do in the Rembrandt and da Vinci.
It only takes a little painting experience to discover that details are time exhaustive. Picasso opted to save time and sacrifice details.
If you are detail orientated, try to establish the big forms, like Picasso, has done above, and then embellish the forms with as much detail you like. Be careful not to flatten the form!
Beert, 1600, Still Life of Flowers
Here is a 16th/17th Century Flemish still-life. It is loaded with detail, but it is a flat painting. It is as if the flowers have been compressed and share a two-inch space of depth; as if the flowers have been painted from side to side, but not front to back. I would call this an example of indiscriminate detailing. The artist is not considering the interrelationship of the flowers’ positions nor their forms, hence, sacrificing the vitality of depth for superficial decoration.
The swing of forms through space excite eye movement and, for many observers, this creates an emotional response. Details that embellish and complete the forms bring with them an irresistible reality. Adding details to big forms is a tour de force of artistic skill.I hope you enjoyed seeing art in a fresh way.
New York, November 18th, 2006
Frame of References:
Newberry, Michael. Rhythm: A Beautiful Way to Organize Chaos.