Sunday, September 18, 2016

On Leaving Stuff Out

Charles Lasar, Hillside in Summer
Charles (Shorty) Lasar (1856-1936) was an American painter who studied in Paris. He urged his students to leave out unnecessary detail in a painting. He said:

"Don’t try to put in a tenth of what you see, it is the continually leaving out that makes things charming."

"Mystery is caused by leaving out, but don’t leave out the big interest."

"If you put in too many accessories the interest will have no chance."

"When things are not interesting lose them."

"In a scene you will always have one part to your liking; neglect the rest for that favorite spot."

"When you are before nature give way forcibly to your big convictions. Put in what you feel the most, and not all the ab solute details that you see. You can’t put all the hairs on a cat, or the whiskers on the wheat."
From Practical Hints for Art Students by Charles Lasar, 1910. (Free edition on Google Books)
Previously: Charles Lasar on Posing a Model


GJ said...

Yes, he's full of brilliant and often inspiring insights, but he is also a bit of a wacko, wouldn't you agree? An example [of a possible many]—he says don't trouble about the middle ground. Oh no! we should wrestle with it. What he really means is, I suspect, Don't agonize. He's one of those fellows [and is probably like most of us in this respect] who is helpful only when one already has something of a clue as to what he is getting at. GJ

Steve said...

This instruction reminds me of the famous guidance in Strunk and White's manual on writing, the Elements of Style, Rule #17:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

"...every word tell" could be "...every brushstroke count."

Tom Hart said...

I agree that the principle of leaving things out is important to keep in mind. But of course, like so much in art, the artist and the viewer may well disagree on what is "necessary", since judgment, taste - and even cultural norms - come into play.

Paul Sullivan said...

Lasar's statements certainly have the ring of wisdom to them. They are the sort of truisms that are hard to disagree with. However, Tom Hart makes some very good points.

I can't help but wonder if Lasar would make his "hairs on a cat" statement to Albert Durer—or his "whiskers on the wheat" remark to Andrew Wyeth. It is difficult to speak in generalities when addressing personal expression. Regardless, I enjoy reading his remarks and have to agree with many of them.

Paul Sullivan said...

I love wise remarks like Lasar hands out. They always sound like they make sense the first time you read them. And they are always made by one of two kinds of people—either by those who who believe the world is black and white, with no shades of gray, or by those who think the world is all shades of gray with no black or white. In actuality, the world consists of black, white and a myriad of shades of gray. The artists task is to present an interpretation of the world using those elements of black, white and gray that he alone can see.

Keith Patton said...

I can see what you mean with Durer, but that was very early on in oil painting's life, when people still did laborious tiny panel paintings. It didn't take long for artists to learn about viewing distance and giving the impression of detail without actually painting it.

You mention Andrew Wyeth as being a detailed painter. But put a Wyeth next to a hi-res photo, and you'll see much of his "detail" is really suggested, not painted. Joseph Mcgurl does the same thing in his landscapes.

Look at Vermeer, Frederic Church, etc from a distance and they look detailed. Get up close and you see a suggestion of detail without literally painting every detail you see.

I'm not saying every single great artist of the past didn't paint overly specific details, but certainly the vast majority of great painters of the past painted very economically, even if they LOOK very detailed. I've seen this written about in lots of old books, and it seemed to be commonly accepted. I think thhat the influence of photography today makes people often think "more detail=better," but this wasn't the case before.

Roberto said...

Simplify, simplify, simplify. -RQ

blake williams said...
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ringsofmaturity said...

This is one of the most interesting posts ive read to date. With today's world living in technology, we constantly hear "more detail, more detail, more realistic". So we naturally apply that to everything else, even art. But you are right, the less detail you add, the more the mind is alowed to wander and create their own meaning of the art.

James Gurney said...

All these comments have stimulated my thinking about this subject. My takeaway from Mr. Lasar and the Group Mind of GJ is that leaving stuff out doesn't necessarily mean a blurry or empty image. An image can be full of detail and visual information as long as it adds to the interest of the central idea. A good example of this "ornate simplicity" might be Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights or Norman Rockwell's April Fool's covers. Rockwell himself was ruthless about leaving stuff out if it takes away from the story. So whether an image is visually simple or complex and detailed, it should put forward a strong, unified premise.