Sunday, April 26, 2009

Theory of Sacrifices

One idea at the core of nineteenth century painting is known as the Theory of Sacrifices. A poetic quality, it was believed, comes from the sacrifice of needless detail.

As one writer put it: “Nature instills sentiments in the spectator through the selective sacrifice of details in order to improve the overall effect.”

Jules Breton said: “Painters without experience often weaken the effect they wish to produce by a prodigality which multiplies uselessly the figures and accessories of a picture. It will not be long before they learn that, the greater the conciseness and simplicity with which a thought is interpreted, the more it gains in expressive force.”

Image: "Song of the Lark" by Jules Breton.


Steve said...

James, once again a timely post for which I am grateful. I'm finishing a magazine cover today, a portrait of someone in their office. I love detail, so there's always the temptation to add just a few more "identifying items" to this piece; objects that reinforce the identity of the person portrayed. A few such items do real work. Beyond's good to be reminded that "reinforcement" can ultimately undermine the primary image.

Gregory Becker said...

That's an interesting principle.
I wonder if that's why when I do a drawing in five minutes vs five hours, the five minute one looks stronger.
Thanks for the post. I'm going to pay attention to that when I'm working on something.

Christine Walker said...

What strikes me is that the prose was so dense, totally the opposite of what he was saying.

Everett Patterson said...

I've been thinking recently how the sacrifice of detail applies to comics and "sequential art." A lot of background detail is great for establishing the character of a setting, but after a few evocative panels, many cartoonists see fit to reduce the background detail and focus on the action and the characters - that is until another setting is established, when they crank up the detail again. I think this approach works well, not least of all because it mirrors the way we perceive our actual surroundings: after surveying the features of a room (or whatever), we tune it out and focus on what's going on in that room.

All of this, however, is in the aid of clarity, not for the purpose of striving for some "poetic quality."

Oscar Baechler said...

Try doing the squint test on that painting. It's seriously only two colors!

r8r said...

- or, to put it another way, if a picture isn't any good stated simply, it won't be improved by adding more stuff.

James Gurney said...

These are all great comments. Everett, what you say is so true. When you add the element of time in comics or movies, we really do love detail to establish a setting. Someone like Carl Barks then knew how to really strip it the storytelling down to the essentials. It really does correspond to the way we "read" a room when we first enter and then tune out all the extraneous stuff when we get into a conversation.

Terry Daniels said...

Could this be paraphrased as the old "Less is more", or expressed as one command - "Simplify!" ?

(I love the example painting.)

When I did comics I was always fighting the detail issue; when to scumble in a background, when to draw it out in detail, and when to just leave it out entirely... Trying to tell a story with the absolute minimum ink really puts your decision making to the test.

I was chatting about this with my roommate the other day after running up against some value vs. hue issues with the flower I was painting, and I remember telling her that the best way to avoid difficulty was to not paint difficult, noodly things in the first place. :) Kinda like Mr. Miyagi's "First Rule of Self-Defense: No Be There!"

First Rule of Simple Painting - Don't Paint Hard Stuff!

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Carol said...

"The Song of the Lark", I first saw this painting almost forty years ago at the Chicago Institute of Art. It is an impression never to be forgotten.

Unknown said...

Is this not what impressionism is at its core?

Leave out extraneous detail in order to clarify the idea.