The Superiority of Simplicity


Armand Cabrera
(Images from top to bottom
Emile Calsen, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Anders Zorn, Dennis Miller Bunker, Peder Severin Kroyer)

While I think everyone must follow their own voice and style, I prefer a broader handling of effect and I think this way of painting is superior to too much rendering. In my view the best realist and impressionist paintings are handled with a facile economy of effort. There is no effort towards trompe l’oeil finish; rather the effort is placed in leaving the appearance of a painting intact while simultaneously making it believable.

My old calculus teacher gave extra points to people who could solve their problems in fewer steps not more. His reason being the smaller equation was the more elegant solution to a problem as long as the answer was correct. I think the same applies to painting.

Paintings are meant to be viewed indoors at a reasonable distance. If you are putting in brushwork that effectively disappears at two feet from the canvas I would say you are over rendering the passages of your painting. Rendering takes time and many times the detail is an attempt to cover a weakness in drawing, color and tone. Design requires a point of view It is always easier to copy things as they are than it is to design. When good paintings do have detail it reflects the personality of the painter not a lack of good painting structure.

There is much talk about what is simplification in painting. I am not advocating for the slap dash approach where sensitivity and subtlety are thrown out for a sloppy artistic short hand. Those types of paintings may have interest to the artist painting them as studies but will never stand the test of time as art.

There is a broad area between the two extremes I just mentioned that allows for great personal expression and sensitivity to subject. It is the art of controlled simplification as a means of expression. It can contain alla prima painting but does not require single sitting impressions to be effective. Instead its power comes from acute observation and understanding of the character of the things depicted, edited for the most amount of emotional impact and delivered in the most economical way possible visually. This is the heart of all great painting.

16 thoughts on “The Superiority of Simplicity

  1. Great informative post. I am an amateur painter living in the hills and mountains of Western North Carolina. We have wonderful scenes to paint here. However, too often I paint leaves instead of trees.

    Also thanks for introducing me to Dennis Miller Bunker. I Goggled him and found an interesting thing. Many of his paintings have simple names like "Tree", "Old Hulks" or "Meadow Stream."

  2. Bravo, Strong points.
    Good examples for talking points also.
    Zorn…the guy has 4 colors on his palette and makes everything I do look ridiculus.
    What a master of every point you made.
    Great post.

  3. Loved the Homer and Kroyer pieces. Great examples of simple, direct handling. Zorn and Sargent were such masters of saying so much with so little, and there's a lot of deep understanding behind it. To pull that off, I think an artist needs to at least go through the experience of creating a patient finish.

    All that said, I must say I also love the jewel-like finish of a Vermeer, Gerome, Vibert, or Bouguereau, where the simplicity comes in the design and conception, not necessarily in the economy of touch.

  4. James,

    Maybe some day I’ll post my photo-realist phase from the eighties, yes we all need to start somewhere.
    I like the guys you mention too, although Vibert crosses the line for me in the amount of finish and detail he places to the edges of his paintings. His paintings are very beautiful though.
    I think paintings by Bouguereau are really quite simple as far as rendering details. His focus was on the figures and the skin tones so the backgrounds have less finish.
    I’ve always wondered what a strict landscape motif would look like from a Brunery, Ernst, or Vibert. Would it end up looking like a Monchablon, where you can see every blade of grass or something less finished?

  5. Great post Armand…I try to borrow the concepts of Occam's Razor when I paint. Visual art has to make a statement for me…if the statement is, "Oooh, look how I painted every leaf or blade of grass" it just isn't much of a statement.


  6. Jeff,
    I am the same way. I think once photography was accepted artists needed to push away from the detailed, rendered look of a camera to separate their art from photos. I still think there is quite a range for personal style from Bouguereau
    to Fechin without it looking photographic

  7. This is a great challenge. As an amateur, I am always struggling with detail and simplicity. Thanks for reminding me to walk the fine line and not stray into excess detail.

  8. Jeremy,

    I struggle with the same things. I think we all do as artists, no matter what our accomplishments are.
    One of the things I'd like to mention again is you have to follow your own voice. Every style has its pitfalls. Great artists are aware of them and constantly strive to improve their work.

  9. Excellent post & simply stated with a hint supiority 🙂 Seriously you write really well and I appreciate the job you have done in putting together this blog. Thanks Pete

  10. This is wonderful blog. I'm adding to my must reads (along with Gurney's and Kearns'). Thank you so much.

    Quick question, from a few posts back. That Harvey Dunn quote about edges, I was wondering about the origin of it. It doesn't seem to be from An Evening in the Classroom.


  11. Kev,

    The Harvey Dunn Quotes were given to me years ago by an art teacher, they've been passed around for 70 years. I assumed they were all from An Evening in the Classroom. Although I have copies of all the Dunn Books including 'Where the Heart is' and 'An Evening in the Classroom' I never pulled the quotes from the books myself. While it could be there I know The PDF version online is incomplete according to the person who transcribed it to digital.

  12. Hi, Armand. I have An Evening in the Classroom in the original. (Well, a xerox of the original, anyway.) And the pdf version I pulled from online was complete (aside from Dunn's woodcuts), with only a spelling mistake or two…

    I must have read through my xeroxes a hundred times over the years and I feel I nearly know the notes by heart at this point. Regardless, memory could fail, so I just did a word search through the pdf version for the Dunn quotes you've already posted. And they are not from An Evening in the Classroom. Most are quite similar to what's in Evening, and of a piece with Evening, but not the same. And the quote about simultaneous contrast is a principle not found elsewhere in the notes (If values contrast, make the color change subtle, if values are subtle, make the color contrast). So, either your notes are garbled versions of An Evening in the Classroom with some additions by persons unknown, or you have a different set of Dunn notes. Or they aren't Dunn notes at all. 🙂

    Regardless, its good stuff, and it sure sounds like Dunn, so if you feel like sharing what else is in your notes, you'd find one happy customer in me! 🙂


  13. Kev,

    I pulled my books out and some of the quotes are from 'Where the Heart is' The clever quote is from 'Classroom' There are many more quotes from his students books and I'll try and get some more up in the coming months

  14. I just discovered your blog via Facebook and am loving the content-it's just want I need to inspire me to keep growing as an artist. Thank you

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