Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

© Margot Schulzke 2003

Master teacher Robert Henri wrote, “Never change the course of a line until you have to.Never change the plane of a form until you have to. Never change the tone of a color or from one color to another before you have to. If you follow these conjunctions intelligently you will practice that great economy which is necessary to expression in your medium. Every change will count, and count strong. There must be no quibbling. Where you hesitate or are uncertain, (the viewer) hesitates or is uncertain. If you are a quibbler or a flounderer, and not direct in your purpose, he turns his back on your work unless he is, himself, like you, happier in floundering.”

Hear, hear! Who wants to be a quibbler or, gasp, a flounderer? That paragraph speaks volumes. The expression “an economy of means” summarizes Henri’s instructions. Followed with sensitivity and understanding, his advice will allow artists to produce work that is powerful, profound, and convincing.

Eliminate unnecessary details. A college professor of mine, all too many years ago, informed us there were only three words we needed to know to create great art. They were: “simplify, simplify, and simplify.” Of course he oversimplified the case to make a point. But the lesson was well given—and should be well learned.

Quoting Henri again: “It is useless to keep adding things to a canvas. Some painters put thousands of big and little features into a face, colors and more colors. All day long they keep adding more and more. They are like whales in a sea with their mouths wide open swallowing everything that comes along. Much can be done with little.”

Painting that results from applying his advice will be the antithesis of so-called “decorative art”, an unintentionally demeaning term. It is incorrectly used when applied to fine painting. The image suggested is of frou-frou and ruffles, of an excess of charming detail; Thomas Kincaid comes to mind. We see many such works, in which the alleged artist bounces here and there, without clear purpose, without conviction, without solidity of form, and without focus. While such works may be loosely categorized as “art”, they are not fine. With his usual incisive and profound understanding, Henri urges the artist to “get rid of clutter. . . The little forms subtract more than they add.”

The primary purpose of fine art is not decoration. It is a revelation of soul, a reaching for expressible or inexpressible truths. The depth of purpose of any given artist, or lack of it, is often painfully obvious. Or it may be, on the other hand, exquisite and delightful to see. Ten or twelve years ago, I became acquainted with the fine work of a woman who, sadly, is no longer painting due to some personal circumstances. I was taken by her work. I was intrigued to analyze what it was that had so captured my imagination.

What I found was a simplicity of statement and an integrity of form that was quite oriental in its quality. It was reminiscent of Whistler, but with livelier color. The paintings expressed her character in ways she never intended. She had reached into the depths of her soul to convey what she loved, and had done so unaffectedly. Unnecessary detail was not allowed to dilute the message.

Our question should always be “what is essential?” What can we leave out, and still convey the idea. Details in painting equate to adjectives in language. Any writer knows that unnecessary adjectives weaken the statement. Writers are reluctant to use the words “very” and “really”, as they are overused and say little. So it is with extraneous detail in painting.

Whatever can be eliminated to create those lovely, evocative “blank” spaces, should be. “Realize the dignity of space.” Just as the eye looks for relief from bright light or brilliant color, so it looks for relief from busyness and clutter. The “yin and yang” of art revolve around such contrasts.

Henri cautions, “There are many who make near masterpieces, near complete statements. That final bringing of things together, accentuation of the necessary, and elimination of the unnecessary, requires a force of concentration that few are capable of attaining. It’s the last, final spurt of energy—the climax of what has gone before. The majority fail at this point. Those who become masters do not.” However, I submit, and I imagine Henri would agree, that simplification must begin before the painting does. As we consider, plan, design, we begin the process of elimination, whether painting in the studio or out of doors. As an active consideration, it continues throughout the entire painting process.

An economy of line is one of the objectives Henri lists above. That is: never use a curved line where a straight line will do. Knowledgeable artists often “square off” curves and circles, expressing the edge instead with a series of short, straight lines. The effect is more powerful and more urgent than an indolent curving line could be. A long, straight line not only expresses movement, it also reveals a directness and an authority that a wavering line cannot convey.

“Never change the plane of a form until you have to.” Like a curved line, a curved shape has continuously changing planes and directions combined within it. A series of short, straight strokes to suggest the curving plane may have more interest.

This principle has some application to various kinds of planes, including foreground, middle ground and background planes. Simplification of planes is nearly as important as simplification of values, which is extremely important. So I would add to Henri’s advice: never change values until you have to. Simplifying, or unifying, values is an absolute essential to integrity of form. Keeping values consistent within a shadow or light plane holds the form together. Limiting the number of values in a work of art to three, plus light and dark accents at the completion of the work, is a solid rule of thumb. Think in terms of light planes and shadow planes, plus half tones, and adjust values within those planes to make them consistent with one of those three roles. Any break in value within the form must be compositionally justified, not depicted “just because it is there”.

Henri suggests gauging the value of the shadow while looking at the light Shadows become lighter and more translucent as we focus on them, but he recommends going the other direction, á la Rembrandt, to retain the richness and depth of shadow forms. “ . . . Keep your eye focused on the lights or on the expression, never on the shadows or on the background. Better have the shadows black and simple than weak.”

A single focal point is imperative as well. David Leffel recommends creating “a focal point in your paintings by using one strong color against pieces of colorlessness.” In other words, one way to accomplish it is by simplifying color. Leffel warns, “Beware of focusing (on) all parts of a painting with the same degree of clarity and delineation. Instead, emphasize one element—create a focal point—and de-emphasize the other elements.”

Simplify shapes. Not just positive shapes but the negative, “background” shapes that sit behind or between them. A tree and the shadow it casts are best regarded as one continuous shape. A cluster of grapes is first of all, a cluster. The hair on the model’s head, the foliage on the tree, the brick wall: all of these are first a mass, a unified shape, and then their nature must be suggested by delineating a few hairs, a few bricks, a few grapes. Don’t weaken the mass with an excess of detail.

We will give Henri the last, pithy word: “To paint is to know how to put nothing on a canvas, and have it look like something when you stand back.”

It may be that we are halfway there. ##

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, 203-204
Ibid., 153
Ibid., 204
Ibid., 254
Ibid., 257
Linda Catteura, Oil Painting Secrets from a Master, 74
Ibid., 122


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