This post is all about how to paint the illusion of detail. That is, how can we trick the eye into thinking there's more going on than what's actually there.
First, let's go over what exactly the illusion of detail means and why it's important.
A common problem for aspiring artists is getting caught up in the details. They try to paint every leaf, branch, blade of grass, highlight, shadow, line, or shape. This ends up being overwhelming, not only for the artist but also for the viewers of the cluttered painting. Albert Pinkham Ryder sums it up nicely:
"The artist should fear to become the slave of detail… they should strive to express their thought and not the surface of it. What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?" Albert Pinkham Ryder
The illusion of detail combats this problem. It involves distilling all the "noise" and information down into the most basic elements, then painting those elements. It's about getting more done with less. The Russian Impressionists do it well. I'm always amazed at how much information they can convey with a single stroke of their brush.
It's a fun way to paint, but it's not easy. Copying the subject is easy. Simplifying the subject and painting with fewer strokes is hard.
The rest of this post will focus on specific techniques for painting the illusion of detail. Keep in mind, the first step happens in your head. You need to simplify the "noise". If you need help in this area, I have more details in my Painting Academy course.
It's amazing how all the pieces fall into place when you put the right colors in the right spots (I think Richard Schmid said something along these lines in one of his demonstrations). This alone can make it appear like there's more going on than what's actually there. The imagination ends up doing much of the work for you.
Take John Singer Sargent's pleasant watercolor below. It's a simple painting. A few dark shapes, light shapes, and thin washes of color. But there's no mistaking it's a landscape. Sargent didn't need to paint the blades of grass, rocks, insects, leaves, or plants. Our imagination can take care of those details.
Sir Arthur Streeton also comes to mind. His work is relaxed and effortless, as if he painted without a single hesitation. Yet it's realistic. It puts you right there in the dry Australian landscape. It all comes down to his remarkable use of the fundamentals—value, color, line, shape. This allowed him to be more relaxed with his brushwork and detail.
A good test to see if your fundamentals are accurate is a thumbnail test. Look at a thumbnail image of the painting on your computer or phone. Does it look realistic? If not, the fundamentals might be off.
I'll show you what I mean. Below are thumbnails of three paintings. Notice how realistic they appear, despite us being unable to see any of the details up close. This suggests the fundamentals are on point.
The paintings are Claude Monet's Camille Monet on a Bench in the Garden, Ivan Shishkin's Oaks, and a landscape by Isaac Levitan (not sure on the name).
Feature details are small bursts of clarity, activity, and detail. A prominent rose in a bed of flowers, a deep contour of the water, an interesting pattern of dappled light, the subject's eyes in a portrait. They focus your attention, and in doing so, draw attention away from other areas. This allows you to simplify the other areas without compromising the quality of realism.
This mimics the way we see the world. When we focus on something, the surroundings blur and soften. You can try it now. Focus on something in front of you. What do the surrounding objects look like? Probably nothing but vague color shapes.
The thing about painting is, you get to decide what is in focus (and what is not). You control where the viewers should look.
I'm going to use Streeton again as an example. He often made clever use of feature details to direct your attention to important areas, allowing him to simplify the surroundings.
Below are photos of his Cremorne Pastoral I took at the New South Wales Art Gallery. Look at the grassy area in particular. Those intricate plants and flowers focus your attention. The rest is nothing more than simple colors and brushwork.
In the pointillist work below by Jan Toorop, look at the sky and sea. It's nothing but light blue dots, a faint horizon line, and waves breaking at the shore. Those waves focus your attention and give context to the surrounding sky and sea. (If they are waves, then that must be the sea, and that must be the horizon line, and that must be the sky above.) Instead of painting every detail in the sky and sea, Toorop got the job done with just a few waves.
This one is similar to feature details, but instead of using intricate detail to focus attention, simply use bursts of color, light, or dark accents. The Impressionists did this all the time. A small burst of yellow to depict a flow in a landscape. A dab of bright green for sun-lit leaves. A multicolored stroke of white, yellow, and orange for dappled light on the ground. These are simple details, often painted with a single dab of the brush. Yet they command attention and can make or break a painting.
Below is a painting by Konstantin Korovin. It's a gloomy landscape. There's a burst of color and light in the foreground. Dabs of red, yellow, and green suggest sun-lit plants and flowers. There's also a burst of light in the sky just above the horizon line. These areas focus your attention and draw you through the painting.
In Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise, the burst of orange light and a few dark accents focus your attention. You might not notice how simple the rest of the painting is.
Here's another example by Monet, The Poppy Field. It's a simple landscape, with the scattered red poppies and dark accents commanding your attention.
The palette knife has been my favorite tool lately. It's perfect for scraping, scratching, impasto, multicolored strokes, and clean colors. All these techniques inject life into the painting without having to do much tedious work.
It's a challenging tool to use effectively. Poorly done palette knife work can look careless and brash. The best palette knife painters weave a sense of dexterity and sophistication amongst the bold strokes. Tibor Nagy is a great example.
Below are a few of my recent works painted with mostly palette knives, starting with Dramatic Sunrise, Caloundra. Palette knives allowed me to capture the sunrise's drama and broken color without laboring over every detail.
The more subtle counterpart below was a mix of brush and palette knife work. They worked well together. Brushes captured the subtle color transitions; palette knives captured the bursts of light and their reflections.
In Sierra Nevada (below) I used palette knives for crisp color transitions and impasto texture. The paint for the bushes at the bottom is particularly thick, suggesting closeness and depth.
Tip: Many readers struggle with the idea of atmospheric perspective. A simple tip is to start with thick texture, rich colors, and hard edges then gradually smooth, mute, and soften everything as it recedes.
Broken color is perfect for nature. Open skies, mountains, clouds, fog, water, crashing waves. It allows you to distill all the information into a vibration of color on the canvas, without needing to paint every little detail. It also mimics nature's untamed qualities.
Below is Joaquín Sorolla's Elena Among the Roses. Look at the luscious broken color. Effortless realism.
Below is a more subtle example of broken color by Adolphe Joseph Thomas. Notice all the different yellow, blue, and gray tones. Broken color gives a sense of variance and depth, without compromising the structure and forms.
Lines are powerful. They focus and direct our attention. Our eyes like to follow them. A simple outline can transform shapes and colors into something much more.
Take the painting below by Johan Antonie de Jonge. What would it look like without the linework? Not much more than faint colors and shapes. The lines inject life and meaning into the painting. They transform the colors into people, boats, and movement.
Childe Hassam's Peach Blossoms—Villiers-le-Bel features an interesting contrast between simple color shapes and intricate linework. The feature tree and its branches focus your attention, particularly with the subtle background. They also give context to the rest of the painting. They transform dabs of green and off-white into leaves and flowers.
- Painting the illusion of detail is about tricking the eye into thinking there's more going on than what's actually there.
- The first step to painting the illusion of detail: get everything else right first. Put the right colors in the right spots. Use the thumbnail test to see if your fundamentals are on point.
- Use feature details or bursts of color to focus attention on key areas and away from simplified areas. Check out Sir Arthur Streeton's work for examples.
- The palette knife is perfect for capturing the illusion of detail. Scraping, scratching, impasto, multicolored strokes, clean colors. All these techniques inject life into the painting without having to do much tedious work.
- Broken color is perfect for nature. Open skies, mountains, clouds, fog, water, crashing waves. It distills all the information into a vibration of color.
- Lines are powerful. Use them to transform simple colors and shapes into something much more.
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.
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