I was putting the title The Red Canoe on the back of a painting when my friend Joe Blodgett walked in and said, “Nice painting, too bad about the red canoe.”
After a couple of single malts I was looking at the painting through Joe’s eyes. I was pleasant enough when I urged him to go down to the smokehouse to get our smoked salmon, and while he was gone I took off the final varnish and hauled that canoe out of my picture.
Yesterday, a subscriber wrote, “In your last letter you mentioned ‘the principle of paucity.’ What is paucity, and why is it good to have in one’s work?”
Paucity means “the presence of something in small or insufficient quantities or amounts; scarcity.” In our game, it’s one of the main principles. Apart from “His criticism shows a paucity of tact,” or “His resistance to Scotch shows a great deal of paucity,” most significant is the presence of paucity in our work.
“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything,” said Voltaire, and he wasn’t talking about his girlfriend, Emilie du Chatelet. A painting with paucity is one that tells you just enough to arouse your interest — perhaps leading to another excellent word — mystery. Unless the viewer is an engineer, give him too much info and he will yawn and go over to the wine and cheese. In some paintings it’s best to have viewers launch their own canoes.
Overwork, overstate and over-busy are three of the top boo-boos. We come by them honestly — from our innate human desire to give more. Sometimes it takes another person’s eyes to see there’s too much going on. Sometimes it’s painful to remove stuff. But art very often needs lines that disappear, it needs subjects that are suggested rather than told, it needs incomplete areas so viewers can complete for themselves. Our work does not have to be a seamless stream of cleverness.
The same is true in writing. Passages are almost always better when cut back. Writing is rewriting.
We eventually shipped my non-canoe painting. Through the magic of acrylic covering power, nobody knows what’s under there. Somewhere out in the Diaspora there’s a canoeless scene called The Red Canoe.
Esoterica: One of Canada’s top cartoonists, Anthony Jenkins, contributes regular caricatures to our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. In that business, getting a likeness by using only a few brief lines separates the Michelangelos from the Muggses. Jenkins’s frequent touch is to leave out an eye. Yep, he leaves a space where an eye might be. Enough already. Too many strokes and you lose it.
This letter was originally published as “Notes on paucity” on September 2, 2011.
“The simplest things are often the truest.” (Richard Bach)