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, Katharina Keoughan of Friendship, Maine 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?”
Thanks, Katharina. 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.
Getting command of the work
by Marsha Hamby Savage, Smyrna, GA, USA
Paucity, what a great word for me to start using! I have been using the word mystery when discussing what I need to do. Leave a little to the imagination of the viewer. Let them participate in the painting when they are looking. I usually put way too much information in my paintings. For the last few years I have been battling this “decorating” of my trees, or “counting all the rocks in a creek” as a wonderful teacher said to me. Simplification is difficult for me, but I am winning the fight little by little. I have learned to enjoy brushing out a section in my pastels, or wiping or scraping off something in my oils. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I do it, either! It really has become fun for me. It allows me to feel like I am in command of my work.
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Will it live on?
by Jan Cole, Northern Territory, Australia
I am so glad someone else queried “Paucity” as I immediately went to Google to check on the exact meaning. I thought about it a lot and I think it may go even further with regard to our appreciation of painting. Some paintings are very beautiful and quite accurate in their depiction of a scene, image, person etc. But will the painting live on? I often think, when I’m looking at someone else’s painting which I have become enamoured by, will I still like living with it (down the track), as we Northern Territory people say. Some paintings just live on… some others, while quite lovely, don’t.
Beating the ‘inner clutter demon’
by Theo Nelson, Alberta, Canada
The concept of paucity is a subconscious one with me. I love how simple lines can describe an image. While I don’t consider myself a painter, I certainly am a colourist. However, as my work gets larger, my inner clutter demon does like to get into the act. I guess I’m a whimsical fantasist.
Paucity or abundance?
by Kristine Fretheim, Maple Grove, MN, USA
So many artists talk about the importance of “simplifying” their work — I wonder if it’s a symptom of laziness or fear of drawing and painting? Did Rembrandt, DaVinci or Vermeer give too much information in their work? Or, my favorite, Caravaggio? Too many details? Unfortunately, mystery is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not something artists can control. Many people don’t have a clue about themselves and their world, so how can they have the capacity to appreciate art? We can’t expect every viewer to bring curiosity and a rich imagination to each piece of art, but that certainly does not mean we should “dumb down” our work. The masses may well simply want a pretty painting to hang over the couch — if that is your target audience then simplify, simplify, simplify! Turn on your inner art robot and churn out those simple, pretty paintings. (And make sure you use some red!) Those colorful, simple beauties may grab my eye for an instant, but they don’t hold my attention for long. I guess I’m just some goofy alien craving “more” to engage the imagination and intellect each time I come back to an artwork. Paucity is a wonderful word, but that, too, is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s paucity is another’s abundance. You wouldn’t tell someone to “simplify” their self. I think meaningful art instruction leads students to explore their inner worlds and express what they find. Paucity, mystery, abundance… why simplify the richness of our existence? If you feel overwhelmed — paint it!!!
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More is more
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Interestingly, these days I am on a quest of making the “overworked and over-busy” work to my benefit. I guess I enjoy difficult if not impossible challenges. Although I admire many simple and “less is more” paintings, in my present work I feel more excitement in planning very complex scenes with a variety of textures. It just makes me happy to do that kind of stuff right now. I am quite satisfied how some of those paintings work out and collectors like them too. My inspiration for this came a couple of years ago when I got floored by a painting by Franklin Carmichael that gave me incredible joy. I look at it very often and feel the same joy all over again, every single time. So I gave myself a task to put that kind of joy into my works. You see that paucity doesn’t work for me right now, but I think that mystery can be created in other ways as well. I think that Carmichael tells me a lot and at the same time he just gave me hints of what else there is to experience in a wild dance of shapes, values, patterns and colors. I find that very exciting. Currently my visual taste tolerates and even enjoys “more is more.”
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Every inch in loving detail
by Janet Summers-Tembeli, Samos, Greece
Other artists have often commented that I shouldn’t paint everything in the painting with detail and should leave only the main subject of the painting as the focal point. This is fine for a landscape where things get fuzzy in the distance but more often it just doesn’t work for me. I tend to paint what I love and my love of my subject commands me to paint every inch in loving detail. Throughout art history we are presented with paintings that are rich with detail and leave nothing unembellished. What would a Van Eych’s Arnolfini Portrait be without the lush detail in the mirror? Or Dali’s Swans reflecting Elephants? There are those of us who see every last minute thing in a work as equally important, so what to leave in or leave out to give a painting the presence of paucity really comes down to the artist’s personal vision and some of us just see more and naturally want to define our vision.
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Painting the cat out
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
One of my favorite paintings depicts a dilapidated old spring house which has since been torn down. The slightly-ajar red door of this little house filled with age and character held alluring mystery. A worn ladder led up to the door upon which I had painted an outstretched cat, reaching up with its paws to taunt a couple of Mourning doves in flight. Several of my devoted cat-adoring clients purchased giclees of this painting, however the large original was rejected from 3 successive exhibitions. It finally became apparent to me that the cat was acting out a drama that was already inherent in the simple beauty of the spring house. I had allowed my own sorrow to enter the work… my cat, Jazzy, age 21, had died just before starting this painting! The “principle of paucity” became clear! I painted-out the cat deliberately and with confidence, leaving only the doves in soft-fluttering motion at the door. The “deed was done”! The painting (and I) were finally released from the emotional ties that were simply “stealing the show”! Jazzy remained where she best belonged… fresh in my memory.
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Paucity in writing
by Raymond Brulotte, Quebec City, QC, Canada
You are right to say that what is true for painting is also true for writing. The process of writing lies in 3 steps: (1) planning; (2) writing; (3) re-writing. The third phase is probably the most demanding, technically and subjectively, and lasts as long as the preceding. It essentially aims to reduce the length of the text, to allow a priority to the reader instead of the writer. It is achieved through the simplification of sentences, by the suppression of unclear words and useless phrases, and by the acute selection of relevant facts and ideas, and no more.
The beauty of any text lies greatly in its brevity and its precision. In that matter, the less is the best. Any strategy to diminish the number of pages and the length of paragraphs is a winning process.
I have been a university professor and for a long time my nickname, among my assistants, was Mr. Scissor. They were all sad and shocked when I discarded long pieces of their works, but at the end of the day some of them were able to appreciate all that had escaped the trash box. I am convinced that too many words often serve to cover a scarcity of ideas.
The ubiquitous red canoe
by Bob Snider, Little Rock, AR, USA
Thanks for forming a community of artists to give us a chance to listen, speak and share progress. I wonder how many thousands of Red Canoes are out there in our world? Attached is one of mine on the Mulberry River in Arkansas.
How to paucitivize
by Peter Fox, BC, Canada
Paucity! What a stinging blow! “Telling everything…” Ouch! “Overwork, overstate, over-busy” Help! So back at the drawing board looking at Mark tooting on his bass horn, thinking how can one paucitivize on this overstated, over-busy and definitely overworked piece? Well, Robert, how can one?
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. And thanks to everyone who sent pictures of canoes, horns, faces, farms, barns, etc. — some of them overworked. If you keep on rendering, detail by detail, you will end up with a similar effect to a photo — perhaps not as good as the photo or photos you are working from. Small stylistic flourishes, flicks, spots and gradations do help to relieve the photographic monotony, but you are still stuck in the genre of photography. Painters should give thought to being into something other than verisimilitude — they need to think about more directly conveying feelings as seen through the lens of a personal perspective. “Absence of,” like the unfinished area at the bottom of your painting, helps the viewer to understand that this is something from the hand of man, and gives your work a pleasant touch of paucity.
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Sometimes less is paradise
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
The canoes happen to be blue and green… Any canoe will do for me as colour is not a big issue. My latest carbon fibre canoe is burgundy and is named “Margaritaville” which happens to be the same as the green kevlar canoe in the painting… Less is more and sometimes less is “paradise” which happens to be the name of my favourite painting. Painting number 0523 (I record everything which is my scientific brain taking control) came together on a Sunday afternoon in 2001. It was probably the best afternoon of my painting career and I will forever try to reproduce that magic — for me if for no one else. It is always nice if someone else gets the point but for now, if someone understands, that is enough. Afterall, less is more… I am currently on 1150 and still trying to match 0523… that is why I continue to paint…
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Enjoy the past comments below for Notes on paucity…
acrylic painting, 18 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Nonny Kordelia of NC, USA, who wrote, “You’re going to drive some nice collector nuts searching for that Red Canoe. I do love Joe Blodgett. Can I borrow him sometime?”
And also Steve Day of Blandon, PA, USA, who wrote, “Knowing when to stop is just as important as deciding where to start. We all need our Joe Blodgetts.”