In life, in art, a major problem is failing to see the big picture. Individual parts may be just fine but the overall doesn’t get off the ground. Together with your individual sensitivity and your own vision, what you’re looking for is strength, pattern and character. We’re talking art here:
Go a long way back; I mean a long way — into the other room. Small room? — look at it through binoculars — backwards. Look at it in a mirror. Half close your eyes and look at it. Half close your eyes and work on it. If you’re working from a slide, throw the projector out of focus and find the compositional faults. If you’re working from a color photo, run it through a black-and-white photocopier and find the faults. If you’re working from your head, “swatch it” by holding pieces of toned paper here and there to see improvements. If you’re working on location, don’t let yourself be tyrannized by the scene. Keep asking, “What could be?”
If you’re working on location, look through the viewfinder of a camera without taking the picture. Don’t be shy about thumbnails, rough-rough-roughs, or sketches. Make your big mistakes in little ways that don’t count. Discover potential line-ups, rhythms, activations. Clarity grows with transformation. It’s easier to get the big picture in a little picture, so think of your big picture as a little picture and your big picture will fly.
PS: “The true function of art is to edit nature and so make it coherent. The artist is a sort of impassioned proofreader, blue pencilling the bad spelling of God.” (H. L. Mencken)
“The beholder’s eye, which moves like an animal grazing, follows paths prepared for it in the picture.” (Paul Klee)
Esoterica: Veteran and professional artists often report that preliminary sketching can undermine the desire to do the larger work. It’s safe to say for those who feel this, the sketch is sometimes done quite well in the head. Most artists will also admit that it was not always this way.
This letter was originally published as “The Big Picture” on May 4, 2001.
Featured Workshop: Judith M. Atkinson