These days I’ve been rededicating myself to less overworking and more understatement. In other words, trying to leave my work fresher, even at the expense of being incomplete. I believe it’s an idea that a lot of us could profit by.
We all know the danger of keeping on going — adding detail or complexity when the idea we started out with is well enough expressed without the fiddling. In our innate human desire for perfection we can forget the hand of the artist, even the struggling hand, and the poetic justice of paucity. These elements have value for the second half of the creative partnership — the eyes of the viewer.
Here in Japan it’s the principle of “Mujo” (moo-joh). It stems from the ancient Zen concept of transience and uncertainty. A related Japanese word is Mikansei (me-kahn-say-ee) which means “the state of being incomplete.” In many ways, the western convention of abstract art fills this bill. In abstraction, you can’t always tell exactly what it is you are looking at, and there lies its charm. Mystery builds viewer interest.
The Japanese are not always prepared to go that far. The suggestion of a waterfall or a few cursory brushstrokes indicating a tree or a flower may suffice to communicate a motif.
Here’s how to put Mujo to work for yourself: Before starting in with the “busyness” of working, stop to think of the simplest and freshest way a passage might be conceived and executed. Very often a move up to a larger brush, together with a careful mixing of the desired colour, and an elegant, well-contemplated stroke or two can carry the day. Leaving a little primer showing through, or a slight error, a slub or a bump — so what. Even an inadvertent dribble-down or an indecisive painterly scrabble gives life where dullness might otherwise prevail.
We sometimes hear the argument that this sort of incompleteness or roughness only appeals to other artists. I don’t think so. I find our world to be loaded and cocked with creator wannabees. We artists represent the last bastion of the hand of man. For others to see art in its freshness, failings and incompleteness may be the greater part of our winning hand.
PS: “The power of the mujo principle lies in quietly, serenely letting the viewer participate in the representation.” (Boye Lafayette De Mente, from his excellent overview “Elements of Japanese Design”)
Esoterica: Today I attended a show that included traditional flower arrangement (ikebana). Unlike the western burst of saturated colour and riots of variety — the whole garden in your face — Japanese floral designs tend to be sparse, subtle and simple. A single, tall orchid of an incredible, delicate colour set off by a few dry sticks that twist and struggle alongside, all set, off center, in a delicate and unobtrusive earthen vase. Such is the nature of understatement — an opportunity for the viewer to slow down, take part in, and love.
Having fun produces best work
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
I thought that “Mujo” was just a line from the crazy Austin Powers spy movies but it rings true! “Leaving things incomplete” is another truism that ties into the powerful art of Tom Thomson and working en plein air. Mario Airomi, my art instructor and friend who escaped Italy before Mussolini always said, “Pheeel, use a bigger brush” … “Pheel, don’t count the folds in the accordion.” Robert, Mario and Austin are all right. My best art always seem to come when I am out of control, reacting to the inspiration using a brush ten times larger than the smallest detail included. Accidental strokes of magic are best left alone. Overworking the oil is not an option as the mosquitoes and deer flies close in. Plein air fosters my best art and the goal is always to make the next work better than the last — even if that means leaving it unfinished. Rocking, my 1118th painting is an example of an unfinished sketch but it still works. I have a scientific side of my personality that compels me to record, organize and complete Grey Owl, my 1115th work shows that side. Maybe it is OK to have a split artistic personality but in truth, the fun stuff is rough and incomplete — and artists “just wanna have fun…”
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Vignettes sometimes viewed as incomplete
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
While reading your letter, and seeing the term “incomplete” I immediately heard the word “vignette.” Vignette is a term used in optics where the true full field view of a lens is reduced in some manner, usually due to the optical mounting or other physical interference. I worked as a mechanical designer for optics and we spoke of this vignette many times. I couldn’t mount the glass lenses to allow the full field so we would force the vignette situation. Norman Rockwell was a vignette painter more than most and I always liked looking at his work but now have a better understanding of it. I was introduced to the term again in a workshop with Tony Couch and at the time I was not aware it was related to art. Tony also has some basic rules to follow in constructing the vignette; the vignette image lies on white paper. There is very little value change within the image. The outer edges of the image should be 80% rough, 20% soft (the exception being hard edged objects and water reflections.) Have at least three run-offs with no two the same width as they leave the page and they must run off offset from each other. The run-offs result in 3-4 white corners of the paper, which must all be of a different size. Part of the overall image should join one of the white shapes which is not visually obvious but ties the entire sheet together. Tony says these paintings provide sparkle and entertainment. However, many see them as “incomplete” and wonder when we will finish them. Not too often do they get entered into juried shows just for the fact that they are seen as unfinished. Seashore Vignette was done as a demo painting for a group in about 1.5 hours on a 1/2 sheet. Any painting can be converted into a vignette. It’s quite easy.
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A good painting shows skill not overkill
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
My more refined studio work outsells my rough plein air work by about 80%. My patrons much prefer a more refined painting. It seems to me that there is a definite trend among artists for rough, sloppy work. It is all the rage now among landscape painters. The more a painting looks incomplete, the more accolades it gets from other artists. However, my own collectors are disconnected to that look in paintings. To me a good painting has everything, from rough loose brushwork to detail and refinement in the area of interest. I like to see a painting that shows me the artist has skill but not overkill.
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Emotional not mechanical editing
by Michael Fenton, New Jersey, USA
In many ways art is analogous to music. I believe that classical painting and music are the bed rock of the genre. As one moves toward jazz or abstraction one experiments with art. All great musicians must feel their art just as an artist must feel the work. Anyone can play notes or paint pretty pictures. A truly great jazz musician must feel the music and to be a great abstract artist one must be emotionally tied to the work. When an artist leaves out or adds in notes, it needs to be done with emotion, from a place of feeling not from a place of mechanics or technique. The Japanese style of doing more with less is rooted in a culture that understands simplicity at a level Europeans and Americans usually do not. We can learn much from their techniques but until we can feel the music we will never be anything more than imitators.
Fear of spontaneity lost
by Shirley Peters, Putney, NSW, Australia
Your reminder is very timely as I have three canvases ‘sketched’ in and ready to paint. I love the original loose shapes and tones but after I have applied layers of oil paint I fear that spontaneity will be lost. We used to have a saying at art school: it takes two people to paint a picture… one to do the painting and one to hit the painter on the head when it’s finished. So, in theory, I know I should show restraint and now that you have reminded me I will make an honest effort to keep these loose.
Questioning signals time to stop
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada
When using watercolour medium or a drawing medium such as pastel I find it easier to leave parts incomplete or undefined than when painting in oils or acrylics. If I repeatedly stop while painting and question what should I add, this is often a signal that it is time to stop and sign the work.
Omission encourages participation
by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA
“Less is more” is a principle I know but don’t always follow. I refer to the kind of art you mention as “interactive art.” It allows the viewer to participate often garnering an “Ah ha” response by offering its viewer a visual riddle. It took me ten years to earn four certificates from the Sogetsu School of Ikebana in Japan. A dried flower or broken twigs are imperfections we Westerners might exclude from our concept of beauty. Similar to abstract painting, it was interesting fact that we students were required to first learn the basics of Ikebana before going on to “freestyle” arrangement. Also similar to contemporary art or accurate drawing of any kind the negative space in an Ikebana arrangement is just as important as the positive. Much can be learned from its practice. I also studied Sumi-e, not so I could become a practitioner of Asian brush painting but so I could incorporate masterful strokes in my watercolors. This has had a great influence on my alla prima watercolors.
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Distilling the information
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
I have been working along this line for some time but I don’t think incomplete is the correct word. For me, it is more the idea of distilling all the information down to the necessary parts. When in doubt, we put it all in because it is easier than figuring out what we can leave out. I am very influenced by Japanese Haiku. I think that is the best example. One could write a lengthy discourse on the interpretation of a Haiku poem and fill in all the details, but when the thought is distilled into a breath of syllables there is a perfect distillation of a poignant memory. That is what I am trying to achieve in my paintings by leaving out all the distracting superfluous details.
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Training the eye for order and design
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
It seems to me there is one basic guiding principle to completeness in painting — its visual order or design. If a painting works visually, an under-painting can be a complete image. A great painting always looks complete and whole and fresh regardless of how much or how little paint there is on the canvas. If you purposefully try to ‘leave a little primer showing,’ or a leave ‘slight error,’ or a ‘dribble-down’ you will most likely create a contrivance. A good example of ‘leaving things incomplete’ that works is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin de la Galette, 1889, at the Art Institute of Chicago. The question is, “How do you develop the sense for completeness in painting?” Besides studying the visual design of great works of art, one of the best ways to training the eye is to daily look at and study the appearance of our everyday visual world.
Painting worked to death
by Tina Bohlman, Waxahachie, TX, USA
Today I worked a painting literally to death; it’s now in the trash can. I couldn’t stop myself from making “just one more stroke” then following up with another to correct the stroke before and on and on and on I went. Was it you who said, “More paint isn’t going to make it any better”? Tomorrow is another day and a new resolve to “leave it incomplete.” Now where is that little egg-timer?
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Less is more
by Elsie Kilguss, Wickford, RI, USA
The incompleteness of things appeals to the creative spirit and imagination and coincides with the mantra we had at art school so many years ago — less is more. It has only taken me half a lifetime to really understand how little is absolutely necessary to express the exact line of a rooftop or the exact color of the sun’s glint on a wave crest or the shadow shape that emphasizes the light of the day.
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Featured Workshop: Barret Edwards
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 Janice Robinson-Delaneyof Ellenwood, GA, USA, who wrote, “I like that concept. It might be a good adjunct to my business plan; artwork that allows the viewer’s eye to complete the work for them. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I think that my work turns out to be abstract due to time constraints but then I have also blamed it on a supplies issue. Maybe it’s just the faceted nature of an artist’s work.”
And also Frances Schneider of Texas, USA, who wrote, “I set out with an exciting and fresh idea, and end up killing the very thing I love, usually by “licking it to death”! It ends up hard-edged and/or stiff, and not at all what had in mind. I’m thinking of trying to paint with my left hand, or with a crooked stick or something.”
And also Carl Nelson who wrote, “It is also good sales. Our realtor gave us a good lesson in this. We wanted her to point out all of the best aspects of our property. She said, “No. You want to let the buyers discover these. Then it is their find.” It worked. We got $10,000.00 above market.”
And also B. H. Gerard of Thousand Oaks, CA, USA, who wrote, “I have spent a great deal of time in Japan doing independent ceramic study and visiting historic folk-pottery areas. I hope someday to be able to make clay containers suitable for ikebana and even perhaps a good tea bowl for cha-no-yu. So far my pieces are much too busy for their particular esthetic as it’s hard to know when to stop. But alas, I have only been a potter since 1962.”
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