The mystery in art

Dear Artist, Recently, watercolorist Roderik Mayne of Toronto, Ontario wrote, “What do you mean when you talk about putting mystery in your work?” Thanks, Roderik. I’m walking along a strange forest path. Others are with me — some fall back and some join later. We hear animals in the forest but cannot see them. We come upon surprises of incredible beauty that we can’t explain. Some are quite in focus and others are not. Always something is just ahead that we can’t quite get to. As we move forward, whatever it is moves forward also but we never can fully touch it. If you’re still with me and you don’t think I’m losing it, and if you catch my drift, describing aspects of life is part of the artist’s job. Let me explain: The path is also the road, stream, river, etc. Few of us have a straight one that leads directly to a big something. More in tune with the human experience is the curving, bumping-up-and-down path that disappears around a corner, over a hill or into a valley. This path winds and beguiles and serves a deep human need. It takes you some distance into the enigma. The incompletely disclosed subject can be anything: a barn, a lake, a sunset, a splodge of paint, a boy, a girl. The subject need not be fully described, delineated or even fully understood. A hidden barn, a shrouded lake, an obscured sunset, an over-painted splodge, an escaping boy, a shy girl seen only in profile or from behind — all of these tease and caress you further into the enigma. As you move forward along the path, toward the mysterious something up ahead, the elusive subject might be for a time in focus and the surrounding area not so. This is the nature of concentration — one thing at a time. It may seem unfortunate to some, and worth remedying, but in truth we cannot fully see the whole enigma. This condition, the “specific focus phenomenon,” shows the nature of both human sight and human aspiration. The rest is blurred, fleeting, disappearing. “Suddenly,” said Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “as rare things will, it vanished.” Best regards, Robert PS: “What I’m trying to translate to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the implacable source of sensations.” (Paul Cezanne) “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” (Francis Bacon) “A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.” (Edgar Degas) “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.” (Albert Einstein) Esoterica: You may call them devices, and in some ways they are. But they are the very bones of your paintings, sculptures, even your quilts. Similar to the plot in a story, the theme in a poem, the continuity in a movie, you need them and they need you.   Roderik Mayne

“Jazzman II”
15 x 22 inches


15 x 22 inches


“Into the Light”
15 x 22 inches


“The Immigrant”
15 x 22 inches

            The illustration of transcendent truth by David Drum, Crystal Beach, ON, Canada  

mixed media
by David Drum

Modigliani said he was searching for neither the real nor the unreal but the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race. By doing this he was placing himself in the tradition of the great Romanesque religious sculptors who never hesitated to distort the representation of reality, as if by doing so they could better illustrate a transcendent truth, which in their eyes was more real than external appearances.       The wisdom of J.M.W. Turner by H Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA  

“Off grid I”
acrylic painting, 54 x 70 inches
by H Margret

Mystery is something critics never seem to notice. The master of mystery in landscapes was William Turner. Take a look at the painting of the avalanche crushing a cottage and you can feel the snow and isolation. Or the Burning of the Parliament, where you wonder what started the fire. Turner was the precursor for Impressionism. I look at Turner often and I’m always amazed. This is a great topic during this era of over-explicit, dreary minutia art.   There is 1 comment for The wisdom of J.M.W. Turner by H Margret
From: Virginia Wieringa — Sep 13, 2011

Nice work! I love the hide-and-seek of two compositions in one!

  Mystery retains the brain’s attention by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland  

“Moray #4”
acrylic painting
by Brian Crawford Young

I agree totally about the mystery element in paintings. Whether it applies to conceptual art, I am not so sure. Conceptual works seem to me to be like a sentence that needs translating from another language. Once you’ve done it, it’s done. No more mystery. All you need is the unlocking key. For me, a painting with mystery retains the brain’s attention long enough for something deeper to happen — an emotional connection perhaps. Emotional connections are often lacking in conceptual works, and therefore there will be no lasting commitment to it as a Work of Art. I looked at Roderik Mayne’s work on the clickback, and was highly impressed. He need not worry about the precise meaning of mystery, as long as his paintings continue to have their own sense of je ne sais quoi. There is 1 comment for Mystery retains the brain’s attention by Brian Crawford Young
From: Anonymous — Sep 13, 2011

I was once looking at an art piece – a mockup of an alarm clock. I was intrigued by it and different stories came to my mind. Then someone pointed out that the time shown on it, given the shape of the numbers, spelled out something in words – I don’t remember what, but nothing memorable, and then I notice that was the title of the piece – duh. It was as if someone killed that piece of art for me. I will take mystery over conceptual art any day.

  Art needs mystery because life is mystery by Anne Copeland, Calimesa, CA, USA  

mixed media
by Anne Copeland

I always tell people that it is so important in a painting or piece of art to leave the viewer wanting more. The viewer should experience that sense of “more” that is unseen and keeps you thinking about or remembering the art long after you have walked past it. It’s like that wonderful bouquet or taste on your palette after you have drunk the wine. You remember it somewhere in the recesses of your mind and it is always pleasant to return. The art doesn’t have to be pleasing, though, to make you want to return to it, at least in your mind. It can create a question that needs to be answered, or it can express something that makes you wonder about the outcome of the situation. Will these subjects live or die in this event that is happening? Is the ship going to sink or will it make it to land? Will the woman in the background get to be with the man she loves or will he stay with the society woman he is seen walking with in the foreground? Our minds always return to mystery because all of life is a mystery in so many ways. Art that is able to convey that will be remembered long after it is gone from sight.   Mystery impossible to label by Colin Poole, Calgary AB, Canada   I was mesmerized by the thoughts that your word picture created. In the reverie that it produced, I wondered how is it possible for the human mind to recognize those things that are impossible, those things that are not real. It is too facile an answer to say simply that it is imagination. We have created the linguistic handle of “imagination” to describe those things which work in this way. Putting a label on it does not produce an understanding, but only a mechanism for the manipulation of such conceptions and observations. How can the logical mind identify that which cannot be understood and that which cannot be described. How can we cope with the mystery that the thoughts of such great thinkers as you quoted have touched?   Sensing the world in a primal way by Christopher Hollins, Whitby, UK  

oil painting
by Christopher Hollins

The sense of mystery has driven me away from painting traditional images. I now believe this sensation of mystery we artists ‘feel’ in our mind is a remnant of an old awareness for animal instinct inherent from our primal origins. We sense this ‘feeling’ in nature when we become uncertain of what we see and a little uncertainty in a work is a very important element in art. Art is a way of sensing the world in a deep primal way. Finding a way to capture that sensation drives us artists in many directions and, whatever the outcome, it is a fascinating journey.   Design as key to mystery by Kristine Fretheim, Maple Grove, MN, USA  

“Thoughts come and go”
watercolour painting
by Kristine Fretheim

While I’m kinda blindly feeling my way, design is my walking stick. From paucity to mystery, I’m convinced that design is the tool that will take us where we want to go — even when we’re uncertain of our destination. I think to create anything, let alone a sense of mystery, one needs to be able to call up feelings and emotions relating to the subject of the painting and express them visually. This is where understanding of the elements and principles of design can help with artistic expression. Design embedded in the bones of an artwork guides the viewers’ attention to the expressive meaning of the work. Those mysterious, emotional dimensions that are so difficult to express in words can be magically unlocked using design as a tool. The way we use formal elements like pattern, line, value etc. creates an emotional resonance with the viewer. And that way is showing the design principles in action. Design principles themselves seem to have an emotional, intuitive resonance: harmony, unity, dominance, contrast, repetition, gradation, rhythm, balance. Art is an intuitive language. When we feel lost in our art-making, design can help us get back in touch with that intuitive resonance by giving us something to lean on while we “clear the brush” from our creative path! There is 1 comment for Design as key to mystery by Kristine Fretheim
From: Rose — Sep 14, 2011

Lovely work !!!

  Layering of appreciation levels by oliver, TX, USA  

digital photograph
by oliver

Great works often have many layers of appreciation in them. Some are technical (color, perspective, level of abstraction, handling of light, composition, movement), some where the piece fits in the artist’s work and development are in the world of art generally (a new realist vs. a realist 100 years ago, one of the first Impressionists or a modern one), some are topical (nature reclaiming from man — old rustic falling down barn, where does the path go), some are emotive (the love between mother and child). The best pieces will do all this and more for the educated viewer, yet will allow a viewer to appreciate any one level and may allow them to grow and understand other levels over time. The timeless and most loved pieces, I find, are the ones that work on many levels, yet still have an uplifting quality that makes the viewer want to see them daily and enjoy them. Peel the layers on the Mona Lisa, Starry Starry Night, Water Lilies, Three Musicians, Persistence of Memory. It is an interesting exercise to ask well educated and the “lay” people to name the most famous pieces of art and study why the pieces have become beloved.   Mystery in more ways than one by Pamela Simpson Lussier, Willington, CT, USA  

“Monhegan view”
by Pamela Simpson Lussier

A few times in my life I have encountered a painting that was so well executed and had such a beautiful mystery that it has brought tears to my eyes. The first time was in Montmarte, Paris 30 years ago. I was looking through all the bad Eiffel towers and other paintings done for tourists when I came across one genuine artist with a body of work that was full of mystery. There was one piece of work that was just genius. I can’t even describe the subject because it was about the mystery, just glowing with it. It wasn’t that expensive, but I hesitated to buy it. I had never bought a painting in my life and I didn’t really know if I was allowed such a joy. I thought about it all that night and the next day I went back with my mind made up to purchase it. To my sorrow, I found the artist but my painting had been sold. He wanted to sell me another but it was not the one. Years later, I went to visit a new little gallery that an artist had set up in my home town. The work was amazing, full of this same mystery. I felt like I was in a museum. The artist had just come back from a trip to Monhegan Island, Maine and this work was on the walls. A few months later a prize winning one of this group was on the walls and I made up my mind to purchase it. A friend with me was trying to talk me into another that was a little less expensive, but I remembered my Paris experience and I knew this was the one. This was the first time that I had bought a painting And I finally felt I deserved such a joy in my life. I did not suspect at the time that in a few years I would not only have the joy of that painting but also the joy of being married to the man of mystery, the artist. There are 4 comments for Mystery in more ways than one by Pamela Simpson Lussier
From: Dana S Whitney — Sep 12, 2011

Fabulous story and fabulous painting!

From: shirley fachilla — Sep 13, 2011

The thumbnail stopped me in my tracks. Beautiful painting backed by a wonderful story.

From: Darrell Baschak — Sep 13, 2011

At the risk of being repetitive, this is a stunning painting and a truly wonderful story. Seize the moment!

From: Kathy Connelly — Sep 14, 2011

Wow, a story like that deserves that special ending.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The mystery in art

From: Connie — Sep 09, 2011

Many years ago a wonderful art teacher of mine came over to my easel and after looking at my work said to me ” you’re an artist, not a reporter”. I think of that when I get too bogged down in details and some of the “mystery” has gone out of my picture.

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Sep 09, 2011

I have been interested in abstract painting and in recent years have switched back and forth between paintings with a subject and those that do not come from a subject. Most people I find see different things in them, kind of like that old game of looking at clouds. They do evoke emotions in people, though, and come from a place of emotion in me. They are attracted to a painting abstract or realistic, because it reminds them of a place they have been. The other day, a dear friend of mine who is very conservative and I thought liked my more ordinary paintings, was looking at a large abstract I had hung on the wall said, “I really like that.” Shocked, I had to know more, so I asked if he saw something in it or did it relate to him in some way, “No, it just makes me feel good.”

From: Debbie — Sep 09, 2011

Connie, I will remember that when I am agonizing over a painting I am an artist ,not a reporter !!

From: Pixie Glore — Sep 09, 2011

Beautifully written Robert!

From: Rodney Cobb — Sep 09, 2011

About the mystery in art–to suggest is to create; to state is to destroy. (Source?)

From: Mark Lovett — Sep 09, 2011

Thank you for the reminder! As I proceed into the finish of my two current works, I am glad you reminded me to try and create some mystery in each. It is so true how much value mystery adds, and I’m sure all my work could improve if I focused on creating more mystery.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Sep 09, 2011

It’s really a challenge to be able to evoke some kind of mystery in art and I hope that I could do that. I think that it also challenges the viewer to look for the mystery and anticipate what wonderful vista awaits in that mysterious part of the work of art. The other day as we were coming back to Toronto from Niagara the most beautiful sunset sky begun to unfold the most beautiful color display of reds, orange, yellow, red violet with waves of white clouds against the blue and grayish hue of the sky. And in those strips of white clouds there was a small ball of rainbow of colors that was formed so briefly and in a matter of seconds it disappeared. Why did it not form into an arc as rainbows usually are? We were anticipating that it would spread into a regular rainbow but it did not. Was it a pigment of my imagination? My husband saw it too and exclaimed “do you see that? Then it vanished. It was really spectacular!

From: Laura Whelan — Sep 09, 2011

Thanks for your twice-weekly letters. This one really worked for me…I am a poet in Albany, NY and a painter friend of mine introduced me to your writing. I am always finding lots I can use to enrich my own creative process, especially the quotes!

From: MairImages — Sep 09, 2011

It’s like telling a story with an ending we cannot know, only imagine – and an ending each person imagines in their own way. At least that’s how I think of it. Or inviting people to enter a new place or space they might not otherwise see in quite the same way, so that they must use their imaginations to understand what they are seeing?

From: Norma Hopkins — Sep 09, 2011

What a lovely description of the creation of magical mystery in painting Robert. I am always trying to get my Class members to reach for the mystery .. It’s a difficult thing to explain.

From: Paula Timpson — Sep 09, 2011

Rainbow circle of Light is around the sun early morning, at the sea as we swim and laugh inside salty waters of Love~ We are safe~ & happy embraced by the pure mystery that is Hope & Baptism~!

From: Phil Lachapelle — Sep 09, 2011

I very much enjoy your messages, art descriptions, experiences and painting mysteries. Yes, mystery can fit the mood of some of my work. The night air, a Johnny Walker Gold and an inspiring scene is your fuel for the love of painting. That’s mine too.

From: ann — Sep 09, 2011
From: Darla — Sep 10, 2011

Edna – The small patch of rainbow you saw is something called a “sun dog”. They occur about 30 degrees to either side of the sun, in an area of thin, high clouds at sunrise or sunset. Unlike rainbows, you don’t need rainy weather to see them. I’ve never seen them in a painting, though.

From: Barry Kleider — Sep 11, 2011

THE SONG OF WANDERING AENGUS by: W.B. Yeats I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout. When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire a-flame, But something rustled on the floor, And some one called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air. Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.

From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Sep 11, 2011

Regarding your letter on “Mystery” and an earlier one on “Paucity,” Miles Lowry of Victoria B.C. has a wonderful series of portraits called “Saints of Circumstance”, which beautifully illustrates the “Mystery” idea, and to some degree the idea of paucity as well. His work has inspired me to pursue a new series of my own, of which “Secrets” is an example. I have found in my plein air paintings the paucity principle almost always produces a more interesting work, although some may find it unfinished. The simplification of a scene is difficult but more inviting for the viewer, who has to participate by filling in with his imagination.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 11, 2011

Roderik – To see the most classic example of mystery in art used to its best advantage – look to the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. For centuries, scholars and experts have been trying to figure out this work and the mystery it holds for generations of people. This is what Robert means though he gave a very obtuse example. Look to the works of George Inness, Tonalist painting holds lots of mystery. Check out a painter named – Dennis Sheehan. His work is intriguing to say the least. Any Rembrandt but “Night Watch” in particular; though much about imagery is now lost with time but it still holds us. :Girl with Pearl Earring” by Vermeer. Mystery can be also described as “that something intangible that draws you in and holds you”. You never know what it is or how to achieve it, but when you do, it is and artists “payday”.

From: Gail Nagasako — Sep 11, 2011

Thanks. This is definitely what has been missing from my paintings! Aloha.

From: Norman Burr — Sep 11, 2011

Amazing the various ways you can look at things — devices — natural human atavistic and even spiritual needs. Art and creativity are the most interesting and elevating subjects, and this website is the very best. Thank you to all who contribute to this great exchange.

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — Sep 12, 2011

Some paintings I’ve done were inspired simply by a “flash” from a dream, or other nonsensical idea. I find delight in that mystery, and see no reason to explain.

From: Gavin Logan — Sep 12, 2011

“Mystery is the art of eliciting unseen things hidden in the shadow of natural ones, and serving to demonstrate as real the things that are not.” From The Craftsman’s Handbook by Cennino Cennini, about 1430.

From: David Blanchard — Sep 12, 2011

My best photographs are those that cause a prospective customer to come back and look again.

From: Sharon Cory — Sep 13, 2011

For Edna Hildebrandt Did you mean to say “pigment of my imagination”? If so, it’s a brilliant pun…if not, it’s still brilliant. For Darla, I came across some art done by the Chukchi people in northern Russia and, like most people who live in the far North, they’re very aware of sundogs and give them magical properties in art. There’s also a Canadian artist named David Young who had a wonderful exhibition in Toronto last year called Sundogs…I still regret not buying one of the paintings that was there, not that I could afford it.

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Autumn Canopy

acrylic ink painting, 40 x 40 inches by Melissa Jean, Kenora, ON, Canada

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