The power of paucity

Dear Artist, In the bar attached to the Legazpi Restaurant at Las Hadas in Manzanillo, Mexico, there are murals. Loose oil sketches painted directly onto rough, lightly-toned plaster, they are the work of the Spanish painter Fernando Calderon. Depicting dreamlike fantasies of Spanish Conquistadores and the natives they met, they fill a curved alcove above the bar and areas behind the lounges.

Two-way paucity — negative holding
and slight linear touches
by Fernando Calderon

Some of the images merely suggest the characters and subjects they represent. They’re a good example of paucity — the absence of, a smallness of number or quantity (of strokes), and the wisdom of knowing when to stop. The depiction of a model ship, for example, held aloft in the hand of an ancient architect, is painted in minimal strokes and simply held in place by a few negative spaces. The ship mentioned contains one of the simple lessons of paucity. The image is not contrived in its entirety but is born in “emergence” on the support itself. Quickly delineated, the ship’s fo’c’sle rigging has been cursorily added with a smaller brush to complete the illusion. Paucity requires an artist’s eye. Paucity is one of the great principles. In our struggle to say things right, we overlook the value of understatement. “The secret of being a bore,” said Voltaire, “is to tell everything.” Paucity invites both the artist and the viewer not to be bored. While paucity appears to be a natural phenomenon that comes about as the result of talent, it’s actually the result of giving things a little thought before brushing. The idea is to think of a simpler, fresher and more effective look. You need to know that understated vision is both more appealing to make and more engaging to evolved eyes. Paucity, while often appearing rough and unfinished, invites participation in the creative process, and paucity helps us see the poetic potential of visual art. Things are quiet in the bar this evening. The underworked bartender is noticing what I’m up to and taking furtive glances at my MacBook. “You’re writing a letter?” he asks. “I have a few friends,” I say. “Good to keep in touch,” he says.

Limitation to three tones
for simplicity and unity
by Fernando Calderon

Best regards, Robert PS: “The action of the moment is more valuable than the thing it represents. I’m in the business of illusion.” (Fernando Calderon) Esoterica: Fernando Calderon (1928-2003) was born in Santander, Spain and studied art in Madrid and Rome. Painter and book illustrator, he’s best known for murals in the Vatican and the stately estates of titled Europeans. Passionate about opera and ballet, he was often praised as a talented guy. He drifted widely — Brazil, Mexico, France, England. The Pantheon Church of the Duke and Duchess of Alba in Loeches (Madrid) is perhaps his best known work. On his way to a solo show in Los Angeles, he tarried at a minor church in New Providence, New Jersey, and painted (because he felt like it) the Christian Apostles for $1 per day plus room and lodging.   Fernando Calderon

A serious subject and a casual lightness of being. Unfinished-looking work invites participation.


Understated flamboyance with an environment of stately and traditional taste.


Strong energetic design with the admonition ‘only connect.’

              Different strokes for different folks by Mike Fenton, Parsippany, NJ, USA  

“The tailor”
original painting
by Mike Fenton

I believe paucity is more of a style than a benchmark of achievement. Some elect to communicate, and do it well, with a few lines or few strokes of the brush. Al Hershfeld comes to mind as a master. Less is often more, when painting. To suggest allows the viewer’s mind to fill in the blanks. Most of the Impressionists were pretty economical in how they used their brush strokes, but they were racing the clock so as not to miss the light they so worshipped. But, then there was Velasquez or Caravaggio whose style was less about paucity and more about realism. I applaud those who can say a lot in a few words, or strokes. But, as we used to say in the 1970s, “different strokes for different folks.”   The hazards of realism by Colin B. Alberti, Paris, France   One of the reasons realistic work is often boring and unchallenging in comparison to more modern or abstracted work is that it is too explicit and leaves little to the imagination. Further, with the rigors of realistic work, it is easier to go wrong and not “get it right.” As a collector I find it is easy to see where many realistic artists fall down when they are trying subjects that are beyond their current capabilities. Hands and faces are the most obvious fault areas, and the most common. I give these artists credit for trying, of course, and I always watch for improvement in all of the artists I collect. Many, however, stay stuck and do what they can with what they have and never show any signs of paucity, style development or the creative flourish that is the mark of the finer artists, whether they are producers of realism or modernism. There are 3 comments for The hazards of realism by Colin B. Alberti
From: David Thompson — Jan 22, 2010

I have never understood the argument that realism limits the imagination. Do you prefer abstract novels or films? Can they even exist? No doubt you can spot faults in drawing the figure, and no doubt that is why many abstract artists work abstractly, but the logical conclusion of your argument would be blank canvases, or again why not just stay home and stare at the wall, plenty of scope for the imagination there!

From: Stella Reinwald — Jan 22, 2010

David, I loved this response. It became apparent to me years ago that so many critics of realism got so hung up on the technique employed that they couldn’t get past it. Wyeth comes to mind. He got slammed for being “trite,” no doubt because the critic doing the slamming had never had the wind knocked out of him by the sight, sound, smell, feeling, of grass emerging from a snow laden field (for instance), the impact of which one could not specifically convey abstractly. Stella

From: Linda Blondheim — Feb 19, 2010

I think the problem lies in a lack of diversity in representational painting these days. Much art is too sloppy or too precise. I like to see variety in a painting. More precision in certain areas and loose work in other parts. It seems that many paintings either look like block ins or are overworked.

  Transient murals by Susan, PA, USA   When I read your letter of the murals on the wall behind the bar, that reminded me of quite a number of years ago, sitting in a small restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, I believe was called “The Strawberry Inn.” They had large chalk boards that someone put beautiful drawings on ( like the masters.) Those drawings would be up there for a month, then erased. Gone! All that work, Fleeting moments. Then new ones would go up. There is 1 comment for Transient murals by Susan
From: Dean Wilson — Jan 21, 2010

The Victoria(BC)Fine Art Festival sponspored a wonderful juried exhibit of 10 artists which runs through Feb.27. The qualifier was that at some point you had to survive the homeless existance. Ian Morris exhibited, for the first time, his portable work here. He is well known downtown for his detailed chalk sidewalk copies of old master works that somehow seem to survive rain and traffic for weeks on end. I noticed a new one on Monday in front of “Murchies”; yes it was raining.

  Immediacy and expressive strokes by Stephanie Vagvolgyi, Sidney, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Stephanie Vagvolgyi

Today’s letter really spoke to me. Much of what I do looks sketchy, even unfinished when compared to finer representational drawings of the figure. Yet the immediacy of what I see and try to pare down to a few expressive strokes means more to me than a highly worked piece. Indeed, I find when I do spend more time on a figurative work, it loses its freshness. You’ve inspired me to carry on with my particular vision.     There are 4 comments for Immediacy and expressive strokes by Stephanie Vagvolgyi
From: Mien Greyling — Jan 22, 2010

I agree. Your drawing has beautiful line work, its fresh and immediate. I love it. It says everything!

From: Anonymous — Jan 22, 2010

I love the feeling of levitation!

From: Anonymous — Jan 22, 2010

I too love the freshness of this drawing! Delightful! Thank you for sharing —  Sylver

From: Mary — Jan 24, 2010

I absolutely love the vast myriad of contexts I can place this person into and have it all make meaning for me. So much in both what is there and what isn’t. Like a great novel created in painting form.

  Learning what to leave out by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

original painting
by Rick Rotante

The “Power of Paucity” should be written atop every artist’s easel, although I understand an artist’s need to paint everything. In a nutshell, when I started painting, the idea was to paint. So I would do just that in every painting. The problem with that is it makes for an uninteresting and many times boring over-painted work. But for a beginner, I wanted to show I could paint “things.” I’ve since learned to paint things but not everything in every painting. I’ve become selective. I’ve learned what to leave out more than what to put in. What to lose and still make a work whole. I tell this to my students. I tell them not to paint the subject but to interpret it and infuse it with how they feel about it. To put themselves into the subject and not copy it as they see it. The new and inexperienced painter wants to prove his metal and screams “see me!” With experience, training and knowledge, we begin to be more quiet, tactile and minimal and then the world begins to “see you.” There are 4 comments for Learning what to leave out by Rick Rotante
From: NATALIA KONDUC — Jan 21, 2010

Liked your letter. It took me a long time to learn that. It came with experience yet one of my students did the most beautiful painting with no previous experience as she took a complicated mountain scene and created a beautiful simple mountain scene that looked like nothing in the photo but was magical.

From: Anonymous — Jan 22, 2010

I too have a student with little training with two student works to her credit, we painted a landscape side by side which she took home to finish. I was amazed at the results. And this only after two months of classes. He painting was simple, balanced with good color harmony and not overworked. I guess she was listening in class.

From: Rick Rotante — Jan 22, 2010

Natalia – Experience and knowledge are wonderful things. I look at my students struggle to learn and thank my lucky stars those days a over for me. I can now use my ability and be free to paint whatever I wish convincingly. The painting attached was completely from amagination. No models were injured during the creation of that work. :)

From: Rick Rotante — Jan 22, 2010

“imagination” I should use spell check more often.

  Simplicity in Matisse’s chapel by Doris Paterson, Mission, BC, Canada  

“Blue landscape”
acrylic painting
by Doris Paterson

I remember seeing Matisse’s masterpiece — or so he named it. The chapel in Vence – France. He stayed with the nuns there while he was ill. They asked him to design a small chapel. Everything was stripped bare of enhancements. Stations of the cross were black iron outlines. Walls were white. The only colour was the floor to ceiling wall of glorious stained glass — reflecting onto the altar and walls. His museum showed the many attempts to ‘get it right.’ To see it made clear that maturity can know how simplicity can reign.       Zesty scribbling, etc. by Andra Dunn, San Clemente, CA, USA   One subject I find to be the most prevalent in my “teaching tips for art” is how to loosen up and fly… So I have several ideas about creating an image with either a Rorschach in acrylic colors, and delineating an image slowly with a black pen, section by section, and pressing one side to create the other in the mirror image — thus eliminating the fear of trying to depict the perfect apple or the details of a person, the first time around… I also have this saying… “You are the one that creates the hurdles.” You can avoid these, by just considering it fun and full of surprises… Do some fast things, and hide them in a drawer… then… the next morning take them out and hang them up and stand back and do nothing but search for the things you like best in them.

The other way to start a blank page, is to scribble, wildly… and happily or with elated fury, or heated enthusiasm… Zesty scribbling! Then start to sculpt the image out of what you see… by erasing some and darkening other areas… Note where the beauty lies and just let it shine on its own… leave it alone… and key up the rest, to play the same melody… Keeping the rhythm lilting and to the theme you love… and when you reach the climactic part… You will know it!   Visiting Tulum by Gina N Johnnie, Patchogue, NY, USA   If you haven’t been there, put Tulum on your places to paint. My husband and I stayed in a cabana on the water. The hotel group was EcoTulum and you will want to move there. The Mayan ruins of Tulum look like a scene out of Pirates of the Caribbean and are breathtaking. Only issue with the ruins is they wouldn’t let me set up my guerrilla box because it required a tripod, so I had to wing it. Enjoy Mexico. (RG note) Thanks, Gina. And thanks to everyone who wrote and recommended spots in Mexico. It seems to be the choice of many for colour, light and remarkable cultural variety.   She read the whole book by Joan Lippman, Mill Valley, CA, USA   I actually felt sad finishing your wondrous tome The Twice-Weekly Letters. I carried it around, reading it upstairs, down, and yes, in bed too. I also love that you had it published with such an elegant placemark — an added treat. I loved how you were respectful to all those asking for advice. Love your humor. Especially, too, I find the quotations you use inspiring and actually have made a list of my favorites! Do your angel interns find them for you, I wonder….or do you have time for that too? The index in the back is perfect for those of us who also wish to pick and poke by topics. (RG note) Thanks, Joan. Joan is the first one reporting to have read the whole thing all the way through. For this achievement, Joan, we’re sending a full box of Monte Cristo cigars, or other gift of your choice. Regarding the quotes, they almost always come from our own “Resource of Art Quotations” …only slightly smaller than The Brothers Karamazov. Quotes are continually being added by our subscribers, and when I’m putting together a letter I always go there to try to find out what I’m talking about. There is 1 comment for She read the whole book by Joan Lippman
From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Jan 21, 2010

I like the Monte Cristo cigars. Was that the brand Groucho Marx used?

  [fbcomments url=””]  woa  


acrylic painting by Leanne Cadden

  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 Colleen Rand of Gainesville, FL, USA, who wrote, “Paucity works well when drawing ability is superb.” And also Sharon Cory of Winnipeg who wrote, “I usually don’t feel the need to defend myself when someone trashes my work for being “shallow,” but if the situation arises, I’ll bring up the ideas you talk about — the power of paucity and the need to sometimes be succinct in our message.” And also Jhou Guogiang of Beijing, China who wrote, “Just as any technician gains skill and speed by repetition, a painter can develop fresh shorthand that brings style and distinction to ordinary subject.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The power of paucity

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Jan 18, 2010

Amazing and wonderful images in a (little bar?)

From: Rene Wojcik — Jan 19, 2010

Paucity is the essence of mystery.

From: Sue Brehant — Jan 19, 2010

I would love to be able to add paucity to my work. Thank you for your letters. Through you I am able to travel the world and see through your eyes. I just ordered your book as I now must read everything you have ever written. I eagerly await your next posting.

From: Peggy Small — Jan 19, 2010

My copy of the book just arrived today and I’m so pleased with it. I’ve been with you almost from the beginning and through the years have amassed quite a collection of the letters that were most meaningful to me. At one time I put copies in the Landing Gallery for the volunteers. I can now dispose of all that clutter. It might even be the start of the removal of some other stuff that’s real “claptrap” that takes up far too much space in my life! The book is great, and I know I’ll enjoy it for a long time. But keep working on the new letters to make another book.

From: Angeline-Marie — Jan 19, 2010

I am constantly trying to “keep it simple, silly” when it comes to creating art. Paucity may be the title of my current series! Thanks for your letters – I discovered you as a resource only recently. You hit home on many issues I have as an artists, especially double-demons and paucity. Angeline Marie of

From: Sue Rowe — Jan 19, 2010

This letter brought back fond memories of my friend Karen and I prompting each-other in studying for an Oriental art class quiz with nothing more for clues to the pieces of artwork than a toothpick and an orange peel. We aced the test. Here’s to the power of paucity!

From: Rod Cleasby — Jan 20, 2010

One semester when my brother, Peter, attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, an art-student friend of his asked if he could paint Peter’s portrait for a class assignment. Peter agreed, and the art student painted and submitted the portrait, only to receive a C minus. The art student approached the professor to ask why the grade was so poor. The teacher told him that the proportions in the painting were incorrect. “The head is too big,” the professor explained. “The shoulders are too wide, and the feet are enormous.” The next day, the art student brought Peter to see the professor. He took one look at my brother and said, “Okay, A minus.” UK

From: Karen R. Phinney — Jan 20, 2010

How beautifully rendered and suggestive of the subjects — a skilled painter for sure. I also enjoyed reading the notes in the clickback from last week and the the plein air experience. And being immersed! It doesn’t get much better than that. I am enjoying my “Twice Weekly Letters” book which duly arrived over the Christmas period. An impressive tome — nice to dip into. Lots of good stuff! Halifax (at -3 C!!)

From: V. Bridges Hoyt — Jan 20, 2010

More than something pretty to look at, a painting with paucity invites the viewer to participate in the painting. The trick is in knowing when to stop. One brush stroke too many changes the total nature of a painting.

From: Lauren VonVesterfield — Jan 20, 2010

The action of the moment is more valuable than the finished piece of art because the present is more valuable than the past or the future. Therefore, we must thoroughly enjoy the process or we lessen the value of the thing when it is completed. (metaphorically that is)

From: Wiley Walker — Jan 20, 2010

To achieve paucity is often more difficult than the natural tendency to labor away at something until you get it right. It requires stopping and thoughtfully applying what is called “Occam’s Razor.” Lord Occam was a 14th century logician who defined the principle that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

From: Jason Ryan — Jan 20, 2010

Har har, you do have a few friends — understatement.

From: Brad Greek — Jan 22, 2010

One of my favorite artist is Leroy Neiman He captures every bit of what paucity is about I believe. When I look at art, all styles, I see the beauty in it all for what it is. None better or worse then the other. Realism verses abstract for instance, they both have their place. I would love to paint photo realism, I would love to create the perfect non representational abstract. And everything in between. That’s just me I guess. A note on the “Letters” book. Having been reading and participating for many years now I decided to receive a book for my collection. May I be the 1st to admit that I received the book, thumbed through it and put it back in it’s packaging for safe keeping. Which is totally opposite of what I did with your “Love Letters to Art” book. With it I read, drew some passages in it and a letter of my own. Then passed it around to fellow artists, that I know and have painted with, for them to read and add a passage of their own in it. A sort of a journal or year book to continue the journey that you started Robert. Thanks for the guidance.

From: Jeff Stack — Jan 22, 2010

I have to say I really like ”Reginald Genn’s Operation in the Klondike” better than the one on the front. What a wonderful find after 40+ years!

From: Sharon Cory — Jan 22, 2010

I agree with Jeff. I like the Klondike picture better.

From: Beth Dean — Jan 22, 2010

Yes, another vote for the Klondike painting. I’m sure it took you back in time to see it again. Thanks for sharing!

From: Valerie May — Jan 22, 2010

I agree I like the Klondike picture better. I love the feeling it conveys.

From: Nizar Epp — Jan 28, 2010

Watercourses, even gold sluices, that flow toward the viewer, perform the psychological service of implying impending abundance.


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