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.
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.
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.
Different strokes for different folks
by Mike Fenton, Parsippany, NJ, USA
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.
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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.
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Immediacy and expressive strokes
by Stephanie Vagvolgyi, Sidney, BC, Canada
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.
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Learning what to leave out
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
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.”
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Simplicity in Matisse’s chapel
by Doris Paterson, Mission, BC, Canada
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!
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.
(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.
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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.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The power of paucity…