I'm fascinated by the concept of "less is more," especially as it applies to representational painting. It's hardly intuitive that having less detail makes a painting more realistic, but that's often the case. We've all been warned by our art teachers about the dangers of adding too many details; creating a mess with oil on canvas; confusing the eye of the viewer.
The Dog by Francisco Goya, ca. 1819, oil on canvas from plaster
Recently I was fortunate enough to visit the Prado, in Madrid, where I saw a stunning example of the less-is-more principle. Goya's painting of a dog (alternately called The Dog, The Half-Submurged Dog, or The Drowning Dog) offers very little definite information–this is so much the case that some historians think it is unfinished.
We see the head of a dog; we also see large planes of earth tones. That's it. Is the dog in danger? Drowning? Caught in quicksand? Perhaps, although I also think it looks surprisingly at peace–perhaps resigned to its fate, whatever that is. Either way, by providing just enough information to grab our attention, Goya gets us thinking, and he doesn't let go.
Goya's painting is hardly uplifting. As in many of his late artworks, the overall outlook seems to be grim, as the artist began to focus more and more on the inevitability of death.
But there is a heartening message to be learned here: Don't get discouraged trying to paint everything. Describe just enough with your paint–even focusing only on one small area of the picture–and you can create a scene of tremendous mystery and power.
Austin Williams is the editor of Drawing magazine.