When Less Is More: Dying Dog Edition

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 transfer to canvas, 51 x 31. Collection the Prado, Madrid, Spain.

The Dog by Francisco Goya, ca. 1819, oil on canvas from plaster
transfer to canvas, 51 x 31. Collection the Prado, Madrid, Spain.

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.

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Austin R. Williams

About Austin R. Williams

Austin is an associate editor of American Artist, Drawing, and Watercolor magazines. His interests include a number of artistic subjects, in particular contemporary drawing, and he is also a lover of literature and movies.  His favorite artists include Durer, Guercino, Degas, Menzel, Cezanne, and Blakelock. His favorite book about art is Michael Frayn's Headlong, and his favorite movie about art is Orson Welles' F for Fake.

4 thoughts on “When Less Is More: Dying Dog Edition

  1. This is to willwolf, :to me it looks like a dog that could be resting its head on the edge of a cliff, or a grave. Maybe the master of the dog is digging a trench and the dog is keeping it company.
    We don’t know the story behind the painting that Goya had in mind. Or even if he had anything in mind other than to show an idea.
    He could intended to spark the very questions that this painting has caused over the years.
    There is a mystery in this painting and it has captured the attention of millions over the years.
    To me, even though the subject could seem grim, it’s far more intriguing to me than a painting of a flower in a vase.
    Nothing wrong with flowers in vases, but there are vast ideas and scopes of art and subjects for art. There are no limitations.

  2. The caption says it is from plaster transfer to canvas. That indicates to me that this is merely a detail out of a much larger composition. Use your imagination, but I don’t think Goya was as profound as you seem to think.

  3. Whether or not Goya was profound or not is not the question with this work. I see, not a dying dog, rather a faithful dog near his Master; the Master isn’t in the picture, but the dog is looking up at something or someone. I think Goya captured that inexplicable unconditional love some of us are lucky to receive from our animals. My guys look up at me with that same longing love. I really connect with this work.