Why Details Don't Improve Your Art!

How do you make things look like they are real? How do you have to paint that candle to really make it look like drippy wax and hot, flickering flame? Or, how do you have to apply charcoal to your portrait to make it look as good and better than the realness of a photograph?

Self-portrait 2006, Carolin Peters

Surely the answer must lie in one's ability to capture all the details!

Does this sound like a familiar line of logic to you?

You think the reason why your drawing or painting isn't as good as you'd hoped it would be, is because you didn't draw the details well enough, right?!

Actually, that's not so. Allow me to be the one to dismantle this assumption for you.

Our ability to draw and paint is a universally trainable skill. Everyone can learn it. In fact, there are five sub-skills we can pin-point and strengthen individually. One of these skills is our innate ability to perceive the entirety of something. In other words, the fact that we can choose to see the whole in one glance, or individual parts, one at a time.

Therefore, learning to draw and paint is as much about treasuring the small parts (aka details), as it is about seeing how the parts constitute the whole.

Even if this makes perfect sense to you now as you read this, often, as soon as you are in front of the drawing board again, you might fall right back into detail-gathering-mode.

So how do you use this insight about seeing the entirety?

You'll want to become aware of HOW you look at whatever it is you are drawing. Instead of habitually looking the way you always do, you'll want to consciously choose whether you zoom in or out.

For every time you visually zoom in to see the details, you'll want to zoom out, just as often, to see the big picture. How does the detail you drew on the finger, for example, relate to the entire arm? Is it necessary? Is it clear enough? Does it help draw our attention to the right area? Or is it actually distracting?

The reason why drawing is hard isn't because you aren't good enough or you don't have enough talent but rather because balancing details with the big picture involves hard, emotional labor. Every time you zoom out you will notice things you’d rather ignore: The hand is too big. The eye is in the wrong place. The intricate texture you spent so much time on is actually distracting from the rest of the portrait and you should take it out.

Zooming out, seeing the whole, and answering distinct questions about your piece, THAT is the hard work of drawing, because it demands focus, resilience and a willingness to change earlier assumptions.

But details? ... they only matter if you placed them in the right context.


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