Monday, July 12, 2010


image from

Mystery is quality a painting can have. Instead of everything being delineated precisely some passages are lost in darkness or simplified into tones that give the viewer no clear idea of what is represented in that passage. The Innesss above is a good example of this . The foreground and the shadowed areas of the trees are full of mystery.

Paintings that explain every detail can be brittle, or nervous looking. They have a primitive look. Some of the Hudson River School painters had this fault. The next generation, the tonalist replaced them rapidly and one of the reasons why was the quality called mystery.

Mystery lets the viewer assemble the picture a little for themselves. But it also serves another purpose. The passages that are full of detail are counterbalanced against those which are not. Covering an entire canvas with writhing assertive detail gives a hyperconcentrated and febrile look. A painting entirely covered in tiny details causes the viewers eye to skitter madly about its surface, trying to apprehend all that is there, and never finding relief or a place to rest. We don't see that way either, we are aware of the details of an area on which our gaze is fixed, but all around that in our peripheral vision we are aware only of the large shapes and colors.

Naive painters, and folk artists generally don't use mystery and that is one of the ways we recognize their work. Photorealism can , despite its seeming modernism have this primitive fault too. The artist has failed to be selective. This is one of the dangers of working from photography, the camera sees everything before it with critical selection. Irrelevant details are presented with the same "laundry list" exactitude as the most important things on the canvas. Paintings like this look mindless, and are hard to read and enjoy.

There is a famous quote from Miles Davis "Its not what you play, but what you don't play. A frequent criticism of some musicians is that they play too many notes. It is like a dinner guest who tells extended boring stories full of useless detail and long wandering asides, that bore everyone at the table and never come to their point.

When you paint, try to leave some areas, particularly those which need to be there but aren't really part of your story, deliberately vague. Nature needs to be edited by the artist rather than copied.
Mystery is had by simplification. Leaving shadow areas simple and painting only representative detail rather than a catalog of every little little thing helps make a painting more poetic and less journalistic. Try to learn how to say just enough to make your picture work and no more. Contrast detailed passages with simpler passages, and your work will have more sophistication and poetry.


Philip Koch said...

Wonderful post accompanied by one of my very favorite paintings! Inness really is one of our great masters.

Many years ago I was just out of grad school teaching painting in the remote Cascade Mts. in Washington State. My own paintings were going badly and generally it was a real low point in my life. I came across a reproduction of this same George Inness painting Stape used here and did a careful copy of it. It boosted my spirits considerably. said...

This is a very advanced post. Leaving things out of a painting is so important to the intent of a piece of art. Scraping something out that doesn't add to the artist's intention can be painful, especially if it's painted well.

I know it's difficult to see in my own work because I have such a graphic and bold sensibility. It's not apparent what I am leaving out because I make the most of what I put in. However, I am always asking myself how can I say more with less? It's a good question for any painter to ask themselves.

Judy P. said...

'Nervous-looking' - that's an apt way to call it. I've got a 16x20 I painted last year that I view now that way, and cringe. I remember spending so much time on it, thinking 'less detail' and 'grey the colors' as you go in the distance. Yet it still is a busy and garish mess. It's true, you can't 'worry' a painting to success. For ego's survival sake I will have to paint over it!

I find my biggest problem is with color- getting the temperatures and chroma (value and hue I can figure a bit better) in passages to 'fit' each other. I've taken to using color schemes from famous paintings to use, but somehow they are still 'off'. What can you suggest to train my eye? Lately I've been looking at House Beautiful magazine, just to see how they coordinate room colors.

Deborah Paris said...

Ahhh, mystery- my favorite ingredient.

Very good post on a difficult concept.

Lisa McShane said...

Perfect - I've been thinking a lot about mystery in painting lately.

And Philip's comment makes me smile, since I can look out my window and see the Cascade Mountains. Remote is a matter of perspective.

billspaintingmn said...

Everyone loves a mystery, they also love to solve it.
If you through 'em a question, leave 'em some clues, so they can find the answers.
They'll want more!

willek said...

You have to have poetry in painting. Is there poetry in mystery? Mystery in Poetry?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Inness never painted in the Cascades!You must be thinking of somebody else!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I usually think "less is a bore" but not in this instance.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Have you ever studied one of the online automated color wheel systems?I will post about them soon.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

My you are remote!,that's a long way from Boston, "the hub of the universe"

Stapleton Kearns said...

Feed em opacity and they will demand occlusion!

Stapleton Kearns said...

There is mystery in much good poetry, things get said in allusion that is a mystery until your mind figures it out.I guess.

Stapleton Kearns said...

To the Japanese commenter.
I get some Japanese spam that says inappropriate things in unreadable glyphs. Please post in English. All comments in other languages will be deleted as they contribute nothing to those of us who can't read them. How about them Celts, huh?

willek said...

There is no doubt to me that a moving image of a sea view is more meaningful to a painter than a still one. I had read somewhere that some of the Rockport painters had used loops of 16mm film to do this. There must be a way to edit our digital shots into loops. Anyone know how?

Silvio Silvestri said...

Good topic, Stape. Well explained, if you develop this topic again, have the picture with all the detail then your minimizing or adding mystery in your painting. I heard the adage, You can't hear the choir if they are all screaming at once. Anyway, more on your interpretation from picture to painting would be desired. Thanks, Silvio