Thursday, December 9, 2010

The big look

images from

I referred to the "big look of nature" the other night, and I want to add a little to that . It is a crucial concept and is so important that I want to be certain that I have explained it completely. If you already have it, forgive me, this will be a review.

There are two ways of seeing any scene before you. One is the "big look" and the other is piecemeal. The big look, is when the eye apprehends all of the scene before you in it's unity and entirety and it is thus expressed. "Piecemeal" (now there is an old fashioned expression, I wonder if it is still in use?) is when the artists represents each section of the scene as it looks when it is studied on its own with no reference to the larger view. A piecemeal painting is actually a number of small paintings on the same canvas.

The most important quality that a painting can have, (or any other kind of art for that matter, including a song, a design for a chair, or a Greek vase) is


Unity of effect is when the painting is perceived as a whole, one unit. Failure to get the "big look" is such a problem because it destroys unity of effect. Sometimes a painting is said to "hang together" when it has unity of effect. This can be observed at a considerable distance. I can often tell whether a painting is professional or not from across the street, sometimes even before I can make out its subject.

One of the reasons fine painters often downplay detail is to keep the unity of effect, detail scattered all over painting can do that. A painting can be filled with detail and still have unity of effect, but that detail has to be part of the larger unified system and keep it's proper place in the tableau.
Art students like to make sketches and rough unfinished work because the unity of effect is intact, no area has been worked up very much, so no two areas fight with one another for our attention. Unity of effect is easier to get in a quick study and hard to keep in a protracted one.

We have all seen a teacher look at a painting and then put up their hand to cover some offending element in a painting. usually that is something that "jumps out", that is, it is destroying the unity of effect. It is too assertive. Too assertive means that it fails to keep its proper place in the painting and that is the result of it's being "hyperobserved".

In the comments I was asked to do a demo painting showing how to make a soft edge. Buried at the beginning of this blog is a series of posts on just that. They are here, here and here and here and here too! This blog has grown so huge that there is no way for recent emigres to find all of the information on it. It is of course searchable, the little white box at the upper left is for that. However it returns too many results and is clumsy. Someday this will be a book and you will be able to find what you want within it.

I think I will begin doing some critiques. I have a few in the hopper that have been e-mailed to me. If you would like me to crit one of your paintings e-mail me a decent picture of it. I remove the signatures and never reveal whose work it is. I can't do everything that is sent to me, so I choose those which seem to offer teaching opportunities.


billspaintingmn said...

The big look keeps it simple, I think. Keeping it simple lets everyone get a part of the art! I think and refer to your statement,"There's something in the general that speaks louder than the the details"
The big look supports that statement.
I'm paying attention Stape!(I just need more practice)

Mike Thompson said...

I had completely forgotten how many edge posts you wrote over the last two years. Thanks for the links. Next time I'll use the search feature.

I have considered going back to the beginning of the blog and starting over again but now that is a daunting task. There are 192 entries for 'art technique' alone. It is hard enough to keep up with your daily posts, and much harder to reread more than 700 of them. When you hit the two year mark I hope you enjoy a big cigar and a cold can of Moxie.

James Gunter said...

Quote: "This blog has grown so huge that there is no way for recent emigres to find all of the information on it."

It is difficult, but for those of us still learning, it's worth making the time to read this entire blog, and then read it again. I've read the entire thing, and reread it up to june of this year. Some sections I've read three or four times. Most of the entries are relatively short, which makes it easier to read the blog "piecemeal".

The ranting and raving is always fun to read again!

Unknown said...

Do you think that deciding at the start of a painting what is the "big idea" , or the "concept" that you are working towards, helps in
giving you some parameters to keep that unity of effect intact?
That first painting's gotta be a Homer, isn't it?

Antonin Passemard said...

WOW ! Amazing post plus all the posts on edges. I have some reading and work before me. Thanks.
I can't wait for your book !

Mary Byrom said...

Totally true! Unity is so easy in quick studies and sketches. Its when you are painting the passages and transitions in those large works (developed from the small sketches) that you have to know what you are doing and why you are doing it . (without any of the visual information in front of you except the field sketch.) That is where the whole big picture concept comes in. I can move faster and make better decisions in those areas if I see the painting finished before I paint it. And if I decide what colors I'm going to use to describe it...

Lucy said...

Who painted the examples posted today? In each painting there is lots of information and lots going on. But still the artists managed to retain "the big idea" of nature.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The big look will result in simplicity and elimination of meaningless detail. Remember those nice spider monkeys on meth?

Stapleton Kearns said...

This thing is getting ridiculously huge. I hear from people that say they have read the whole thing. Even I can't remember all that I have written.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am always flattered that people go back and read around in it. I hope it is useful and varied. It is incremental and grows by accretion. There is no outline or master plan. It is a work of madness.

Stapleton Kearns said...

When I talk about the big look, I am generally referring to painting from observation. Both paintings on the page are by Sargent.Don't drive tonight.

Kyle V Thomas said...


The examples are by Sargent.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Don't hold your breath. I have no idea how I could write a a book, do the blog and paint for a living at the same time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I should do a post on pre-visualization. It is great, if you can do it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Those are Sargent's, who was of course a master at that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Oh, another! You commented as I was answering them.

Woodward Simons said...

Stape, Congrats on the number of people who love and follow your blog! I'm having the same problem: book writing, blogging, painting etc....

I sent you an email about a brainstorm I have that artists may be able to benefit from, but like I said, no pressure. Is it an ebook or real book, or both?

willek said...

well, does a camera see the whole picture? of a sort?

Anonymous said...

The big idea! I love you selection of a unified paintings--at times I look at my work and it is choppy. What is not unified work or art? All broken up like your apple painting? How can you tell when it it not unified?
Get the spider monkey feeling? Feel relaxed and enthralled when you see the examples you posted? Nice work as always Stape!!e1