In the final years of World War II German Panther and Tiger tanks were the most sophisticated in the world. They were more heavily armored, had larger and more accurate guns, and the engines were stronger and precision built. Overall the Panther and Tiger tanks were more deadly than any other tank at the time including the M4 Sherman tank used by the United States and Allies and the T-34 used by the Soviets. So why did they loose?
They lost because they had better armor, had more accurate guns, and were precision built. They lost because they stepped too close to perfection. They lost because they were more difficult to make, harder to maintain, and less tolerant of any dirt or grime that entered the system.
Why is this important for an artist to know?
In any realist based art instruction the student should be encouraged to be accurate and strive for the capturing of every detail. The student should be encouraged to achieve perfect rendering of any object placed before them. These are the worthy goals of a student, but not an artist.
An artist should be able to accomplish the goal of a student, but an artist’s goal is to move beyond the student and to give the artwork life.
The idea of life is hard to pin down, but a good way to think of it as that space left open in an artwork for the connection with the audience to dwell. Harold Speed in his book The Practice and Science of Drawing described it as dither. He used the analogy of an engine where the parts have been so precisely made that there is no room left for them to move. In a working engine there has to be enough room, or dither, between the parts that they can move freely.
I like to call this the unfinished accent.
In painting, an accent is usually the lightest light or darkest dark. But I like to think of an accent as a small unnoticed thing that if removed wouldn’t ruin an artwork, but will make you feel that something is missing.
For example, in the pictures of Girl with a Red Hat by Vermeer I’ve removed four accents on one of them. Without studying them closely try to pick out the one that feels more complete.
In the top one, I’ve removed four pointille dots that masquerade as highlights but are really accents to lead your eye around the painting.
Both were done for the Grand Central Academy Classical Figure Sculpture Competition last year. The first one is by Will St. John and is the winner of the competition, and the second one is by Susie Chism and received second place. In many ways the second one has tighter more precise rendering and handling of the form, and more detail. So why did the first one win?
It won because it allowed room for the viewer to make a connection with it. You can see some marks from the sculptor’s tools on the arms and fingers on the abdomen, and yet it still won.
When something is rendered completely it has told it’s entire story, there is nothing left for anyone else to contribute. It becomes plastic ice cream. Plastic ice cream doesn’t drip. It is always a perfect scoop, never partial or broken. It looks perfectly like ice cream, but no one would be fooled into thinking it has the coolness, taste, or texture of real ice cream.
But there is a danger in the unfinished accent, and a reason why I call it an accent. To borrow Harold Speed’s analogy of the engine again, if there is too much room in an engine, it looses power and may not work, or even becomes dangerous. It needs to remain the unidentifiable thing that adds life to an artwork not become the artwork itself.