The Unfinished Accent

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.

Girl with a red hat by Vermeer
Girl with a red hat by Vermeer

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.

To get back to the concept of the unfinished accent, look at these two sculptures below.
Which one has more life?
Clay Sculpture by Will St John
Clay Sculpture by Susie Chism

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.


The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed.

Grand Central Academy Blog

The Classic Point of View

The Ecstacy of St Paul painting by Poussin
The Ecstasy of St Paul by Nicolas Poussin

I was reading Stapleton Kearns’s blog and he was talking about there being a different way of looking at art than we are used to.

He explained how we are used to judging art by the emotions or passions it inspires in us or how the artist felt, but there is a different way of looking at art. He mentioned the book The Classic Point of View by Kenyon Cox, which was published in 1911, just as the modern art was beginning to come to the forefront, and eventually to become the mainstream art of today’s galleries and museums.

I’ve only started reading it but one paragraph struck me as a good summary of the current state of artists.

“In all countries the ordinary painter, like
the ordinary man of any kind, takes the
easiest way. The mass of the painters of
this country, as of all countries, practise the
current methods of the time; but the exceptional
men, instead of striving for something
new, are trying to get back to something
old. They are trying to get back
composition and the monumental style;
they are trying to get back the expressiveness
of the line; they are attempting
purity and beauty of color; they are even
trying to revive old technical methods,
underpainting in tempera and using glazes
again, which modern art had almost
tabooed.”

Some of the writing is a little 19th century, but I find it interesting that his argument for American painters to take up the torch of past centuries of learning is happening today with such artists as Richard F. Lack, Jacob Collins, Michael John Angel and others. I also can’t help but notice that we seem to have done it backwards. Instead of pushing forward with the more traditional approach at the beginning of the 20th century, we embraced modernity for the past one hundred years, and only now after we are getting our fill of it are we turning back to the ideas of classicism.

The Poussin at the top, other than being a cool painting to illustrate this post, is an artist held up by Kenyon Cox as exemplifying classicism.


Stapleton Kearns

The Classic Point of View
Aristos article about Richard Lack
Jacob Collins
Michael John Angel