How much detail?

Photo detail

Photo of a Kendal farm stream, on the East Rand, Transvaal, South Africa.

The microscopic view:

Amateur artists are amazed by the fine realistic detail they see in the great works of the old masters.

Because of the fine detail they see, they get the false impression that detail is important, and so they fuss and fiddle to get their own paintings just perfect. And because the old masters had complex compositions they think every corner of their paintings must have something in every spare space.

If you aiming for laborious photographic detail, you might as well stop wasting your time painting and blow your visual aid (reference material) photo up to a larger size and frame it!

What aspiring artists don’t realize is that detail is carefully handled by the old masters to convey the right impression. What do I mean by that?

To start with, ten to one the paintings with lots of fine detail were large paintings. With small paintings there isn’t room to cram detail in!

To draw attention to the main point of interest, they controlled the outer edges of their paintings:

  • The immediate surroundings of objects have similar tone levels to that of the objects.
  • The immediate surroundings of objects have similar or analogous colours to that of the objects.
  • And the contrast of tone and colour is strengthened at the main point of interest.

As time went on artists got cunning:

  • They started blurring the details around the outer edges of their paintings and putting more emphasis on the centre part of their paintings, to create tunnel vision. Putting the spotlight and focus on the main characters at the main point of interest makes your painting more dramatic.
  • They also started reducing the amount of detail in the foreground. This was done so that the eye could travel easier over the foreground, drawing you more dramatically into the painting.
  • I call these blurred foregrounds ‘a lot about nothing’. In other words, the less descriptive areas are still interesting but less obtrusive.
If someone moves while a photo is taken, their image is blurred. That means action is blurred, eg: blurred wings of flying birds. Considering that train of thought, if trees, grass and wild flowers move in the breeze, their foliage will be blurred.If that is the case, it makes sense that blurring in paintings isn’t a bad strategy, but a fact of Nature. So why not use it with other things that live and breathe as well.That is food for thought, don’t you think!

 In watercolours:

You have to reduce details even further. Why? Because:

  • You start with a wash of colour on wet paper.
  • And refine the schemata shapes and add detail as the paper dries.

 How much detail?

About 15-40% detail, depending on the type of subject matter involved.

Take note:

  • Having less detail means you have more control over wet washes and flexibility to change things as you work.
  • Complex compositions are difficult for beginners to handle.
  • Less detail draws more attention to the more dominant shapes (objects) in the composition, giving you a stronger statement.
  • Don’t expect perfection: Trying to get things perfect can be frustrating. Fussing and fiddling makes your watercolour look tired and messy.
  • Nobody can reproduce what God so perfectly created.
  • If every detail is distinct and well pronounced, they all call attention at once. This causes confusion.
  • Don’t clutter your work. Detail should be selective and well placed.
  • Each detail is read like shorthand. Small dots and dashes act like full stops and comas and as you would use in grammar. A string of them It directs the like a trail of facts for the viewer to assess your painting. Just make sure you don’t over use your exclamation marks!
  • Blurring unnecessary details creates atmospheric mood.
  • Blurring is sensual. And people buy paintings according to their senses and emotions.
  • If your painting has a lot of detail, try to keep some areas blurred and uncluttered.
Watercolour detail.

A4: This watercolour has about 60% detail. Why so much detail? In this case I wanted to capture the feeling of the feral leafiness of nature. But notice how the smooth blurred areas make it somehow more acceptable.

Illusion of reality:

It isn’t the job of the artist to produce authentic detail, while copying directly from reality. Art is creating another dimension or translation of reality. What you create is your own personal perception and impression. You use suggestion to convey reality.

People are fascinated by illusions. They like to surmise and put their own connotation on what they see in your art. People love using their imagination, to reason and gossip. Make it so that they never get bored with your paintings and always have something they didn’t notice before.

That is why watercolours are so appealing. Because they are applied in a spontaneous manner, the loose free expression, the blending of colours and gradation of contour edges is more appealing than sharp-edged accurate detail.

 Is detail important?

Yes and no. Why is that?

  1. First of all people assess a picture symbolically.
  2. Second they read the shape by its outline.
  3. Therefore the shape and outline is more important than the inner section of the shape.
  4. The inner part suggests the mood of the shape, or the state of a person, whether they have a red dress or blue pants on.
Remember details are like trimmings, frills, button and bows on a dress or blouse. If a dress has too much fills and bows, the person is considered overdressed. So be careful not to over titivate your paintings.

Handling Watercolour Schemata

What are schemata?

Schemata are imaginary things we see in odd shapes. For example when you look up at sky, we are inclined to surmise the shape of the clouds look like things. That cloud looks like a face or a dog running, etc. How do we see these things? We assess the shapes of clouds by their basic symbolic shapes and then we fantasize the rest.

Watercolour: cloud schemata

Watercolour: cloud schemata

That is what happens when we paint with watercolours. We assess things, ie shape of your brushstrokes or how things merge, as we paint.

If blunders occur we quickly translate the schemata blotches that appear in our painting into something more significant. If it looks for instance like a flower or a butterfly, we either add plausible detail or eliminate superfluous details, so as to give the shape a more authentic appearance.

This calls for sensitivity of spirit:

Our minds and spirit must be in tune with what’s happening all the time on our paper. So we can quickly identify any possible unexpected schemata and decide what alternatives we can use in the situation.

This of cause can change the format of what we initially planned for our composition. Sometimes drastically!

Don’t get upset. It doesn’t help. Look carefully at what you see. Look for the beauty in the moment, the end result maybe more appealing than you expect.

This is a wow-moment, when you realize paintings taken on their own personality and life of their own. Like characters in a TV soapy, the influence of the actor’s personality affects the recording. And you as the stage manager, you are handling the end result.

The constitution of the pigments and the state of the brush and paper play a big part in the state of affairs. Their characteristics define the personality of your painting. As the artist you need to be flexible in our attitude and thought processes to make things work for you.

 Perfection verses emotional impact:

If you try to reinforce your original concept, your painting will only look contrived and stiff. Be more concerned with how you are communicating, rather than been authentically correct according to reality.

Whatever the schemata shape, consider the inner part of the shape. Just as we meet people we assess their mood, ie what vibe they are sending us. So it is with art, consider what blend of colours you are using within and surrounding the schemata shape:

  • Blue and green: cool calm vibes.
  • Red and orange: warm vibrant vibes.
  • Yellow: warm and sunny vibes.
  • A mixture of analogous colours: harmonious vibes.

 Controlling mistakes:

To make the schemata shape settle comfortably with its surroundings (so our mistake doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb) consider using harmonious, similar or analogous colours and tones to correct the situation!

The intricacies of watercolour:

Every medium has some sort of idiosyncratic intricacies. Watercolours aren’t any different.

As a beginner it can be disconcerting, irritating and frustrating at first. But once you have learnt how to handle problems and unexpected elements, you’ll be able to seize what it presents and `go with it’.

Don’t panic. Be flexible in following through on the consequences of your actions. Inflexibility doesn’t give room for manoeuvres.

Consider the problems you confront in watercolours like you were doing judo. In judo you use the strength of your opponent to swing him over. You use your opponent’s energy as your energy. You follow through on what your opponent presents.You would have less stress if you calmly grasped the problems that came and use them to your advantage. And you will find the dramas are never as big as you first thought.

Think of unexpected schemata as opportunities!

To an inexperienced person handling unexpected facets is scary. But each experience adds to your expertise. And as time goes on you’ll stop been petrified of things that could possibly go wrong, and feel the power of being in control, and actually enjoy manipulating accidental occurrences.

  • You will see the ingenious skills you used to handle these unexpected schemata, could possibly open many a door to your success as an artist.
  • Perfect your skills and help build your style.
  • Open your eyes to new concepts and take you down corridors you never dreamt you were capable of.

So why all this about schemata?

Not only do we assess schemata to correct mistakes, but it’s also the way watercolour paintings evolve through schemata.

When our watercolour paper is blank we have nothing to work with. As you know a blank canvas can be stressful. We need a faint suggestion of marks to convey an impression and stir our imagination.

When we start watercolours with blurred shapes, we have schemata formation and mood to work on. After that we add facts and define the shapes where necessary, until our painting is complete.

Conclusion: Painting watercolours is like adventuring into the unknown. Starting with a vague beginning and using your imagination to unravel the `story’. The exciting part is, as artists we get to tell the story, create a beautiful vista as a time capsule.

How to make sure of your success:

  • First, have some sort of campaign strategy.
  • Set out all you need within reach before you begin paining so you won’t panic when the unexpected happens.
  • Like before a board meeting, simplify the composition so you can handle additional details should they arise.

 Here is a progressive demo to see how watercolours evolve through schemata:

Dexterity & Free Expression

Feel free to be yourself:

  • Is talent and drawing important?
  • Do you have a magic brush?
  • How to hold and wield your brush.
  •  How important is the ability to draw?
Free loose expression

Watercolour: Misty atmospheric background was created by wetting the paper and dropping in colours.

Is talent and drawing important?

As long as you can draw basic symbolic shapes, it’s okay. Why, because people ‘read’ paintings according to basic dominant shapes. This suggests outlines are more important than the details of the inner form. It’s how you express yourself that counts.

Man painted and danced long before he learnt to write, read and construct! Talent doesn’t come at birth. So why do people worry about whether they have talent or not? If only they realized expertise actually comes with constant dedication to your craft.

 My magic brush:

Students often thought I had an enchanted wand for a brush. Why, because their brush didn’t seem to be able to do what mine does. They forget I had many years of experience.

Because there are different types of brushes, each brush has different idiosyncrasies, some with springy flexibility and others floppy and less controllable. No matter what brushes you have, like a carpenter you need to get used to your `tools’.

 How to hold your brush:

There is a lot said about how we should hold our brush. And there are some strange notions too. But I say, hold your brush comfortably.

If you are inclined to grip your brush tightly, stop it. If you hold it too tightly you’ll choke the life out of your ‘wand’ and make nervous fussy strokes.

Free up your hand. Hold your brush lightly. Balance it loosely in your hand. Loosen up your arm and elbow so you can make more spontaneous strokes. Freedom and flexibility is important, it helps you express yourself more eloquently.

 Brush practices:

  • Flicking your brush: before applying your paint controls the amount of liquid on it. When I’m doing a demo (you don’t want to splash people) or if there is a carpet, I place an old towel on my lap and swipe my brush across there instead.
  • If there is lots of paint/liquid on your brush it allows your brush to flow easily over your paper. And if there is less liquid on your brush you’ll get broken-colour washes.
  • Learn when to change gear: Sometimes the handle is held above the hand (vertical) and sometimes below the palm (horizontally).
  • The angle of the brush is important: as to what type of strokes you require. Horizontally with the paper: you’ll find it easier to cover big areas. Perpendicularly: you’ll get thin lines and dots.
  • How much pressure to exert on the brush: This depends on what shape you wish to make, or if your want to cover a large area. Or if you want to lightly dash your brush back and forth lightly to create leafy textures.
  • When to roll, twist and whirl the brush: to create wavy lines and twirly tentacles.
  • Jerk your brush: to make tree trunks and twigs.
  • And when to change it for another brush. Maybe a bigger brush, or a square tipped brush instead of the round brush etc.

 Freedom of expression:

In watercolour it’s important that your strokes should appear spontaneous. This calls for big brushes, free loose strokes and big washes of colour.

I must own up to the fact I haven’t always had easy flowing brushstrokes. I put it down to the fact I’m a precise person. I’ve had to work at been free and loose with my brushstrokes. In the process I learnt a few tricks:

Before starting an important painting, I fool around with my brush, painting anything, unimportant images, eg: open skies and fields, flashy non-descriptive flowers, etc. This gets you into the right mood, making groovy stuff. To make this work:

  • Make sure you change your attitude. Think positively.
  • No one is dictating, what you should be doing. So feel free to do as you please. It’s your work of art.
  • Be stylish: be brave, slash, dash and splash, twirl and twist your brush.
  • Fantasize: move your hand like you are making time to music.
  • Flirt with your paper as though you are putting a spell on your paper.

 Each stroke should be freshly laid:

In spite of all that always have a purpose for what you are doing. Don’t splash around thoughtlessly. Think and plan of what you intend to do before applying your paint. Consider what undercoat you’ll need, which colours go where, what techniques you’ll need to get the right effect, what brushes will do the best job, etc? Then go with the flow, do your thing.

Amateurs are inclined to `jump in boots and all with blinkers on’ without planning, and then wonder why the painting didn’t turn out the way they intended!

  • One stroke at a time, don’t fuss and relentlessly fiddle. Be bold, but don’t press hard or dig your brush into the paper in the attempt to get what you want.
  • Be gentle. Let your brush caress the paper freely in an easy flowing manner. With practice you will gain a sensitive touch and easy flowing brushstrokes.

Remember your strokes are read like shorthand:

Scrutinize Japanese writing and painting. Each stroke in its simplicity makes a lucid statement. Why, because they pay attend to the outline of their strokes. They manipulate each stroke by changing the angle, the pressure and direction, rolling and spreading the hairs of the brush to achieve different types of strokes.

  • Always check the amount of liquid on the brush and the intensity ratio of water to pigment before applying paint to your paper.
  • Always watch, what’s actually happening between your brush and the paper.
  • Watch how the hairs of the brush are performing, the shape of the hairs as they spread over the paper.
  • Play buoyant tempo music while you paint. The mood you are in affects the way you apply your strokes.
  • The way you handle your strokes becomes your style, your fingerprint to fame.
Free flowing brushstrokes

Visual aid: Plum Blossoms painted on blank newspaper. This is my first attempt at Japanese painting.

The size and shape of your brushes:

Novices generally use small thin brushes and paint like they’re drawing. Tiny brushes lead to fiddling and create texture. And texture creates confusion. Watercolours don’t look nice when there is too much texture, itsy-bitsy strokes. No one can assess what’s in your painting, because the painting looks too busy and confusing.

  • Start with large brushes and only use smaller brushes as detail dictates.
  • If you need to cover large areas or block-in big mass shapes, use a fully loaded large brush.
  • Large brushes hold more liquid so flow easier over your paper.
  • Large brushes make bold strokes.
  • You can’t achieve atmospheric conditions with small brushes. Wet a large area with a big brush and drop-in colours until you have the right graduated effect.
  • A round tipped brush will fill-in round curved objects or areas, like flower petals.
  • A chisel shaped tip will fill-in square-shaped objects like a building and windows.
  • Thin long rigger or stroller brushes make lovely long thin lines, such as long grass, twigs, shimmers on water, fence or washing line wire, etc.

Being a free spirit:

Success comes with being free. Freeing your mind of worries: whether or not your painting will be a success, etc. Doing things with a happy soul: being yourself, feeling free to do your thing.

For free watercolour books check out Free Art Books page on this website.

Empower Your Creative Energy

Creative Power:

Determine where your creative energy lies.

  • Getting to know yourself and where your passion lies.
  • To be creative it’s important to see the world through new eyes.
  • How to respond to unexpected occurrences
  • And what energy you are using when painting!
Creative power & energy

A2 watercolour: Bouquet of lilies and wild flowers: This painting was a process of the mind,.One impression lead to another in the making of this watercolour.

People want dynamic solutions:

When actually in fact the answer is so simple ….that they don’t recognize the power lurking within the given advice. They read so fast that they miss the full meaning of what they have just read.

`It takes a wise and successful man to savour what he has read or heard’

 Capturing a vision:

Can’t decide what to paint for your next painting? Something that will be appealing, electrifying, dramatic enough, that people will want to buy it?

How to find that special scene? It’s a state of mind, opening your mind to all possibilities. It starts with drawing on your inner awareness, really seeing and deeply observing your surroundings. When you get excited about what you are looking at, that’s when you know where your energy lies.

 How people see things:

  • Right-brain aptitude: Most people see everything as objects. For instance “That’s a man, that’s a car”, etc. What they are actually doing is recognizing each object has a symbolic shape and colour. Like the moon is round, the sky is blue, the grass and trees are green, etc.
  • Left-brain aptitude: Artists on the other hand, don’t only see basic mass shapes, but they are also attracted to the emotional, moody atmospheric dimensions of what they see.

Seeing the world through new eyes:

Been creative means looking at life through different eyes, how you perceive and react to what’s actually happening around you.

Students have told me after a few lessons, they’ve started see the world differently. They saw colours they never saw before. Their world became an exciting vibrant place. Everything comes alive, looks so beautiful and fascinating.

 Sensitivity of the spirit:

Because artists know they can’t re-capture things perfectly as God created things, they resort to using suggestion. That is, creating an illusion of reality. And how do we do that?

We turn to using our inner spirit and see things through romantic eyes. Using all our senses to tune in to the mood, energy and vibes of what we see. Like seeing auras surrounding shapes and the intensity of colour in shadows, etc.

In plain language, artists live on a high of emotion to look beyond reality and fantasize. Re-arranging things to suit their abilities, assessing what they can eliminate or keep in their compositions before and during painting.

 But things don’t always turn out the way we expect:

If things don’t turn out the way you intend, it’s logical that you’ll have to change your original perception and adapt to circumstances. Especially with watercolours, you have to go with the flow and let the idiosyncrasy of watercolour constitutions work for you.

As the problem arises you’ll ask yourself, “What should I do now with the situation?” This requires:

  • Basically knowing the principles of composition. How to adjust objects and negative space so they relate better with each other in your composition.
  • Considering what colours you have already on your paper and how additional colours will be layered. If for example the area is already blue, but it needs to be green, that means you’ll need to add a little yellow as a wash. And it isn’t advisable adding complementary colours if you wish to keep the colours fresh.
  • Also knowing the constitutions of your pigments, whether they are transparent, opaque, earthy or grainy. And how they will interact, interlace, merge and blend to make special effects.

 Focusing your energy:

No one paints masterpieces when they are tense or tired. So how do you cope and work at your full potential?

The best way is to consider and assess your energy levels:

  • When do you have the most vitality?
  • When are your tired? In the evening?
  • When is your mind fresh? Early in the morning?
  • When are you relaxed, with peace and quiet?
  • When are you possibly alone to paint?
  • Can you re-organize your schedule, to make time to paint?

Find your passion, find your energy power:

Get to know yourself. What type of music do you like, that puts passion in your heart? What combination of colours that gets your creative `juices’ moving? What do you generally look for when you select something to paint?

  • Is it a special dramatic effect?
  • The blurring of action?
  • Gradation of colours?
  • Dynamic dramatic contrasts?
  • What? Whatever it is, that is the basis of you creative power.

Here comes the ultimate WOW Aaah-moment, when you realize where your crucial creative power really lies:

 LIVE WITHIN THE MOMENT OF CREATING. In the pure joy of the moment!

That is a powerful statement. Think deeply about it.

 Creating in the moment:

Creative power lies in switching off all your worldly cares, leaving behind the harsh reality of the world. And think and breathe only art.

Concentrating only what you are painting, in that moment. Feel the moment. Treasure what’s happening. It is your creation. You have the power to paint whatever you like.

 Your personal time warp:

Consider each painting a special event in a time warp. And that you are creating another dimension of time and space. You are capturing a capsule of time, and atmospheric conditions of a fanciful place. It’s your world, your vision, your dimension of space and form. Blotting out everything else, even negativity!

You could say: you are the stage production manager. You are directing procedures and planning maneuvers of the characteristics on the stage of your paper. No one else, YOU and the POWER you wield, to change things if you want to, to do and paint as YOU please.

Conclusion: The state of your mind is as important as the painting you are painting. Your energy, joy, self-actualization, is what brings out creative power.

If you want to know more, here are some links on this website you may want to see too: