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Many contemporary artists, if they had John Singer Sargent’s "Man Wearing Laurels" on their easel, would feel like they should “improve” that blank ear by adding more anatomical detail. This is because we are in the age of thinking more is better, and more details are more real, and more detail looks more photographic -- which is our default for "realism." The dullest of compliments to a painter is to hear a viewer say: “Wow, it looks just like a photograph,” which indicates both the viewer and painter have missed the point (which is to make a painting, not simulate a photograph.)

What actually works better in many paintings is to leave out as much detail as possible, and let the viewer’s mind fill in the blanks. Sargent doesn’t bother to paint in the anatomy of the eyes, because he knows we will imagine them completely, set in moody shadow. Sargent understands that any convincing detail is best used to bring a viewer’s attention to focal points, in this case, the reflections of light on the red lips and an edge of golden laurel leaf. If those details are well rendered, we believe the psychological reality of the whole. Adding details to that ear would be at best a waste of labor, at worst, a distraction from the lips.

It’s not what you put in that makes a good painting, it’s what you leave out. How did we forget that? Culturally, the answer is that starting about 1950 advertisers methodically changed American values from the Depression era's "efficiency" mentality to a new postwar "more is better" consumer mindset. After 65 years of being told daily that that more is better, this cultural value has sunk in so deep, it's hard to think outside the box of "more is better."

Note from publisher: Originally posted on Facebook May 28, 2016 with an more lively title.

Walt MortonComment