by Christopher Willard
Methods & Materials: The Details on Details
by Christopher Willard
Sunday, August 25 2002
One of the most famous details in art must be the large pearl earring in Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring. Cover this one object and the impact of the entire painting is minimized. Perhaps it is the opportunity to create such a tremendous effect that overwhelms artists when they are deciding what small marks will leave a big impression.
Guy Diehl claims he tried to avoid details for years, but one look at his current work shows his diligence in every aspect of his luminous paintings, including the details. For this Mill Valley, California, acrylic painter, detail is not just, for example, embroidery on a dress, but "any key element that goes into a painting," he remarks. "This can be the surface texture of objects, the exact play of light and shadow, or the number of parts in any area." In Diehl's 30 years of painting details he has learned to follow the simple maxim that less is more. "I put in what I think is appropriate and leave out what is not necessary," he states, adding that typically he edits half the details he sees. "By paying attention to only the important details, I can make a painting that is more interesting. I think this is a universal problem that artists have dealt with all along?putting in too much detail versus not enough."
When Diehl considers adding a detail, his first concern is not one of paint but of personal comfort. "I have to decide up front if it is worth the effort," he says, adding that he makes the determination based on the complexity and time involved. "I also have to feel confident in my ability to paint it. If I don't feel ready to tackle a certain subject, I will wait. For example, I don't usually pursue a complicated flower unless it's absolutely necessary. In general, I think artists take on too much detail too early in their careers. They bite off more than they can chew and then don't understand what's wrong with their work."
Diehl's favorite subjects are books, particularly those about artists, which allow him to pay homage to painters he admires. "The majority of these books are fictitious," he explains, "so I compose the still life using garden books and cookbooks for the shapes and colors." Then he takes photographs of the setup and projects the best one onto the canvas as a guide. "The photos capture an exact light, so I can work even if the light on the still life changes. However," he continues, "the still life is set up if I need to examine a detail more closely."
As the books usually don't exist, to create a title on the spine that appears in perspective the artist uses his computer. He types in the title text and skews it using a graphics program. He then prints it out in the correct size, makes a stencil, and traces it onto the canvas. Diehl also finds that for painting the text, as well as for many other details, a magnifier is necessary. He employs a visor of sorts that he slips over his reading glasses.
Diehl works on a pristine gessoed canvas with acrylic paint mixed with gel medium that has been diluted with 3 parts water to 1 part gel. To that he adds a touch of drying retarder and flow medium. The artist also keeps a fine-mist spritzer with water and flow medium on hand. "The flow medium breaks the surface tension of the water and makes it easier to achieve effects," he comments. "I can't tolerate the oil environment, so I developed this technique with acrylic to give me the rich look of oil." He wields bristle brushes that he hand-pares to the shape of a filbert, as the synthetic brushes traditionally used with acrylics are too limp for his technique.
Many artists struggle with making a seamless transition from light to dark or from one color to another; it is a detail for which Diehl has constructed a unique method. "To get a perfect transition," he explains, "I mix four colors or values of the color, lay them in, and physically blend them as much as I can. It's still a raw blend because I can see my brushstrokes. I save the four colors in jars and let the area dry overnight. The next day I do a second layer with the colors starting at one end of the transition and slowly working toward the other, making the transitions smoother. As a final layer I put the same four colors down and lightly pass a large house-painting brush over them. After each pass I wipe the brush clean on a rag. If I need to, I spray a bit more water on it to keep the paint workable."
Bright highlights and darker shadows are common details, and it is important to Diehl that they are integrated into a painting, not just marks made on the surface. He gives the example of students painting a red ball: "A typical problem is that they apply a white dot on top for the highlight or a black patch of color for the shadow. For the white to become part of the painting, it's important to create the transitions that lead to the highlight. On the red ball I would first paint the degrees of pink that fall between the red and the highlight. Only last would I put the dot of white on the core of that pink for the highlight. These transitions are equally important in the shadows."
The edges between a subtle background and sharp objects are also a critical detail for Diehl, so he uses masking tape to guarantee clean edges. "I often tape the whole subject and foreground before painting the background," he says. "After applying the tape I seal the edges with gel medium so my paint doesn't run under it." He may occasionally apply tape over a painted background to protect it as he renders his subject, but not usually.
A painting of approximately 30" x 40" takes Diehl two to three weeks to finish if he puts in six- or seven-hour days in the studio. He starts by blocking in the simpler areas and the background. "I save the hardest elements or the most critical details for last," the artist remarks. "When the painting is about 80-percent finished, I decide what details to bring up. I often crop my reference photo to focus my attention on the area I'm working on, and I use a mirror to look at a painting along the way. It's a process of taking things slowly and trying not to rush ahead."
Again and again Diehl returns to the importance of simplifying details. He is in awe of Renaissance works that depict books so minutely that every bit of text on a painted page is readable. But the artist doesn't spend his time going into such a fine detail. He states, "My concern is not to paint every word on a page or every pore on an orange but to look closely and understand exactly how the light and shadow play off the object. It's a fine-tuning of my eye so that I can see the detail clearly and tackle more intricate surfaces. I want to make strong statements with simplification. I ask myself what is the pure essence of the surface, and I try to paint it. It's a bit of trial and error at first, but when I get the painting right, it begins talking back to me and says it needs more of this or that. At that point detail becomes convincing."