We’ve probably all heard that, creatively speaking, less is more. That is, we should be careful not to over-egg our writing with multitudes of adjectives, dialogue tags, adverbs, long sentences and paragraphs, indulgent similes and metaphors, and excess description and unnecessary details, because they detract from the narrative or give the reader too much to digest for comfort. Gems of quality writing elements, such as masterful metaphors, lose their shine when all around them other gems are sparkling and competing to be seen, all wanting to be noticed and appreciated. One way I think about this visually, is something I remember coming across which said –‘you can’t see purple when purple is all there is’ meaning you can’t see the purple in its own right when all around it are more variations of the same – a veritable swamp of purple. There has to be a way for that purple to stand out, and the only way that can happen is if it is allowed its own space, and that means cutting down on the over-use of it, so allowing full appreciation. This all seems perfectly logical to the point where we may have to ‘murder our darlings’ and edit, edit, edit. Cut them out of our book with scalpel precision. Gut your book, fillet it, make it palatable.
Similarly in the world of painting, less is frequently seem as more. I remember a gallery owner once suggesting to me that if I painted single flowers, rather than the multiple flowered style of paintings I was giving him for display, I may very well make more sales in this manner. One single poppy would have more visual impact was the message here, it take less time to do, it would be cheaper to frame, and would be more likely to sell because the price could be lower. I’ve even had one or two people in the past suggesting I could cut up a painting to frame the different elements, rather than present them as a whole. But here’s the thing, I wanted to paint a multi-flowered composition, I wanted to relish the contextual atmosphere I could bring to it, I wanted to go deep into the details and painting processes and while of course giving plenty of attention to an effective composition and balance, I wanted to give the viewing eye a richness of colour and contrast with interesting details to discover, and in the process I didn’t care how long that painting might take me. I love the decorative arts, I love Art Nouveau and medieval paintings, I love the Pre-Raphaelites – I love detail! So a single oriental poppy on a white background like the one of mine above, although botanically accurate with a sense of purity about it, didn’t give me half as much pleasure to do as the more stylised grouping of opium poppies growing in a setting with textural effects to draw the eye. The single poppy required pure technique from me, the grouping required much more, coming from that place we have inside us that directs our creative impulses and makes them flow into the external and where time taken to do the work becomes irrelevant.
If we take a look at where the maxim ‘less is more’ derives from, it proves very illuminating. It was coined by Robert Browning in his 1855 poem entitled ‘Andrea del Sarto: The Faultless Painter’. Andrea was a successful and well regarded High Renaissance painter, known by his contemporaries for being senza errori (“without errors”). In those days excellent craft and technique were highly prized, and Andrea seemed to do his work to this high standard effortlessly.
Here’s an extract of the poem where the phrase is used:
Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,-
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.
Here I think Andrea is being addressed by his fellow artists and being told that his skills seem innate, masterly in their ease and that for other painters the same standard takes so much more work, more brushwork and so much more labour. So for Andrea, less effort seemed to result in more effectiveness. It doesn’t mean that Andrea didn’t do detail. He couldn’t possibly have avoided it at the time when these were vital to contemporary tastes wanting to see realism rendered at its highest for religious devotion purposes. And here we have an inkling of what his style actually was:
‘Sarto’s style is marked throughout his career by an interest in effects of colour and atmosphere and by sophisticated informality and natural expression of emotion’
‘He succeeded in adapting Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato to a more lively and warmer range of colours…and soon established an independent style, based especially on the work of Leonardo and Raphael.’ ( National Gallery Link here)
But our current understanding of the phrase comes from the minimalist movement in art, where Bauhaus architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, adopted the phrase as a mantra in 1947, to apply to minimalist architecture, art and design. Minimalist art ‘uses abstract geometric forms, without any sense of a story or a biography behind them. Minimalist art is often seen as clean, clear, stripped down art that does not go in for complex flourishes and which tends to favour single blocks of colour arranged into geometric patterns rather than many layered colours. It embodied the idea that less is more.’ (link here)
So a phrase that originally had nothing to do with extolling the virtues of minimalist design and painting was appropriated in this way to be applied to pared-back modern interior design and contemporary creative works. Simplicity, clarity, ‘skin and bones’ free flowing architectural space and design became the order of the day. And so today we feel the legacy of this concept within creativity, that less should be more.
But here’s the thing. I personally don’t like minimalist modern, I love cottage clutter. I love colour, not grey. I love Art Nouveau, not Bauhaus. So how can the concept of less is more possibly work for me, and for others like me? I want to paint rich details not streamlined simplicity or blocks of colour. I want to immerse myself in a painting, not to do one in a flurry of spontaneous brushwork. I do spontaneity in smaller, less obvious ways, or when I’ve done a lot of the groundwork already. And within my writing, if I didn’t relish descriptive language to evoke settings, places, moods, and interior musings, with some psychological intensity to the characters, if I felt I had to write with dialogue and plot as uppermost, with minimal context or minimal visual details which linger in the mind long after the reading, then I wouldn’t write at all. I’ve just read a best selling book which follows the more modernist writing rules of less is more, and it was a good read, but it’s not going to resonate with me afterwards because I have little to remember it by in my visual mind. Now I’m reading a Tim Lott book, one of my favourite writers, with all that psychological intensity I relish, and it is such a contrast. You may say this is the difference between general fiction and literary fiction, and that’s certainly true, but you have to decide which is you and stay true.
My conclusion is that we must write, paint, or create to our very own nature, our own inclinations and strengths, what we are passionate about. As far as less is more goes, the important thing is to use editing to achieve a balance in our writing that can please us while hopefully also pleasing the reader. It doesn’t mean we have to murder our darlings necessarily – not if they work where they are placed. And in the world of painting there are changes afoot. There seems to be a new trend of highly realistic pencil and pastel paintings which are being appreciated for their skill and dedication to craft, that are not being accused of being ‘over-worked’. There are digital artists using fractal patterns to create intensely detailed visual delights, while still observing basic rules of composition and visual resting places for the eye. So with attention to balance, there’s got to be room for all of us, all our natures, all our varied styles and genres. Instead of the maxim ‘less is more’, it can be a case of following the rule ‘more or less is entirely up to you’.
(poppy paintings my own)