Is Less Really More?

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)

About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: Art: Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook Artists page Facebook
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19 Responses to Is Less Really More?

  1. terrepruitt says:

    I think there is a time and place for “less is more”. If you were just interested in making art to sell, then that might be the motto to follow, but if you are creating something that you want to create, then do it your way. In the dance I teach, we don’t necessarily prescribe to “less is more”, but we are allowed to do less in order to do it well. So when learning a routine to teach a class it is better to do three out of the eight moves well, then once we are comfortable we can add the rest. It is better to do a few well than to do the whole thing really sloppy. I say for artist do what makes your heart happy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Yes, I agree, that makes a good deal of sense! Got to get the basic moves right before feeling confident to tackle more. On the topic of art making, I think it would kill an artist’s drive if they painted for the market only, just like with writing – they say write for yourself – but of course it all comes down to balance in the end. Thank you for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A.P. says:

    Fascinating! I have so often been told “Less is More” and have also struggled with getting the reader to see the “forest for the trees” in my lengthier writings. But this is also why I am proud of my article, “Classism, Stigma and Mental Health.” It’s an example of a decent condensation of a much larger body of thought, somehow reducing it to that which is most salient. In earlier drafts than the one posted, “blue collar” was mentioned as well as “white collar,” and “drug addiction” was mentioned in addition to “alcoholism.” But these references proved unnecessary in order to make the point. I also was able to focus on moving solidly in the “direction” of the point, sort of like a chess player who shoots for the King right from the top of the game.

    But many times I think my point or central theme gets lost in the many words. The analogy of purple being surrounded by different shades of purple, thus disguising or obfuscating the intended purple, is wonderfully informative. But I think you nailed it when you wrote:

    “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.”

    This is liberating. Thank you once again for a very thought-provoking, insightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Many thanks for sharing, Andy. Sorry I missed it somehow. It is quite astonishing how this maxim is entrenched in our society in so many ways. To be honest I think many creative people would argue the truth of it, so I’m pleased I have had a go at redressing the balance. And that article of yours was succinct at the same time as covering a huge topic – so yes, that’s where less can be a lot more in getting a clear messsage across – so well done!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Rick Ellrod says:

    Yes. It seems to me we constantly underrate the variety of goodness. There can be good minimalist stories, good maximalist (if there is such a category) stories, good highly-ornamented artwork, good simple art. I like Heinlein, William Morris, Shakespeare, Wodehouse, Stout, LeGuin, Zelazny — all in different ways. The problem arises from taking one mode and declaring it the only one admissible — rather than savoring all the flavors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      ‘Savouring all the flavours’ – I like this! I’ve often reflected upon why manufaturing focuses on certain trends within interior design – by selecting out a certain ‘look’ and having it available everywhere, then that becomes a fashion which many can’t ignore because they want to be up to date and if there is a difference presented as an altenative it takes second place. So for example, all this grey, brown, beige and metal we have going on currently. If you look in a garage selling second hand cars, you will see there is a predominance grey and silver (still grey to me) because they dominated the show rooms a while back, with white and black and a few red ones spattered around. It probably own’t surprise you to learn my car is bright red. You got me going here, so I hope I haven’t offended if you have a silver car or a grey kitchen ;>)

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I love this, Lynne! I am in the middle of editing a piece I wrote several years ago. I’ve murdered a few darlings, but I’m also saving a few. If I cut too much, I’ve completely cut me out of my own writing. It is a difficult thing. Attention to balance is a phrase I needed to hear this morning. Your poppy paintings are exquisite!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. galenpearl says:

    Definitely depends on taste and context! When I was teaching, I discovered that the less I talked the more they learned. When I introduced a concept and some guidelines for it, they did better if I gave them a project to work on so that they could apply the concept themselves rather than listen to me talk about it.

    On the other hand, when my kids were growing up and I decorated for the holidays, I went all out! I put up so many lights, I’m surprised I didn’t burn the house down or at least short out the electricity. Garlands hung over every door, other decorations covered every surface. It was chaotic and gaudy and we loved it.

    Speaking of love, I finally got to see two of your paintings. You are a multi-talented person. They are lovely. Hope you will post more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank, Galen! I agree with respect to teaching. With my art classes, I definitely got on better by demonstrating techniques and encouraging students to have a go (a little like your project working), rather than follow the hand outs I gave or learn from all the talking I did. Handouts were more for filing and consutling later on. So yes, to taste and context as being governing factors. As for my paintings, well they’re all on my website where you will find the other side of me. Cheers!


      • galenpearl says:

        Oh, LOVED the slide show. So amazing to see the drawings come into the fullness of color. That was marvelous. You are so talented. I’m in awe.

        Liked by 1 person

      • lynnefisher says:

        Cheers, Galen! I’m so glad you liked the stages slideshow – I got my hubby to put it on the home page rather than tucked away somewhere. And many thanks for the compliments. Painting has been a huge part of my life for many years, I kind of ‘came into myself’ with it.


  6. I’ve come to similar conclusions about all things set rule, pat answer, and the like. Find the you inside and go with it. There will be plenty of appreciation out there, even if there are some in which there ain’t. We come boxed and labelled with a message. If we don’t honour it, how will anyone know that which we were designed to share?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I absolutely love Art Nouveau too! My taste is very much for intense rich colours and beautiful ornate decoration using shapes from nature. One thing I love about your book is the vivid visual descriptions. It has an incredible sense of place.

    Liked by 1 person

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