Saturday, April 05, 2008


I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
.......................................... . --Walt Whitman
Illustrator Robert Hilbert decided that the best way to convey a man who had hung himself was not to paint the noose around the man's neck, but to imply the event in a way that draws the viewer into the picture:

By exercising restraint, an artist compels the viewer to engage in the picture. When the viewer has to meet the artist halfway, it personalizes art and makes the experience more meaningful.

Sometimes artists receive unwanted help in deciding what parts of a picture to leave to the imagination. Congress famously required publisher Bill Gaines to explain how the following picture was "tasteful" merely because it refrained from showing where the woman's head had been severed:

Of course, today Gaines would have no trouble showing the severed neck and a whole lot more. Not only is there little risk in being daring, there's hardly any sport left in it either. I applaud artists who fight censorship, but many seem to have trouble distinguishing censorship from artistic restraint. Here's a hint: the former is your enemy, but the latter is your best friend.

For example, Walt Whitman paid a heavy price for the freedom to put anything he wanted in his explicit poems. But he recognized that a license to say anything doesn't mean he should say everything. There are separate aesthetic reasons to "leave the best untold."

This awful drawing from New York's Museum of Modern Art makes you yearn for the days of the Counter-reformation, when gloomy Vatican censors pasted fig leaves on art that dared to show human genitals:

But here is a selection of less explicit, more inspired images that succeed by "leaving the best untold."

The brilliant Milton Glaser conjures up a mood with a limited palette and a glimpse of thigh

A few simple lines on a plain background are enough to create an extraordinary effect on the viewer's imagination

Look at how evocative mere feet can be

If Tomer Hanuka's cover was more detailed or explicit, it would only lose some of its considerable heat

Our current freedoms might help us to achieve great artistic heights, but they are just as likely to lure artists into spelling out things in explicit detail that would have been artistically stronger if left untold.


Jared said...

I have to reject your basic premise. Restraint doesn't make a picture better while explicitness makes it worse. You can make a bad restrained picture, a good restrained picture, a bad explicit picture, or a good explicit picture. And all the shades in between. Restraint and explicitness are just two more weapons in an artists arsenal. They can be used for good or ill.

Anonymous said...

I believe that it's important to leave enough vagueness or ambiguity in any creative work in order to engage the viewer in an intimate way. Having them ask questions or fill in the blanks stimulates their mind and senses to a greater degree than otherwise, heightening interest. Especially for publishing illustration, you want to draw them into the pages of the book or magazine

So when you add every bit of explicit information possible in a picture, what room do you leave for the audience to bring something of their own?

Personally, specificity can kill a picture as fast as anything else to me. All the painters I consider the greatest masters, even when dealing in realism, maintain a high level of mystery, drama, ambiguity, exaggeration, and abstraction. For example, Rubens depictions of warfare and hunting scenes, while more in the realism category than not, contain a large amount of unreality and abstraction that allows and inspires the viewer to imagine other ways such scenes may appear. On the other hand an academic realist may paint the scene with such fidelity to historical truth and setting -as much as modern man can envision - that they leave little doubt as to the "facts" presented, and therefore little involvement beyond admiration of technique and noting of data

Part of what makes Frazetta's work in fantasy compelling is the vagueness and abstraction. He creates mystique. The hazy broad shapes, slashes and dapples of color are evocative of something to the viewer, even if they know not what it is. Others flesh out every piece, every detail until their pictures are just explicit gathterings of "stuff", all first impression.

Anonymous said...


I think selectivity or selectiveness is the really the idea. Selecting whatever content is best to make the statement in the best way, with restraint being the more advised of the two as there doesn't seem to be much of a problem for artists' when it comes to putting stuff in.

But yeah, explicitness or restraint themselves aren't generally important if the picture is successful. But personally, when it comes to sexuality, suggestion, anticipation - basically the tease - are more powerful. And I do think there are definite differences between taste and tastelessness

kev ferrara said...

Jared, you don't have to reject the basic premise. Because I don't think David implied that restrained pictures are always good.

For instance, the artist that did the man trawling for over-flung horseshoes ... clearly restrained his talent when doing that picture. And thus rescued it from becoming "mere illustration".

Anyhow... great blog, David! (as usual)


David Apatoff said...

Jared, I agree with you and didn't mean to imply otherwise. In fact, if an artist chooses to leave out the wrong elements, a "restrained" picture will look far worse than an "explicit" picture.

Having said that, I think it is almost impossible for a picture to be great if the artist tries to include absolutely everything, or to draw every line that there is to draw. To begin with, I think that economy and prioritization are two important characteristics of great art. But even more important is what Crisp rightly calls "ambiguity." No matter how skilled and detailed and careful, a picture that tries to record everything is a closed system, like a crossword puzzle with all the letters filled in. I have yet to find the artist who can achieve, with mere marks on a surface, the kind of airy, non-linear, metaphysical float that comes with a viewer's active exploration of a picture's ambiguity.

Jared said...

     “The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” -Rene Magritte
That's one of my favorite quotes. And I certainly love economy and ambiguity in my art and illustration. But now that I think about it there are certain guys who can pull off the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach with no ambiguity. Geoff Darrow comes to mind.
And Norman Rockwell. One of the things that I think makes Rockwell great is that there is no ambiguity in his work. Everything he wants to be there is right there on the surface for all to see. He communicates his message well. There is no subtext whatsoever. That can also make someone think his work is shallow but it's a shallow that is really hard to pull off. I think he is unique in his ability to do so.
It's not my favorite take and I think the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach tends to be an amateur's approach and therefore lends itself to a lot of bad work but don't write it off entirely. Even those "Where's Waldo" illustartions are kinda neat.

David Apatoff said...

Crisp, that is very well put. I think your term "ambiguity" is exactly what I was reaching for. On the subject of Frazetta, if you look at some of his earlier work, it was painfully tight-- every single wrinkle, fold, shadow or strand of hair was depicted. It took Frazetta a while to learn to achieve the effect you describe, but once he did his career took off.

Kev, thanks-- I agree with you.

Li-An said...

Interesting post. As it was said, I think "suggestion" or "showing all" are two different things. I prefer a frontal pornographic with a real good idea or work than an "erotic" drawing talking about sex but only showing some hypocrisis.
The artist have to choose what they want to show or not ant what is the purpose. You can show everything and be very allusive about the real idea of the art.

Thomas said...

Nice post. I also agree completely with the Margrite quote above.

It also reminds me of Tarkovsky's ideas about art in his book "Sculpting in Time". He said an artist shouldn't just give away the idea or emotion in a scene because it will destroy the artistic image. I'm not really good at explaining it but Tarkovsky's ideas were a real revelation for me.

ces said...

There are times when my brain is dead & I just want everything there so I don't have to think. And there are times when my brain is flying & I want to fill-in all the blanks. And that's why I'm not going to make any black-&-white statements on this topic. There are just too many variables, & there is always the exception.

David Apatoff said...

Li-an and ces, it would be pretty inconsistent of me to say that artists shouldn't try to spell everything out comprehensively, and then claim that I have spelled out an iron clad formula that covers every picture in the world. Of course I believe there will always be exceptions, and of course a great idea can do a lot to overcome all kinds of weaknesses. However, as a general matter I do believe that any artist who tries to embody every theme and implication of a picture in the lines and shapes and colors of the surface is more likely to fall short of greatness. I would welcome any examples you would care to share (Li-an, especially those pornographic ones you like so much!)

Thomas, I will try to track down Tarkovsky.

ed said...


Anonymous said...

On a quick side note..

David, please post more of Orson Lowell's work. I'm such a slut for pen and ink work and this man's linework just sings. Please expose us to more of his work.

Oh by the way, I discovered that my uni has a large but incomplete collection of Studio magazine. I tell you, it was like finding buried treasure. There's no school like old school.

The Social Pathologist said...

Less is more.

Jack Ruttan said...

Cats are so darned uncaring.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, ed! Good to have you here.

Jelliottcoleman, have a great time mining Studio Magazine! There is a wealth of material to be had there. I have one other Lowell to share, but there are also a lot of other great pen and ink artists out there.

Jack, ain't it the truth?

Social pathologist, just when I think that is a good general rule, along comes the situation when more turns out to be more.

Eaton said...

Ambiguity is fine up to a point, but I think the real issue here is about implication vs. description. You don't have to describe everything, but that doesn't necessarily create ambiguity. The severed head picture has no ambiguity, but the status of the body is implied rather than described. What we choose to imply and what we choose to describe set the tone of the work. What we describe tends to attract the viewer's attention, sometimes disproportionately to our intentions. On the other hand, we can focus the viewer's attention completely on something by ostentatiously leaving it out.

Brad Sturgeon said...

My goodness! That Hanuka image is a real stunner! A gorgeous illustration, and every inch of it radiating its message. Wow!