The Power of Suggestion

The power of suggestion is a strong tool in the hands of an artist. When a painting is viewed, visual bits and pieces are processed and assembled into a recognizable image by the viewer. Often with only an indication, a viewer will be able to finish what the artist suggested and ultimately believe that there was more detailed information portrayed than was actually there. From childhood, humans internalize knowledge about what they see. This becomes stored in the “what we know” area of the brain and allows us to quickly identify things. Conversely, when a young child sees something for the first time, they ask, “What is that?” Left unchecked, this internalized knowledge of what things are can get in the way of painting what we truly see.


In Glenna’s Spot (pastel, en plein air, 12×16), Richard McKinley uses the power of suggestion, rather than line, in his portrayal of trees.

The Use of Line: Painters rely upon shapes of color, tone and value to represent what it is they are portraying. These form the visual bits and pieces that make up a painting, but there is another mark that the artist is capable of making that in reality doesn’t exist in nature – line. From the time that humans were capable of picking up a stick and making a mark in the soil, they have relied upon line to represent things. These marks evolved into text that could be read and contour shapes that symbolized specific things. But, in reality, it is really the contrast of color and value that makes something stand out and become recognizable in a scene—not line.

Painting the Essence: While line may have its purposes and, in the hand of a competent artist, is capable of representing a style of painting, it can also become detrimental to the representational artist when used to portray such things as blades of grass, tree branches, hair, and various other things that are often associated to line. I witnessed this at an early age while learning to paint portraits. After spending meticulous hours placing every strand of hair on a head, the instructor pointed out to me that I couldn’t really see all of those hairs, especially from root to tip. Instead, I was putting in what I knew about hair, instead of what I was capable of seeing. By showing me that the texture of hair was more evident where there was contrast, facilitated by the presence of intense light, I was able to let go of what I knew to be true about hair and paint what I was capable of seeing, which was the “essence” of hair. I could relate this lesson, then, to the grasses in a field and the limbs and branches of trees.

A pastel stick makes it easy to draw lines. To avoid what is contemptuously referred to as “The Spaghetti Phenomenon,” it is imperative to vary the pressure of application, especially when the pastel marks are intended to represent things that have depth and form yet are associated to line.

My en plein air pastel painting “Glenna’s Spot” offers an example. Instead of overly defining the individual tree limbs, I chose to use hit-and-miss pastel marks that indicated a directional thrust yet were not a constant line. The suggestion of the limbs is minimal, but hopefully just enough to allow the viewer’s imagination to be engaged, allowing them be a part of the painting.


The Recital (pastel) by Alain Picard
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