All in the Details

Handling detail in a painting can be a challenge for an artist. Too much detail and a painting will look cluttered or lifeless; too little and a painting will look unfinished or unfocused. In his pastel The Date Seller, George Alistair (known by his ArtistsNetwork.com user name “Kernow”) got it right.

The Date Seller depicts a Kuwaiti shop owner surrounded by his wares and illuminated by bare light bulbs hanging from above like ripe fruit. The merchant is standing in the middle of his store, looking out toward the viewer with a frank and open expression. In the background, you can see his produce scales, an essential tool of his trade. The walls of the shop are decorated with pictures that indicate his tastes and interests.

It’s these details, clearly and carefully included in the picture, that set the stage for this scene. They tell the background story that makes the date seller a believable character.

The key to managing details is to keep them in a supporting role. Two effective ways to do this is by including a strong center of interest and avoiding high contrast. The date seller is the obvious focal point of the picture. By making him the “main attraction” all the little details will remain subordinate to this single figure. Without this strong element, the details would be confusingly competing for our attention.

By avoiding high contrast, the details harmoniously blend. If all the details had been rendered in bright colors, with strong lights and darks or with sharp edges, the result would be visual chaos. Too many details are like pages of fine print—hard on the eyes. Here, the artist gives just enough detail to make the painting interesting.

In the composition, the date seller is near the center of the composition. Typically, this makes a painting look static, but here it works. Placing the figure near the center suggests that the date seller is in the center of his world. His shop is his life.

One suggestion for improvement: The orange picture right behind the merchant’s head doesn’t quite work because it frames the head so symmetrically that it looks like a hat or perhaps suggests a halo. Unless that’s the intention, the orange rectangle should be grayed down, moved, extended to one side, or eliminated entirely. But this is a minor distraction and one that is easily remedied.

Greg Albert bio

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