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The Art of Hinting   By Frederic Taubes

‚ÄúWho would believe, for instance, that El Greco took his paintings in hand many times, retouching them over and over again, in order to give them those cruel alla prima strokes, feigning valor. I call this working very hard for poor results.‚ÄĚ (Thus wrote the painter Francisco Pacheco, who was the father-in-law of Velasquez, and a contemporary of El Greco.)

And Diderot, more than a century later, had this to say: ‚ÄúA sketch is generally more spirited than a finished painting. It is the artist‚Äôs work when he is full of inspiration, when reflection has toned down nothing; it is then that the artist‚Äôs soul speaks to us freely‚Ķ A few strokes express the rapid fancy and the more vaguely the art embodies itself, the more room there is for the play of the imagination‚Ķ‚ÄĚ

To suggest rather than to expound, to veil rather than to expose, this was the artist’s way of arriving at a more intensive expression long before the time when sketchiness became the main preoccupation of painters. However, unlike drawing, where a quick apprehension is of the essence, in painting the same does not hold true. Sketchiness and the fragmentary in painting- if of high artistic order- are more often than not purposeful and deliberate rather than spontaneous; or, to put it more accurately, here sketchiness is the end result of complex efforts- it is not an initial utterance.

What Pacheco failed to understand is that El Greco, working at first painstakingly, gathering his facts methodically and with circumspection, was trying to ascertain for himself what his eye could encompass, his hand accomplish. Once he had won understanding of his problem, he could abbreviate, reformulate or distort as much as he desired without losing authority and authenticity.

By means of a thorough information he liberated his imagination and thus could create a new, a more powerful authenticity, unencumbered by superfluity of elaborations. Always the achievement of true simplification lies at the end of the road- it is not a product of a scheme formulated in advance.

Because it has the power to galvanize the imagination, a sketch can, as a rule, imply more than a finished work could convey. This is the reason why some artists delight in the fragmentary and incomplete. This is why a ruin can be more interesting than an intact structure, why a broken column entrances the imagination, for it is your mind which then dreams up the non-existing capitol and joins it with the phantom architrave.

Nevertheless, one of the secrets of all great works of art is that in spite of their finished condition, they always manage to nurture the imagination of the beholder. But for minor painters, sketchiness is quite often a saving device; by leaving out they can insinuate that it is not incapacity to articulate in complex, polished statements, but rather a high esthetic consideration which makes them do so. Of such paintings we can say that there is really less in them than meets the eye.

Then again, by never committing oneself to details, the painter can avoid one of the major pitfalls of all ages- becoming a victim of the poor taste of his time, or bogging down in the morass of extraneous detail and trivial minutiae, and losing sight of the all-important architecture of the composition. Cezanne, for example, hated ‚Äúfinished‚ÄĚ paintings and called them ‚Äúvulgar‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúinsipid.‚ÄĚ This painter managed to extricate himself from vulgarity and insipidity simply by remaining sketchy and relying on the purely structural. This was his major wisdom.‚ÄĚ

The Art of Hinting
In this article, Taubes explored the inherent complexities of arriving at simplicity in art


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