Just the Facts – Realism with A Few Dabs of Paint

This painting by Carolyn Anderson speaks volumes, yet one can almost count the number of brushstrokes in the whole piece. With so little information, how was this sense of realism achieved? Take a moment and consider it for yourself.

This is a beautiful example of Anderson’s signature style and a masterful simplification of light and form. Notice how much is conveyed through this painting despite its abstraction—not only is it clear that this image shows a mother and her young child, but one is able to tell the approximate age of each and that they’re both smiling. Moreover, one can recognize the relative intensity of the lighting within the scene, which Anderson has painted to great effect.

As is typical of realistic paintings, the main players here are value, color, and draftsmanship, but due to the extreme minimalism of this unique painting, a very accurate use of each of these key features is required to pull off such a style. “Accuracy” might not be the first word that comes to mind when viewing such a painting, but without nailing the form and lighting where it counts, the subject would be unrecognizable. That’s not to say that every brushstroke here is conveying some aspect of reality—clearly this is not the case! In fact, a sense of realism could have been achieved with fewer strokes at the expense of the expressive and impressionistic style that makes this work so exciting.

Most realist works can rely more heavily on one of the key features over the others and still achieve a lifelike result, but this painting is different; all the attributes of value, color, and draftsmanship appear to play an equal role in its success.

Consider the omission of color from the image (shown below). The subject is significantly more difficult to identify on a first viewing.

Of course, in addition to removing the color, I altered the painting somewhat, horizontally reversing the image and extending the background, so as to help simulate a first impression. You will likely agree that the subject of this version is less obvious than the original; one would be forgiven for mistaking the image for a purely abstract painting. The color helped reveal the skin tones of the mother and child, with a particular emphasis on the warm, saturating effect of the intense light on their faces. The use of color also enhanced a sense of form through the changes in temperature of indirectly lit areas such as the mother’s shoulder.

The accurate sense of form in this painting is a testament to Anderson’s strong draftsmanship. As so few of the brushstrokes serve as clues to the shape of the figures, the ones that are used have to be spot on—in particular, the dabs of paint that indicate the proportions of the head and facial features. Anderson has carefully eliminated virtually all extraneous information of the form, such that the remaining marks are just enough to tell the story. Accomplishing such a simplification is no simple feat and was likely the result of both a solid sense of anatomy and a bit of trial and error. The anatomical clues are told through the various planes of the face, which turn slightly away from the light, changing subtly in value and temperature—note, for example, the very subtle change in warmth between the baby’s cheek and nose, both of which are nearly the same value. Knowing what to show and what to leave out is a delicate dance that depends on the subject and lighting. Had the light been less intense in this image, different clues would have been required to convey the form.

Do you notice anything else about how this painting was handled? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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