Authenticating Detail in Painting


Canadian artist Robert Genn wrote in his latest newsletter about authenticity in art.  You can read it at Mr. Genn is very insightful and erudite but also very down to earth in his writings about this wonderful activity of art. I recommend it to you.

The subject of authenticity is an intriguing one. The question arises, “When does a work stop being authentic and slide into slavish mimicry? I have asked this of myself at times, wondering if I have gone too far. The guiding principle for me is this:  For this particular work, am I adding the authenticating detail the painting requires  or am I bordering on decorative bric-a-brac? Every painting is different, and the answer to the question is always found in my initial intent. What did I want to say about this subject? How did I want the painting to look when it was finished. I don’t want it to look exactly like what is there. A photo can do that better than I can. I see the subject and then see it in my head again, this time as a painting. I want my painting to look like this inner image.

It is impossible to see the painting with all of its detail in your head before you start. But You can visualize the subject as a painting. In fact, if you don’t do this, then you will be attempting a replica instead of painting a painting. This is true whether you are painting en plein air, or working from reference photos in your studio.

As an example I am posting here a photo I took at Kingsbridge, England. I did several small paintings on site that day, but I also took a number of photos of things I wanted to look at later.

The reference photo and its possibilities

The reference photo and its possibilities


I liked the white boat against the dark sea wall in this photo.Then I began the exploration. These are only seven possibilities for arranging the lights and darks in the format. I could have kept going. This helps me to visualize the final painting. From each drawing I picture a different painting – some more detailed, some more simple. The plan I choose determines the amount of detail I will include in the painting.




I decided I liked the value distribution in the second from left at the top.. It is the least developed of all the drawings, but I liked its simple pattern. I liked a couple of the others too, but this one inspired me at this moment, and that’s what counts. Incidentally, If I had done no drawings, then the only source for inspiration would be what my camera saw, and it can’t think! I would have to be a little mad to let it tell me what my painting should look like.

Here is a little painting done from the little drawing plan, and using the photo for authenticating details.

Watercolor using the drawing as the plan.

Watercolor using the drawing as the plan.


You can see that I followed the plan in its distribution of darks coming from the top seft and trickling through the boats to the other side.

The task was to create the value pattern and add enough authenticating detail to make it believable without getting lured into the rocks by the siren call of non-essential details. I opted out on most of the detail in the near boat. I told myself, “just include what is necessary to tell the story convincingly”.



I make a distinction between authenticating details and decorative details. The first are details that help explain the structural form of an object. The orange stripe on the boat does this. Such detail might also include things that help set the stage; like the sea birds here. I also added them to help complete a circular pathway in the composition. The boat with the blue tarpaulin was non essential and rather boring, so it was not included. I also left out all of the interior detail of the second boat, going for suggestion rather than completion. Some rigging was necessary for authenticity, as well as composition. But my purpose was not to show a sailor how much I know about rigging, so I didn’t include it all; just enough to show that I was observing.

Decorative details would be things like all the bricks and stones in the wall, extra rigging, all of the bumpers hanging off the main boat, and bits of stuff lying on the ground.

Too many details that simply decorate surfaces is like too much frosting on the cake. Have you ever had to scrape off the excess frosting to enjoy the cake? Let’s build the cake and add just enough frosting to make it more enjoyable.


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