If it’s listed as one of my five favourite things in art, then I must be able to explain it, right? Let me try and show you why reduction is so important to me, as well as touching on how it has manifested throughout art history.
Reducing an image to something approaching its meagrest form, with the absolute minimum of components and content, fascinates me. The thing I find most intriguing is how it plays the line between art and human perception, led by our desire to understand what we’re looking at, and our skills in being able to complete an image that is only partially served up to us.
My love of Reduction is why I love working on black so much, because it’s starting with a void - basically reduction in its purest uncorrupted form. You then bring the work to life by drip-feeding marks into it that represent light, not shadow. It means you can be really focused on adding as little as possible, one very small part at a time.
If you spin it around - using a conventional pencil, or paintbrush, working onto a white (or light) base is the exact opposite; you are theoretically starting with a plain area representing pure blinding light and keep adding marks until you’ve darkened it down. It’s pretty much the reverse of a process that will make light the superstar, and precious, and not simply just the default.
It’s really easy to add too much into a work made with reduction in mind; my guideline for where a piece should stop is a simple one; it starts at the point where a work can still give the viewer an absolute sense of a full image, even though it’s actually made with very little. This is not so much a fixed point to stop at, but the beginning of a window: the image needs to be perceived as full, but also remains not over-finished, leaving enough blanks that the viewer’s brain has to get involved in the process of completion. The key to all this, is the last bit - the viewer’s brain HAS to be engaged in providing the answer to the question “what am I looking at?” The work alone will not make the viewing experience feel complete and rewarding; it needs the viewer’s own participation to deliver a little nugget of satisfaction and hopefully also delight at what they realise is being presented.
Often the components that make a reduced image are themselves almost abstract in their nature, which adds another layer of intrigue to the image, making it even more charismatic when the work is viewed piece by piece instead of in the whole.
The thing I’m drawn to in all art, is seeing a bit of the artist in the work. I’m not a fan of hyper-realism for that reason, because it tells me more about the photographer than the artist. As much as copying is a skill, it doesn’t feed my understanding of the person making the piece, other than they’ve got a lot of time on their hands and haven’t worked out their path beyond taking photographs yet.
Paradoxically reduction done well can be confusingly hyper-realistic, because if you do a good job of choosing the right elements, which can be very few, the viewer’s brain will fill in all the blank areas. If it believes the completed image it makes, it’ll have the same effect as looking at a photo; It’s actually a slightly annoying by-product of the process. I always try to leave some clues overtly that it’s a piece of art and not a photograph, but it’s a reveal that requires the viewer to get up close and see the pencil or brush marks.
I sat near to my first commercial “reduction” drawings when they were revealed on launch night at Woburn Mosaic’s 2019 Summer exhibition. The average reaction (best gauged when it’s a couple of viewers conversing about the work) was established quickly; people walk up, look at the images, and then the half that don’t walk off take a look at the info card which says ‘drawing’; this word is almost entirely unexpected; much closer inspection ensues, engagement is created and the work generates a bit of interest and respect. My guess is that a good proportion of those who walked away never knew they weren’t photographs. Haha! What a conundrum - it does point to where I want to head though, and that is really rich, realistic images that absolutely DO NOT have a scrap of photographic DNA in their make up.
Reduction doesn’t have to be about light on dark. It is also about editing fine detail and re-presenting it as something else, something completely translatable, but made with much less than the painstaking micro-focuses of hyper-realism. Take almost any John Singer Sargent painting as an example - walk into a room in the National Portrait Gallery (which has three or four of his works amongst twenty or so others) and you’ll know which are his right away. They’re the ones that look like they could step right out of the frames and onto the floor next to you. Oh! And they’ll also be the only ones that have brushwork and marks so loose that when you’re up close they’ll make no sense. That, my friends, is the genius of reduction in the hands of a master. They don’t give you everything; instead they give you all you need to create “everything” inside your own mind’s eye. Here’s a theory - What if that process of completing an artwork inside your own head is actually one of the key elements in enjoying it? Instead of merely feeling like an observer, we appreciate the invitation to become a participant in its creation?
I think it’s possible to validate that theory by taking a look at past artists who have “reduced” the reality they present to invite interpretation. Some did it overtly (Turner, the impressionists) by using paint in a way that created a feeling rather than a visual facsimile. Artists that did it more covertly (Velazquez, Sargent, Sorolla) used paint in a way that looks picture perfect from 30 feet away, but up close you realise they’ve tricked you - it was an artist’s deceit all along. Whichever group, overt or covert, they have all invited you to do some of the work in completing the painting. As a result, they also all have that “thing”, that mojo, that elevation which separates them from the skilled but predictable legions of the copyists.
So, in a nutshell, Reduction is simply this: done well, less really can be more.
I hope you can see why it’s fascinating, and can also enjoy finding traces of it in some of my work.
An Exercise in spotting reduction - for visitors to the National Gallery in London.
Part 1 - I’m a huge fan of Caravaggio. Go and take a close up look at his beautiful work the Supper at Emmaus, especially the brushwork on the clam shell worn in the figure on the right.
Part 2 - Go find Velazquez’ portrait of Archbishop Fernando de Valdes (usually adjacent to the Rokeby Venus). It’s only a minute or so away from the Caravaggio.
Step 1. Take a look from 30 feet away. Decide whether or not this head is so realistic that it could come to life and walk out of the painting (Spoiler - for me, this is a yes).
Step 2. Get up close and compare the brushwork to the Caravaggio you just saw.