Less is more

'Less is more' this phrase is attributed to Robert Browning who featured it in the poem 'The Faultless Painter', however it is perhaps better known as the design mantra of the Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe whose work epitomized this concept.

In my opinion it is one of the greatest verbal guides to art and design and is very useful in all aspects of life.


A Japanese ink drawing - an outstanding example of 'Less is more'


When this concept is applied to painting it can transform work. It may be used in terms of a lesser number of colours on the palette or a lesser amount of brushstrokes, or a limited amount of visual information leading the viewer to engage with the painting more and be involved imaginatively. In fact there are many levels to which this phrase can be applied all of which engage the viewer more and make the piece stronger. 

A lesser number of colours on the palette can be challenging for the painter however it leads inevitably to greater colour handling and usually a greater visual impact. This may seem a little strange recommending less use of paint on a website which sells paint, but absolutely a smaller variety of quality paint will produce a more substantial, exciting painting than a wide range of mediocre paint.

The further back through painting history you go the more limited the palette, starting from the cave painters who would typically use a carbon black and maybe an 'earth' like a red or yellow ochre. Moving onto the middle ages there were still still very few colours which we are familiar with today and the palette was generally earth based. In the Renaissance a few additional colours like Vermillion and Lapis Lazuli were available however they were reserved for the most successful painters and on the largest commissions, this is why you often see the Virgin Mary depicted wearing blue as this was the most expensive and rarest colour reserved for such special functions. 


Botticelli - the Virgin Mary


It is only in the last century such a wide range of stable colours have been available and with this almost infinite variety, we may have become lazy in learning the skill of colour mixing and arrangement, inevitably overusing this abundance of choice we have.

Using a limited palette or in different terms less colours does not mean having a painting of muddy browns, all the colours can be there with just a few carefully selected paints however it does require greater skill in the mixing and composition of them on the canvas. Look at the drama and excitement in the Caravaggio below which was painted with a limited palette. Pick any Rembrandt, Titian or Turner all these have limited palettes in comparison with the modern day.

This Caravaggio painting demonstrates another level of 'less is more' this being the limited range of values (mostly it consists of dark and light) known in art history terms as 'chiaroscuro'. Words are helpful but the visual impact of a Caravaggio demonstrates the concept much better, stand in front of one in the National Gallery and the drama and impact blows you away. Less visual information engages the brain and encourages it to be involved with the image to interpret and extrapolate what it perceives.



                                                                  Doubting Thomas - Caravaggio

Another level is the economy of marks or brushstrokes, any painter finds out very quickly how easy and destructive it is to 'overwork' a painting, in fact I often feel the most critical and difficult part of painting is knowing when to stop.

A painter who took this to heart was Francis Bacon, he tried to create paintings out of pure accident and chance and went to great efforts to avoid a narrative. Overworking either in concept or craft was not issue in his technique, again another level of less is more. 



     Head IV - 1949 - Francis Bacon

To take this a little further Bacon was essentially practicing the act of thinking less, being mindful and letting the painting truly flow, relying on intuition and chance to create his paintings. 

Through my interest in visual arts the 'less is more' principle has fascinated me and led me ultimately to practice it in my own life where I believe it is at it's most powerful.

Over the last few years I have tried to simplify my life, at one end of the scale getting my possessions down to a minimum to the other actively trying to think less (not so easy) however the impact has been massive leaving me freer, more intuitive and happier. In a world geared to acquiring possessions, money and status it is very exciting to go in the other direction, I was brought to this understanding through painting and in a very satisfying feedback loop it has improved my painting. Try the 'less is more' principle in any aspect of life and on any level and see the benefits.


James Holman
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James Holman

Very true words and probably the hardiest way to live and enjoy life, i’m working on it
Best regards

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