Simplify Your Art and Amplify Your Message

August 19, 2021

Race car drivers know if they want the car to perform better, they must strip off the unnecessary parts to lose weight. Passenger seats, stereo, floor mats, spare tire, air conditioning, interior carpeting and speakers all must vanish in order for a car to reach its maximum speed and dexterity. What does this have to do with art? The goal of a race car driver is to go fast – to be the first to cross the finish line. The goal of the artist is to convey their message as beautifully and simply as possible. Like a race car driver, the artist must also be willing to sacrifice unnecessary frivolity if it becomes an obstacle between the viewer and the intended message.

Have you distilled your art to reach its most streamlined, purest form?  Several old sayings come to mind, “Less is more…”  “Simpler is better…”  Even Einstein once said that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Consider your art. Think about all aspects of your work: line, shape, color, texture, materials, construction processes, craftsmanship, etc. We’ll call this “the work” – all of the tangible elements that go into your art. Now, consider what you are trying to convey – what are you trying to express? What does your art mean? How can making your art simpler make your message louder?

For the sake of this article, we will call the intangible elements of expression and meaning “the message.” Artists can often be victims of tradition and expectation in terms of the work. For example, when you say “painting” most people think of oil paint on canvas stretched across a wooden form with another decorative frame around the outside. Viewers expect to see these elements in a painting, and as artists we find ourselves subconsciously jumping through these hoops. To make things simpler, one must strip away all of the unnecessary variables in the work. A painting is nothing more than paint on a surface. Yet, it took centuries of painting for that true potential to be unlocked. It wasn’t until photography became the primary medium for portraying realism that people realized that paintings don’t have to be representational. Once painting was simplified, it could be completely abstract – a celebration of paint and surface. 

What aspects of your work can you eliminate or simplify in order to make the message more direct?  If you are an artist with the intent of creating something truly original and meaningful, you must ask yourself these kinds of questions.  For example, if you are a landscape painter and your message concerns the vastness of the American West, you may discover that you don’t need a gilded gold frame to box in your sweeping prairies and azure skies.  The absence of a frame would set the images free and contribute to your message.  On the other hand, if you are a landscape painter and your message revolves around the wilderness being devoured by urban sprawl, you might find that a very large industrial frame may contribute to the message as much as the subjects you paint. If you are focusing on texture in the work, you may wish to diminish or eliminate color in order to draw attention to the differences in texture. If you are focusing on color, you may wish to abandon or simplify your subject matter. If you find yourself exploring more primitive forms of expression, you may choose to follow more primitive means of craftsmanship to convey your message.

A great example of an artist distilling their work and reinventing themselves in the process is Piet Mondrian. His minimalist red, blue, and yellow paintings actually started as a study of a tree which he simplified, getting more abstract with every attempt, until the painting no longer looked like a tree but abstract lines and shapes (see photo). By distilling and simplifying his subject matter, he created the first images of pure abstraction.  If he hadn’t followed this path and taken a few risks along the way, he may have been a complete unknown to the modern art world.

As you streamline your work, you must be aware of the risks that you are taking. It may take time for viewers to accept a stripped down approach. I’m sure more than a few people were scratching their heads when first viewing Mondrian’s “new” direction. Some may question your choices or see the leaner work as some type of gimmick, but if you truly have a message that you wish to convey that resonates on a level that viewers can appreciate, the sacrifices are more than worth it.