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The Police Report, The Novel, and The Poem

by Keith Bond on 1/18/2010 1:06:50 PM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Suppose a crime happened in your city or town. Three people write about it. 

First is a police officer who responded to the incident.  The officer writes in exacting detail everything that happened.  Nothing is left out.  It is a completely thorough and meticulous report.  But reading it is very cumbersome and tedious.  It puts you to sleep on about page one.

The second writer is a novelist who is able to explain the same event in an exciting way.  The novelistís version is enthralling and captivating.  The details are controlled so that you read them only when necessary.  They are carefully composed to lead you over and under, in and around the events.  The author creates a narrative to tell the story.  You find the read thoroughly enjoyable and suspenseful.  It is a page-turner.  You cannot put the book down, because you need to know what happens next.  Hours go by and you find that you read all night to finish the book.  The twists and turns kept you guessing, but in the end you really werenít prepared for what really happened.  It caught you by surprise.  You wonder why you didnít see it before Ė the butler really did do it! 

Yes, the novel would be much more exciting to read than a police report.  But once you have read it, what then?  Would you read it again?  Perhaps in a few years.

The third writer is a poet.  What would his/her version read like?  Likely, it would give you only the most essential details.  But the poet would also leave much to the imagination.  The poet captures the feeling or mood of the events.  Rather than telling you what everything means, the poet would subtly point you in the general direction, but you would be faced with the task of coming to your own conclusions.  Each time you read it, you find new things hidden in the words.  You think the poem means one thing one time you read it and something entirely different the next time.  Thus, you never tire of reading it. 

It is the same with art.  Three people paint the same subject, but in very different ways (actually, the possibilities are far more than three, but for the analogyís sake, weíll keep it simple).  What kind of artist are you?  Do you tell your viewers everything in such exacting detail that they are bored out of their mind?  Are you a story teller?  Do you create wonderful narratives in your art?  Is it exciting to view the first time, but there is little to bring the viewers back time and again?  Or are you the poetic artist who merely implies themes and allows the viewers to interpret the art in his or her own way?  Do they come back time and again to view the painting because it keeps drawing them in, revealing more to them each time?

Before I go further, I must clarify what I mean by these different classifications. 

The Police Report

I am not picking on the highly detailed artists here.  I have seen highly detailed works that are very poetic.  Though the analogy is built around recording every last detail, it is really about not knowing how to edit and compose.  This is the artist who cannot decide which details are important and which are not.  This is also the artist who canít arrange the details in a compelling way.  This artist simply records things just as they are.  A police report has no emotion.  It is simply an outline of facts and events, regardless of whether the work is done in photorealism or impressionism or abstraction. 

The Novel 

I donít use the term narrative in the typical sense.  We all have seen those works of art which depict a story Ė a narrative.  But even these can be done poetically.  I am talking about the method of painting, not the subject (I hope itís not too confusing).  Do you lead your viewers through your painting in a controlled way?  Do you keep the painting exciting and enthralling at every turn, but in the end, the viewer comes to the point that you wish them to get to?  This is a novel in this analogy.


Or do you simply create a painting in which the viewer gets a gist of what your intent is, but it is left open to them to interpret?  Do you put in only the most important details and leave the rest out?  Do you imply rather than explain?  Do you search for new ways of expressing the old ideas?  Do you say so much with each passage, that more is revealed each time your work is viewed?  Are the works felt?

What kind of art do you create?  What kind of art do you want to create?

Best Wishes,

Keith Bond

PS  This analogy was derived from a vague recollection of one I heard years ago, so I canít take total credit.  The artist who told it to me claimed that it was John Singer Sargent who came up with it.  I have never confirmed that.  If you happen to know, share it with us.

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Backstory: About Clint. Email EditorTwitter. Republish. ]

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Topics: Creativity and Inspiration | Keith Bond 

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Marsha Savage
This is a wonderful analogy. I think I fall in the novelist arena. Telling a story and leading the viewer. I am trying to make it to where I am leaving more to the viewer to interpret and want to come back again and again. I have been talking about this for at least the last year and trying. I am a detail person, and find it difficult to only put in the essential and leave a little for the viewer's mind to develop. I believe this is the hardest thing for an artist after reaching the technically proficient level.

Any hints on how to achieve this? I know, squint! Lean on what is the focus of the painting, or what drew me to paint it. Leave the rest to the imagination with very little hints at what is there. Easier said than done!

And, I know the real answer to this too, at least I think. Practice stopping sooner. As a friend once said, "quit decorating your trees!" Good advice and a wonderful thought provoking post.

Debra LePage
How absolutely true. Thank you for this.

Trent Gudmundsen
Here's something that helped me recently:

Composition used to confuse me a bit...I tended to over-complicate it. I've found, though, that by controlling the other tools, such as drawing (including proper placement), values, and edges, a natural focal-point is developed (a lot of times that means the sharpest edges and starkest contrasts are there), and the eye is given a final resting place, so to speak. Then it's just a matter of keeping the eye moving at the right speed and stopping at the right places along the way.

jimmy springett
via's thoughts are vry good...thank you....the art about art...the yin and the today's story of....highly detailed art, general story art, or pure my experience in the art of creating art...I find that depending on the moment and what I have been living through sort of inspires me therefore one of the three forms might take shape in a given painting...for me painting is life, heart, and soul in a paint brush. One day the details in one of my paintings might become important..not to confuse but to enlighten..this type of painting is not boring and has a calming sense about it..there is no one or right way to view it is as good one way as a dozen other ways..each showing the viewer an insight, the general story..might be more loose and a primary story can be seen primarily the same way by everyone...tends to be an easier work to view..still a pleasant experience, and the third version of pure heart is when I am in the zone..the brush moves faster than my brain..but is all knowing...the outcome is not so clear at first blush and most of all the painting has unity...and a zestful image full of life...the colors, shapes and subjects can be varied..the impact is that the feelings generated are real...each soul will feel different feelings and that is good..we are each very unique...from all of this art...I love the idea those who have viewed my paintings are more happy and the love and appreciation of things in their life become more clear...they tend to do more for others and our home is made better...that's how I feel today...bravo..Clint...helping me to see my art process in unique ways..sir that is a great gift you is a blessed day...and your stories help so many...those you might never suspect or come to know...I can share that it is very good for me...and I feel so lucky to be able to paint beauty, joy, and for me this is a great dream unfolding..peace and joy be yours...Jimmy Springett-artist in the wilderness

Anne Watson
Funny, I was just thinking today about some of Robert Genn's best advise--something like, it's better to leave your work 10 percent under-worked than 1 percent overworked.

Sharon Weaver
I believe one of the last things an artists masters is varied edges. It is tricky to apply the subtle use of undefined edges, allowing the viewer to imagine the details. Recently, I had a discussion on this subject with a fellow artist. I like your comparison and I will forward this to her since you did a much better job than I did at describing this concept.

Michael Cardosa

A very interesting analogy. I think there is also another element that sometimes ads to a painting. That is the title. An off beat name or eluding to some element of the subject or even to some emotional connection to the subject can have viewers come back and take more than one look trying to identify or identify with that idea.

Jim Williams
Keith, great post. I guess I'm a cop right now, but some day,with a lot of hard work, and a lot of direction from posts like yours, perhaps I could reach that poet society.

Bruce Ulrich
Nice analogy and a possible link/attribution to JS Sargent. It also reminds me of the three stages a painter can evolve through as described by Quang Ho.

Esther J. Williams
Keith, I have to say I am a poetic artist, leaving many abstract passages for the audience to follow the play of my brush with shapes filled with pleasing colors. There is a dissolving look to some areas with semi-hidden shapes to both sooth and allow the imagination to ponder. I used to highly render every detail and still can. In oils I gradually acquired the ability to paint from large to small and I think I am still learning to 'let go' more, I`ll never stop pushing myself. I heard an artist recently describe another top impressionist`s artist`s style, "It looks like it`s on the verge of being out of control, yet there is a balanced sense or containment." So, I personally gain more joy by expressing myself with broad sweeps with my paint brush.
I read something about this topic in Kevin Macpherson`s books, he said, "Style is not an end in itself; the message is what matters." He has a written exercise you can practice by writing a description of the scene in a photograph and how it made you feel. Read his book for more. Anyway, in the end, he states, "If you had no profound thoughts at all about the scene, but wrote your words in beautiful handwriting, your writing would not be able to make up for the lack of content. But if the words are well chosen, poetic and arranged to touch the soul, it doesn`t matter if the handwriting is so-so." He finalizes by stating, "Eloquent, well chosen words in beautiful handwriting will touch even more of the readers (viewers) senses. Good advice that I have taken to heart. I have seen photo-realistic work that amazes me of the technical ability and still many people love that style. There was a people`s choice show at my local gallery recently and the top votes went to the photo-realistic, finely glazed, high chromatic painting of a Hawaii scene. I didn`t get any feeling from the painting as I looked at it. It`s all subject to opinion.
A great painting must spark emotion from the viewer and take them into a dreamy place that words can not express.

Joanne Benson
Hi Keith,
Very insightful post....I can relate to all 3 categories and paint various pieces in various ways. My house portraits are generally the police report because that is what people expect and want. Then sometimes I get to be the novelist and am a bit more free in my expression and lastly the poet. Usually the poet emerges en plein air because of time limitations to telling the story! I found that I grew as an artist tremendously when I started painting en plein air. The pieces are not all fabulous but I learned to see so much better and to choose the most important elements of a piece....So I would advise anyone wanting to ditch the detail to try plein air painting! No time to overwork! Thanks again for the analogies! I'm still kicking myself for not buying a very inexpensive volume on John Singer Sargent...It was a massive history of the artist (used but in good condition) for a few dollars! Oh well...."he who hesitates...."

Tuva Stephens
Thanks for this insightful article! Although I paint a variety of subjects, I have really been enjoying comments made by others about my portraits. Last night I got an email from someone that said they felt like they "knew the people that I painted." Another person said my portraits were "sympathetic and positive." I had one well known juror say he was deeply moved by one of my portraits. I am probably between the novelist and the poet in what my paintings communicate. I try to use a small brush sparingly!

Carol Schmauder
What a wonderful analogy. I can see the type painting I most often paint and I can see where I might like to make some changes in some of my work. Thank you for your useful comments.

Judy Mudd
What a great analogy. I'm still working on this one. Working with watercolors, I definitely want to get out of the novelist mode and into poetry. Still struggling in telling too much of the "story" and leaving some mystery for the viewer. What a great way to describe it though and it helps to think about this when deciding what to leave in and out of your painting.

Philip Koch
Keith is a very good painter and an excellent writer to boot! Thoughtful piece.

Carole Rodrigue
I try to go for mood, and at times, the story, or both. But I mostly aim for leaving the viewer with a mood in most of my work, because if I've created mood in a piece, then I'm stiring a feeling within the viewer. It probably depends most on what it is I'm painting. I'm often working in a lot of detail, but aiming to create a story. I've also been bored by some amazingly executed photorealistic paintings. I love photorealism, but not overly done subjects or paintings that don't stir a mood. I'm not impressed with detailed street scenes, or signs, or any other boring everyday thing if there's no feelings stired. These can be meticulous in detail and leave you feeling flat. I'd rather have less detail and more mood, leaving the viewer with more feeling. Geez, I think I've repeated myself too many times . . . :-s

Claudia L Brookes
Oddly, enough, I have an artist friend in Taos (formerly Baltimore) who uses the local police blotters as a starting point for many of his plein air paintings. He often creates humorous associations that bring a smile. Mark studied for a while with Ray Vinella, one of the original "Taos Six," until he took off on his own with his current palette knife painting technique. You can see his work on his website, I've also got a clip he sent me, if anyone wants to see that--I can forward it, but not sure how to attach it. Claudia Brookes @ attaching a clip he sent me

Claudia L Brookes
I just sent a post about my friend in Taos, Mark Asmus, for a really literal take on the "police blotter" idea, but I would lie to add another thought. I've always had the concept that any given idea could be expressed in any number of ways--as a piece of music, as a poem, and as an artistic statement, for example. And it's been shown that in different periods of human history, there is a pretty good connection between these art forms as an expression of the prevailing thought. This isn't quite the same as the "spectrum" approach that Keith is describing, but I have always found it interesting. And as a poet, musician, and artist myself, I am still hoping to express an idea beautifully in all three of my "mediums." As far as the "poem, novel, police blotter" spectrum that Keith describes, however, I am definitely on the "poem" end--I'm a direct painter, plein air painter, American Impressionist, and always feel that my pieces are finished sooner, rather than later. I don't enjoy coming back into a piece, to layer or add detail, because I feel that my "handwriting," and therefore the mood of the particular piece, will change and I will destroy what I have created in that particular place and time.

Debra LePage
I especially agree with Claudia's last sentence! So true.

Donald Smith
Where ever these comments originated, they do make one stop and think about their own art.
Thanks for sharing!

Diane Donicht Vestin
OK.OK. I'm a day late with this comment on artist Hugh Mcleod. I loved his column. He's blunt and artistic all wrapped up in one neat package. I have had several artist friends comment me on my work and they have had the gall to tell me I should try something new or something else. WHY? I love what I do, I would die if I didn't do what I was put on earth here to do. God gave me a specific gift as he did with Hugh. My art isn't anything like Hughs, but I can appreciate it because it came from deep inside his being. Way to go, Hugh. You keep it up and don't listen to what others say about your art, even if it's a good comment. Stay in your cube as I do and create. That's what and who you are. There, I said it...all of you other artists and especially collectors out there don't know anything when it comes down to what an artist creates and why he or she creates. Ok.Ok. I'm done.
Diane Donicht Vestin

Bunny Oliver
Funny this article should appear today just as I'm preparing to present "Created to be Creative" at our church's women's retreat. The premise is that we are created in the image of our great Creator, and as such we are called to join in creation.

Our calling may be in music, visual arts, writing, cooking, , needlework, gardening, creating a loving and beautiful home, desiging websites--any of a myriad of things--but it is our responsibility to follow that calling and share our creations with others. It is not our responsibility to decide if our efforts are worthy or not or how they will be used. Just as VanGogh didn't sell a painting in his lifetime and Guttenburg didn't know how many Bibles would be printed and distributed through the centuries, we may never know how our art is used and how it affects others, but be assured there is a plan for it. That plan may be as simple as providing us with joy in the creation, thereby making us more interesting and pleasant people to those around us, and that is very important.

One of the greatest joys of my career has been to create a scholarship fund for impoverished young people in a village in Honduras so they can continue their education beyond the 6th grade, the time when many of them leave school to work to help support their families. Ten years ago the program started with money from sales of 10 of my paintings of Honduras, along with giclees and note cards. To date, we have provided approximately 300 scholarships. It grew beyond just income from sales of my artwork and now includes sponsorships provided by many people--multiplying the joy of helping a young person. We've had about 20 high school graduates, and several are going to college. The friendships formed with the students are priceless. Had I not answered the call to go to Honduras to help build houses and to paint the beautiful people and places, not only would many of these students had to leave school, but I and many others would have been denied the great pleasure of sharing our treasures with them and becoming their friends.

Thanks for the article, Clint. It makes us stop and think what a privilege it is to share in creation.

jimmy springett
Diane...I haven't visited your website...but not a lot of what others say will dictate your decide. I'm a newbe artist only painting full time since retirement in thing I have learned in this short time...there is a tendency for other people to criticize when there is not a true peacefulness in what they do...sort of a great need to justify whatever their position is preceived to be. I've learned too that taking care of business is good too...keep painting from your center, from your heart and your art will be received by many...most importantly keep the joyful side to your creations and what they say to you...others too will catch on...thanks for your words..Jimmy Springett-artist

Diane Donicht Vestin
In response to Keiths "story", the police, the novel and the poetry, I can relate to his analogy of these 3 kinds of art no matter what the medium. I always try to add a touch of surreallism to my paintings just to through the viewer "off" and lead them wondering "well, what happens next?" I believe you can achieve this through any medium and any type of medium being traditional or abstract or anything. Keep your artwork interesting, bring the viewers in and keep them guessing what's next. That's just one point of view:mine. What's yours?
Diane Donicht Vestin

Kathy Chin
As a photographer, I try to capture as much detail in the subject as I can. Because it's usually an animal or bird, I want the eye sharp. But as someone who's trying to take my photography to the next artistic (read painterly)level, I strive for the emotion.
Using the police blotter as a starting point, I try to weave the subject's story in a factual but novel and yes, often poetic manner.

Diane Tasselmyer
Oh, I am a "novelist" with some poetry thrown in. The whole idea of a painting telling a story appeals to me. There is usually a reason and story behind everything I paint. It is one of my goals this year to share these stories/reasons in my blog when I post a painting to it.
People get involved in stories. It may even be an idea to add something about that when you hang a painting.


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