Design Advice: DO Sweat the Small Stuff

Several posts ago I wrote about small, humble things that have been the subject matter of significant art. Today I want to extend that conversation and talk about things that are even smaller…namely details – the little decisions and little elements that go into making a final artwork or design.

Details are not just fussy little things that tag along for the ride. It’s true that they are little…but they build up and add up. And when all the details in a design or work of art are on display – side by side with the subject matter, the composition, the color/value arrangements, the materials and the technique – they can be significant.

After years of teaching art and design classes I can say with confidence that attention to detail is one of the main things that separates beginning student artwork from the work done by successful professionals. New students are often too impatient or unaware of the importance of details and they don’t give them the attention they deserve. Successful professionals always pay attention to details.

Let’s look at a couple of examples by a very successful professional artist…

Wayne Thiebaud is an American painter noted for his calculated compositions and use of bold colors. In the 1960s and 70s he painted many images of simple, edible items such as pies, cakes, ice cream cones and sandwiches. In these paintings the objects are displayed – center stage – on a stark flat background.

Wayne Thiebaud oil painting of cupcakes

One of the things that makes these paintings so compelling is Thiebaud’s attention to detail. Detail in how his subject matter is subtly idealized. Detail in how color choices are made. Detail in how the main objects meet their surrounding background. And detail in how the paint is applied to the canvas.

In the early stages of developing each of these paintings Thiebaud used brushes and paint to create a line drawing of the final composition on a blank canvas. He repeated this process multiple times with different bold colors – layering one drawing on top of another drawing. Each new drawing refined and corrected the previous version. This process of drawing the same thing over and over again on the same canvas made the final image more iconic and stylized – less tentative and personal.

The overlaid, multi-colored drawings also established vibrant color relationships that set the stage for thinking in terms of strong color and for making bold color choices later. All the subsequent colors that Thiebaud used were selected because they fit with these strong and vibrant early color choices.

As he filled in the outlined forms and painted the backgrounds, Thiebaud left slivers of the multi-colored preliminary drawings peeking through here and there at the edges where object and background meet. These vibrant shots of color around the edges of the objects add visual energy to both the objects and the entire composition.

Wayne Thiebaud oil painting of an ice cream cone

To finish each composition Thiebaud painted the background with a thick layer of paint. The brush strokes on this background layer conform to the contours of the main objects but then immediately flatten out to reinforce the geometric shape of the painting’s rectangle. The background could have been casually painted. It is, after all, just a neutral surface behind the objects. But in Thiebaud’s paintings the background is as carefully considered as any other aspect of the painting. What appears at first glance to be anonymous space is actually a complex field of brush strokes that physically embrace the foreground objects and “marries” them to the background.

It is easy to imagine Thiebaud’s simple compositions as only mildly interesting exercises in representation or documentation, but they are obviously much more than that. More because Thiebaud enlivens each painting with small personal touches at every stage of development. Details that a lesser artist might not even think about.

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