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Loose brush strokes or painstaking detail?

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Last weekend I went to see an exhibition of American Impressionist painting at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  And as I looked at Autumn by Mary Cassatt something struck me.  The painting has all the hallmarks of Impressionism – hasty-looking brush-strokes, evoking and suggesting and hinting at clothing, patterns, foliage – and yet the face is detailed, depicted with precision, as if the artist can’t bear to blur the features of something this important; as if she is reluctant to leave anything here to the imagination; as if she is saying here I  am in control of what you make of this, you are not permitted to bring your own interpretation.

I find increasingly I have things to say, but lack the skill to express them as well as I would like.  Now, I wonder if perhaps I am concentrating on the wrong things.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so hung up on precision.  Maybe I should try using confident bold strokes which tell the truth in another, less obvious way, trusting the reader to fill in the gaps, to step back and see the shapes, to understand the picture.

As a reader, I find this a more satisfying way to read.  As a writer, I find it hard not to want to tie down every phrase, to hammer each sentence into exact meaning – and to be paralysed by the urge.  There is a place for accuracy – as Kathleen Jamie has said “naming is important – precision is a mark of respect” – but there is also a place for impressionist strokes, leaving room for interpretation, for hinting and suggesting. More easily said than done, but worth remembering, I think.

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