Monday, August 25, 2014

The Importance of Silence in Art

Gathering Light 60x60"  Oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

 Michael David Rosenberg, the musician known as Passenger, sings, "See all I need is a whisper in a world that only shouts."

In the workshops I teach, I find that one of the most common problems with paintings is that they shout. Most have too much going on: too many small shapes, too much texture, extremes of colour, too many lines, too much, too much. One thing I say most often as I walk around the classroom working with students individually, is 'make bigger shapes'.  But not only bigger shapes. Quiet shapes.  Where can your eye go and rest in the painting?

That isn't a consideration in much of contemporary painting or much of contemporary life.  Ours is a noisy world both visually and auditorily.  Ours is a world that shouts.  People are afraid of silence.
I wrote a blog post 3 years ago about planning a retreat in my own home, where I shut off the computer and the phone and spent a week alone and in silence.  I wrote another post about the effect it had on me a couple of weeks later.

Your eye can find rest in the big quiet places of a painting.  Look at contemporary painting in that way.  Can you find a resting place?  At least one big quiet shape?

The Irish author Colm Toibin was interviewed last Sunday by Eleanor Wachtel on Writers and Company on CBC radio.  It was an archived interview about his 2012 novel, The Testament of Mary. The conversation was wide-ranging.  I was interested to hear Toibin speak of the process of writing and the importance of silence in writing.  He said that  the spaces between the words are more important than the words themselves.

Shortlisted for the Griffin prize in poetry in 2014, Canadian Sue Goyette wrote about the importance of silence in writing. "When it comes to writing, she says “it’s a masterful thing to not spell everything out” for the reader. She explains that when something is too specific it becomes inhospitable. The job of a writer is to take something ordinary and bring it into a state of grace. Adding silence to your writing does just this because the space you leave creates something bigger. A story without silence has no space or depth, nowhere for the reader to enter and create meaning".

Similarly in music, silence is crucial.  There's a wonderful article on the website, All About Jazz, about the Role of Silence in jazz. "If you put on some of your favourite CD's you can hear it:  how the best musicians use silence.  Great artists have impeccable technique, but as part of this they also know how to use silence.  Accomplished composers don't take all their best ideas and muddy the listener's experience by rattling on and on.  These artists know how to communicate their ideas clearly.  Listen to the space between the phrases.  Listen to how one instrument comes forward when others move into the background.  Listen to how the solos fill the listener's experience because there's not competition from other voices.  Listen to how silence is used as a colour, and not simply as the lifeless backdrop of compositions.  Silence, when used effectively, is a colour."

Big quiet shapes in a painting can be the foil against which small areas of bright colour or beautiful texture or line can truly sing.  They can't be heard if every single part of the painting is shouting.

Consider silence.  Big quiet shapes.