Simplicity in Art / by Jeannine Cook

It is thought-provoking for every artist to see Albrecht Durer's statement that "Simplicity is the greatest adornment of art". In some ways, it is a bit ironic for Durer was perfectly capable of making complex, crowded works of art, especially his woodcuts.

Nonetheless, the image that of course comes first to mind when I read his remark is his super-famous Hands of an Apostle, a grey and white drawing on his favourite blue paper (image courtesy of Graphische Sammlung Albertina). This drawing was done in preparation for the Frankfurt church altarpiece that Jakob Heller commissioned him to paint in 1508. This is indeed a devastatingly simple drawing in one sense, but look at the rendering of the skin texture, the way Durer conveys the gentle meeting and touching of the finger tips, as well as the effort of keeping the hands together, despite their weight. The blue paper used, "carta azzurra", was a new enthusiasm for Durer; he learned about it when he went in 1507-08 to Venice. Artists in Northern Italy had been using it since 1389, and Venetian artists favoured it because it allowed them to use wonderful chiaroscuro effects.

He was using this paper again for this study of the Twelve-year Old Christ, an extraordinary, sensitive and yet very straightforward drawing (image at right courtesy of the Graphische Sammlung Albertina).

Durer continued to use this paper and took a goodly supply of it back home to Northern Europe. I remember reading somewhere that when he ran out of it, he went to great lengths to find alternative blue papers. This drawing on the left (image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art) of the Arm of Eve was again, a very simple, powerful drawing Durer did on blue paper in 1507.

I think that it is a real discipline for each of us, as an artist, to try to simplify our work, to distill it to its essence, not to dilute and maybe obscure the message. There is always the temptation to add in more detail, more complexity... When you think of it, however, that a simple study, drawn 503 years ago on a small piece of blue paper, can remain so memorable, so vivid, so powerful is a total confirmation of Durer's statement about simplicity being the greatest "adornment of art".