An opulent procession of beautiful women and girls carrying colorful flowers and wearing floral wreaths descends the stairs of a classical marble structure.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Spring. Here he represented the Victorian custom of sending children into the country to collect flowers on the morning of May Day but placed the scene in ancient Rome. In this way, he suggested the festival’s great antiquity, basing architectural details, dress, sculpture and even the musical instruments on Roman originals.
In the foreground of this large oil on canvas stands a girl, in a pale hydrangea blue dress, playing the flute.
But, upon closer examination, the silver flute’s mouthpiece is formed into the shape of a tiny creature.
It is almost imperceptible. How and why does Alma-Tadema put such meticulous effort into this miniature detail?
We may find insightful answers amid these difficult times that have constricted our life and workspaces. In these confined spaces we are offered the precious gift of focusing our attention on the details, which can prove healing, calming, and enlightening.
Many people are reporting hearing birds singing for the first time, noting their colors and particular calls. The quieting of the outer noise helps us to appreciate and as artists then record this magnificent phenomenon called life.
Here are 5 lessons that we can all learn from Alma-Tadema’s example of attention to detail, as a labor of love and in service of truth.
1. The viewer feels cared for, gifted by little treasures that slowly reveal themselves to those who pay attention.
Alma-Tadema’s curiosity about the ancient world was insatiable and the knowledge he acquired was incorporated into over three hundred paintings of ancient archaeological and architectural designs. He said: “Now if you want to know what those Greeks and Romans looked like, whom you make your masters in language and thought, come to me. For I can show not only what I think but what I know.”
The care and effort he put into his interpretation of the ancient world allow us to experience it with him in all its details as if we were there ourselves.
2. Inspiration propels seeds and ignites inspiration for the viewer.
Certain scenes in Cecil B. DeMille’s film Cleopatra (1934) were inspired by the painting Spring in its richness and detailed execution.
Alma-Tadema’s paintings also enjoyed popularity later, when his large panoramic depictions of Greek and Roman life caught the attention of Hollywood, like for the 1956 drama The Ten Commandments
and the 1959 epic Ben Hur, directed by William Wyler.
If we give all elements of our work the same love and care, we give the viewer a vivid image, rich in design. If we leave areas we find not “important” to the viewer’s imagination we are not being more creative as artists but rather vague.
In focusing on details, we are taking charge as the artist and inviting others into our world to inspire them to new ideas.
Da Vinci once said, “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.”
3. Observing nature’s details carefully nurtures our deep appreciation of life and the world we live in.
We as artists train our eyes to wonder about beauty anywhere and everywhere.
NMA instructor Glenn Vilppu says, “You don’t really see something until you draw it, you think you see something, but you are not really seeing it”.
It is a kind of devotion to the craft and to the subject before you, the commitment to telling the truth about it and in doing so, revealing a beauty or an essence.
By studying with undivided attention it is as if our consciousness is transported right into the smallest of spaces. This becomes an act of sanctifying creation.
According to orthodox traditions, the point of the arts is to praise creation and to depict the smallest details is seen as sacred.
Michelangelo, said, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”
Depicting the details of the natural world honors creation and this is the creator in us, who can mimic this and remind each other of the splendor and wonder that is creation.
When Wes Anderson meticulously creates color-coordinated interiors, in his now signature-style movies, or Vermeer with black and white tiled floors, all marvel at the attention to every last detail to create the authenticity of the world they have conjured.
“That’s the kind of movie that I like to make, where there is an invented reality and the audience is going to go someplace where hopefully they’ve never been before. The details, that’s what the world is made of,” Wes Anderson said.
4. Focus on details builds our facility for patience, fortitude, resolve, and steadfastness.
“Genius is eternal patience,” said Michelangelo.
We can be tempted in our ‘throw away’- ‘immediate gratification world,’ to feel as though our efforts are not acknowledged, or are not even efficient, and yet, in a book about the San Francisco Ballet, a costume designer was once asked, “Why do you spend so much time on the tiny details of the costumes if the audience will never see them?” And she answered, “The dancers will see it and will dance better because of it.”
5. Attention to the specific create the Universal
Jacqueline Woodson said, “The more specific we are, the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn’t resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe commented, “To be really great in little things, to be truly noble and heroic in the insipid details of everyday life, is a virtue so rare as to be worthy of canonization.”
Even Slick Willie, the famous bank robber once intoned, “Success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail and total concentration.”
In the late 19th century the French painter, William Adolphe Bouguereau, (1825-1905) insisted on his academic artistic style, and was antagonistic towards a popular art style of the time, known as, “Impressionism.” He told his students:
“One has to seek Beauty and Truth, Sir! As I always say to my pupils, you have to work to the finish. There’s only one kind of painting. It is the painting that presents the eye with perfection, the kind of beautiful and impeccable enamel you find in Veronese and Titian.”
In addition to Adolphe Bouguereau, there were other painters who maintained a similar intention at this time, including Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
With a newfound adoration and admiration for these painters, their work, commitment, and vision stand as a beacon for us all.
Taking the time and making the effort to get the correct angles of the perspective, the proper proportions of the whole, the anatomically accurate bone structure of the hand, to see and duplicate all the varied shades of green and pinks in the bouquet of roses on the table, understand the slight and drastic shifts of lights and darks of the folds of cloth, these are the myriad of details that will stand out and let the viewer see your world. It improves our capacity for patience, develops respect for authenticity, and cultivates a love of beauty that makes us strive even harder to portray it, and thus, in turn, will engender these feelings in others.
In these unexpected and unprecedented days, it seems the most important things come from the small details: washing our hands, being aware of our habits and how we affect one another, and that paying attention to what might seem like insignificant details demonstrates great care for ourselves, each other, and the world.