The Mystery behind Great Art

When you first start painting, it’s easy to get into a trap of rendering your entire picture in minute detail.  After all, we live in a world where we want everything explained to us.  We create meticulous schedules that we follow for years into the future.  We want to know – with evidence – if there is a god (or to find evidence that there is not).  We want to come up with a unified Theory of Everything; a theory of quantum physics that will literally give us all of the answers.

Doesn’t it follow, then, that an artist who can perfectly render every detail on a canvas has reached the highest possible level of skill?

I invite you to consider, deep down, if you long for something else.  Something less tangible.

Mystery Party

Last fall my husband and I were grappling with this question.  We asked an eclectic group of friends – largely strangers to each other – over for dinner and invited them to share their stories.  What things had they experienced that opened wonder back up to them?

We were shocked by the stories that came out!  A business owner whose father would astral travel into his room nightly to make sure he was in bed.  A story of a UFO landing outside a friend’s campsite.  An engineer who telepathically connected to her mother across two continents.  And a company Director and his wife who both woke up one night to witness a billowing smoke travel across the room before evaporating into the corner.

Jarik Jongman, Phenomena 4, Netherlands
Jarik Jongman, Phenomena 4, Netherlands

What came out of this evening for me, besides a fantastically fun night!, was a realization that these unexplainable things happen to all of us, and critically – that it’s part of the human condition to long for information that can’t be found on google.  

Even Einstein, the father of the Unified Theory of Everything himself, put it this way:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”


Consider the great art that has connected with generations of viewers.   Magritte’s The Son of Man, with it’s floating apple.  The hidden messages in Dali’s melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory.  The abstracted brush strokes of Monet.  Turner’s gloriously atmospheric landscapes.  Almost anything by Picasso.  And of course the mysterious lady herself: Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

They all challenge us to add our own narrative.  They keep us engaged.

Adding More Mystery to Your Art

With this in mind, I considered ways to confuse, engage, and hopefully delight within art – ways to give our viewers a sense of the greater mystery of life.

Here are some “recipes” I came up with:

  1. Put your reference material away.  Spend time with your still life, or outside in your landscape, feeling it and absorbing what is special to you about the scene.  Then turn your back to it and paint away.  Use the real life objects later for reference, for colour ideas, for lines and edges, but let as much as possible stay intuitive.  This will help you succeed with the other bullets:
  2. Use a bigger brush.   Be comfortable with less information per square inch.  Break out your tiny brushes to sharpen up and add detail to your focal point.
  3. Sneak in more shadows, or add a little mist.   Let objects float in and out of the gloom.  Let your viewer be surprised when they look into the depths – or keep the depths obscure.
  4. Make use of atmospheric perspective.  Allow distant trees or hills to fuzz out into the sky.
  5. Get comfortable with abstractions.  Fill some areas with colour and pattern, and let your viewers decide what’s happening there.
  6. Take subjects out of their expected contexts.  I remember recently viewing an artist who painted minotaurs into downtown cityscapes.  We’re left to ponder the story – it engages us – and it’s memorable.
  7. Use symbols.  Tattoos, t-shirts, hat-pins, graffiti: these are all opportunities to engage viewers with hidden messages.


In “Witness”, I used abstractions throughout, as well as brush strokes that suggest turbulence or wind to a viewer who looks closely enough.
Inner Voices by Christy Michalak, Canada, 2018
I filled “Inner Voices” with quite a few tools from my mystery box.  Can you find them?


Artists, what tricks have you used to confuse, engage, and delight your viewers?

Art lovers – what paintings have really drawn you in?  How did the artist do it?

I would love to hear your comments on this!   Or send me your pics (your works or others’, with credit) and I’ll add them to a future post!


  1. Your 7 ideas are good ones.


    I’d add ‘avoid over-working a piece’, as in over-rendering.

    Leave out a little of it “vague” in order to “let” the responder fill it in. That’s engagement big-time.


  2. Great topic to pursue and research! It was enlightenment for me, the moment I suspected what you have discussed. For me, it was realizing I preferred others’ artworks that left work for my eyes and brain to do. Even just a little ambiguity was–pleasurable! No ambiguity was, yes– lovely-but-boring!


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