The Devil is in the Details

“Are you detail-oriented?”

I am honestly shocked at how often this question finds its way to me…

It amuses me—makes me bite my tongue—as I try to suppress the laugh and long-winded answer which arises in my mind. I respond, just as a well-trained and contributing member of society should, “oh yes, I live for details.”


The truth is much more complicated. While details are relevant, particularly in my line of work, they are often overemphasized and not adequately set into context. Taken out of the proper framework details can overpower the subject and change the entire focus and meaning of the work.

Details are dangerous. The overemphasis of details is not just a threat for artists, but for overworked students, teachers, parents, professionals, and—dare I say—preachers alike who worry so much about the ‘small stuff’ they scurry frantically around and forget the big picture. Of course, I can superimpose an image of myself in the before mentioned list, so I am not casting judgment.  

For artists exploring realism, details distract us from actual values and light logic. We fixate on intricacies, noticing them too early, then rush to render them too soon, likely destroying our illusion of form. Before we slow down and place them into context and a proper set of underlying values, we urgently map out elaborate details which surrender all together to the wrong light logic. (Think of the chaos if there were no order of operations in a math equation.)

In the end, we step back from our finished work and find we are often disappointed but cannot understand precisely why. Despite the time and information our compositions hold, the works look flat— lifeless.  Since we worked so hard to render truth, we decide the pursuit doesn’t really matter and we sell it to the rest of the world as gospel or quickly whip out our ‘creative license’ to cover up our lack of understanding. Again, I too am guilty as charged.

The flip side is equally as ugly and is a place I often find myself standing. Sometimes I do understand, in a painful, gut-wrenching kind of way, as an artist where I have gone wrong. The compulsive instinct kicks in, and I find myself contemplating undoing 50 hours worth of work to rebuild form painstakingly and more accurately. If I don’t fix it, I will have to stand behind a lie and sell it to the world. I am not confident my conscience can carry the burden, so I end up staying quiet, hoping no one will notice.

I guess it’s true what they always say, ‘the devil is in the details.’ It’s not because the details are time-consuming or cumbersome to render—no—it’s because the deceiver rests among them too, silently tempting us all to turn our backs on values. If we fall here, we will have nothing left to offer creation but a lifeless illusion.

The trouble is, no one has time for answer or conversation of the sorts after a rhetorical question like, “are you detail-oriented?” I’ve been considering how to give a more concise but accurate response. Maybe next time someone asks me I’ll say, “oh yeah, I’m tempted by details…”  or perhaps I’ll tell more of the truth— “to recognize details is knowledge, to understand how, when, and where they are relevant is wisdom.”