Less Is More “Tao Te Ching” verse 12 for Artists

Less Is More article illustration of sumi-e painting of human outline

Verse 12*

The five colors make one blind in the eyes
The five sounds make one deaf in the ears
The five flavors make one tasteless in the mouth
Racing and hunting make one wild in the heart
Goods that are difficult to acquire make one cause damage
Therefore the sages care for the stomach and not the eyes
That is why they discard the other and take this


This is another one of Lao Tzu’s verses in Zen spirit. It leads us towards moderation. It guides us against complexity and excess, something very relevant to the modern world of excess which is reflected in art as well. 

The “Less is more” phrase seems to be particularly appropriate for this verse. The idea of it is very simple yet profound.  

Excessive colour use, excessive detail and description can create a chaotic experience for the viewer.

When creating,  recognizing how much is enough, and  knowing when to stop, is the real art. When just the right amount of information is said and shown,  the artist allows the viewer to have their own personal understanding/ relationship with the artwork.

“Therefore the sage” ( the wise artist) gets guided by the inner senses and not by outer appearances and distractions.

A perfect example of art created in this spirit is Sumi-e. It is an ancient form of brush painting technique, where the artist strives to give the maximum amount of information with the  least possible means.

* I am using  Translation by Derek Lin as examples of verses, but there are many different translations with different nuances and sensibilities of the translators.  

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