The woman by the coffee shop door catches my eye the way a pedestrian catches the eye of a driver cruising through a crosswalk. I make little more than an unconscious note in the cafe’s geography, little more than a dynamic re-mapping of space. I retrieve my cafe au lait and turn to leave. Then I spot her again.
The room tilts.
Her head now cants like a summer leaf coaxed into a curve by a drop of water. Her hair catches sun through the window glass, explodes into golden refractions, light through jewels. Mediterranean beauty, I wonder for an instant if she’s the same person I noticed a moment ago. Between first glance and second something changed. Captured eyes, we each shift to shore up our balance as if standing on sand pressing out from beneath our toes. Was that a faint smile on her lips? Did I see her cheeks flush? She brushes hair from her shoulder to her back, turns to the door and pushes it open to leave for the morning’s daily promise.
I realize I’m standing there, smiling faintly. I also realize she’s gone. What changed? Same woman, same cafe; then something happened. Moments that move people always come down to nuance.
Hold a note a heartbeat long, and suddenly the music swings.
But hold it overmuch and then--instantly--the rhythm stings.
Nuance means more than detail and precision. Nuance means attention to detail.
Many people confuse “detail” with quality; don’t. It’s a trap. Endless details can be like too much sugar in a cake. More is not always better.
But attention to detail is entirely another thing. And that leads us back to the theme of this essay. Nuance is all about how that attention to detail plays out in concert, about how subtle, tiny interactions among elements can contribute to profound differences.
Still life painting—bowl of fruit—not worth the wall it's hanging on
But captured bright, with brush alight: it’s very different when Cezanne
Detail can be an unfair partner insofar that some people will never be able to execute the levels of perfection they desire simply by working at it. Paying close attention is not enough. What’s the difference between a smart, hard working conservatory student playing Chopin or Mikhail Pletnev playing Chopin? It’s not much unless you listen closely. In the crudest assessment, they're both playing all the notes. But the difference between the two yawns like an impassable river if you have a discerning ear. The performances are not even in the same sonic solar system.
Nuance means subtleties that contribute to overall bigger pictures. They add up to things that transcend the addition of their parts. Nuance happens below the level of consciousness, but above the level of the subconscious. It floats at the barrier between above and below. It’s elusive. It exists in its own space.
Naturally the word alone does not immediately connote positive traits. There are nuanced negatives, too, of course. But for the sake of defining "quality" (a challenging topic for another day, I fear) nuance is the difference between clutter and detail. It’s the distinction between insight and observation. It’s the spark that crackles when eyes meet across a crowded room.