A fresh start
by Robert Genn

June 8, 2010

Dear Rodney,In a recent letter I wrote, "I've often toyed with the idea of working with an 
open-minded person who has never picked up a brush and turning her into a great 
painter in short order." Several hundred answered this call. "If you ever take 
leave of your senses," wrote Susie Cipolla of Whistler, B.C., Canada, "and would 
like to turn me into a great painter in short order, please sign me up."

In an earlier version of that letter I mentioned that applicants must have had a 
recent lobotomy. Our editors rejected this condition as too harsh. "Further," they 
said, "where are you going to find someone who has never picked up a brush?" 

I've always noted a big difference between what students think they need to do and 
what they need to do. The production of art is a curious combination of childlike 
intuition and practical, often hard won, know-how. It's this practical know-how 
where a person like myself might be useful. Without too much rigidity in getting 
started with these unsullied artists, here are a few basics--in the full knowledge 
that they might be dropped later: 

For opaque media--oil or acrylic--start with a toned ground. Don't fight white. A 
medium grey is good, but other, brighter colours are useful as well. 

In planning your painting, rather than drawing outlines, use patches of colour 
whenever possible. No spidery lines crawling around the painting. Spidery lines 
feel good when you make them, but they run interference later.

When you're into the actual painting, keep your strokes direct and fresh. Try to 
leave your strokes alone. Don't sweep back and forth like a sleepy umpire dusting 
off the home plate. 

When you're getting to the end, stop early. Don't be afraid to produce cursory, 
unfinished work. Let the viewer put in the last strokes. Overworking is a pitfall 
that many artists fall into and are never able to crawl out of. It's dark down 

Most important of all I would ask students to try to actually see what it is they 
are looking at. Like aliens on their first Earth encounter, these unsullied folks 
need to be visually astounded and curious about how things work. The older we 
become, the more difficult becomes this ability. "Be Martians," I would say, "if 
only for this short landing." 

Best regards,


PS: "If we could but paint with the hand what we see with the eye." (Honore de 

Esoterica: I've spent a lifetime trying to figure why people do poor work. The 
road to quality has many potholes. Bad habits learned somewhere else, mental 
laziness, creative laxity, chronic poor taste or too much theoretical education 
can take their toll. Other common potholes include literary concerns applied to 
visual happenings, the early adoption of second hand style, and compulsive, 
masochistic foot-shooting. I still like the idea of a lobotomy--I try to give 
myself one every day. It smarts, but it's worthwhile.