The knowledge


by Robert Genn

January 19, 2007

If you were a brain surgeon or a jet pilot, you might not have
a lot of historical precedent in your job description. I'm
talking about stuff that might apply to high-tech cortex
procedures or landing a plane in zero visibility. But we
artists, because of the relatively static nature of our
technology and the eternal need for spirit, can, if we wish, be
blessed with "the knowledge." No matter where we are in our
art, we can pretty well be sure that someone has been on that
spot before. Like Carl Jung's collective unconscious, it's out

My recent letter about Rilke was a case in point. If we had a
dime from every reader who told us that Rilke's ideas were
totally useful and applicable today, we could have a new wine
cooler in here. In my last letter, "Small stuff," I touched on
the values and joys of the sketch and other small works. I
always thought it was just my problem that the first couple of
sketches had to be bad--and were necessary to get to the good
ones. With my feet up between sketches (I'm taking it easier
these days), I happened to pick up a letter from Vincent Van
Gogh to a fellow Dutchman named Anton Ridder Van Rappard. A
line hit me like a falling roof-rafter: "After I had done the
ones that were so stiff," wrote Vincent, "then came the
others." He went on to say how his first attempts were
"absolutely unbearable," but that our minds form things up by
the actual making of things--and it's the latter things that
start to be the things we need.

Vincent may have been digging this knowledge for the first
time, but you can bet your bottom brush that others dug the
same. How useful it is. You may have noticed the phenomenon at
workshops. Flourishers are on to number three (the good one),
while the non-flourishers are still stuck trying to make
something out of number one or number two. Out in the bush, or
pressed for time, I've tried to leave out numbers one and two,
and just start with number three. I don't need to tell seasoned
painters that this number three soon reverts to being number

Fact is, there's an encyclopedia out there. And the
encyclopedia tells us how practically every painter, at one
time or another, couldn't even think of what to paint. History
paces the studio, has a crisis of self-confidence, and tries to
omit one and two.

Best regards,


PS: "When sailors have to move a heavy load or raise an
anchor--they all sing together to give themselves vim. That's
just what artists lack!" (Vincent Van Gogh)

Esoterica: With all the idealistic ranting and seemingly minor
fussing expressed by Vincent during his short life, he still
turned out to be one of the most successful painters in
history. Unfortunately, all of his sales took place after he'd
gone to the big cornfield in the sky. Vincent and his
knowledgeable, seeking spirit are needed in our studios every
day--and they're available. Take a look at his pages in our own
Resource of Art Quotations: He'd
be pleased if you did. "Great things are not done by impulse,
but by a series of small things brought together." (Vincent Van
Gogh, 1853-1890)