Fellow Travellers


Dear Artist,

Two kayakers take particular interest in the operation of the floating easel. Brothers Karl and Guenter Schuerer have been on the Mackenzie and it’s tributaries for three months. Grey-bearded and bronzed, these are seasoned river-men who have shaken off their bindings in Bremen in exchange for a life of adventure in a wild and challenging land. Their folding boats are masterworks of neatness and organization — they have to be — they must explore efficiently.


oil painting by
Emile Gruppé (1896-1978)

It’s something to do with the acceptability of change. In the floating easel, work can take place during purposeful movement. The landscape and its various motifs unfold so there is not the inclination for one particular view. The essentials must be photographed quickly with the mind’s eye, for the next time you look up what you think you saw has changed. I think we may be on to something here.

The system helps me with what artists have traditionally called “the big picture” — the simplification of complexity. As I paint in the bow of the Alexander Mackenzie, slowly powered forward by Sara at the helm, I’m beginning to think that what I do back in the studio is too fussy and constipated. I’m not saying these Mackenzie paintings are masterpieces, but they are a direction. When it’s Sara’s turn to paint she mentions the calming satisfaction of doing one thing while accomplishing another.


oil painting by Emile Gruppé

The last time we saw the brothers Schuerer they had drawn their tiny craft on a beach at the foot of a great mountain. “We are going up,” Karl shouted across the rumbling river. He pointed to the top. When I’m painting again I’m thinking something about efficient brushwork — meaningful, cursive stroking that gets to the point.

Best regards,


PS: “Change everything, except your passions.” (Voltaire)


oil painting by Emile Gruppé

“Efficiency of a practically flawless kind may be reached naturally. But there is something beyond — a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill, almost an inspiration which gives to all work that finish which is almost art — which is art.” (Joseph Conrad)

Esoterica: In The Underpainter, Jane Urquhart says that her artist must stop in order to paint; a writer must stop talking in order to write. Sara and I are wondering what others might have to say about producing while on the move.

This letter was originally published as “Fellow Travellers” on August 22, 2000.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“When I paint outdoors, I’ve always liked to let the paint do some of the work. I go for the big effect; and when I get it, I let the rest go.” (Emile Gruppe)