365 words and phrases

Dear Artist,

All my life I’ve been trying to figure out ways to improve my painting. That includes study of the work of those I consider masters, trying to get the hang of their ideas, techniques and processes, and, on my own part, simple, garden-variety toil.

Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve built up a word list that has been gradually added to and subtracted from. At one point the words actually added up to 365. I called them “Keys.” They could be both negative and positive. They might be everyday common sense and they might be personal preferences. They pop up mainly while painting, afterwards when vetting my work, and often when I’m walking in the woods with Dorothy. These words remind me where I am, what pitfalls I’ve fallen into on previous occasions, what I am doing wrong right now and, from time to time, what I might be doing right.

You may have heard of the concept of “name it and claim it.” When you identify something that’s going on — a method, a technique, an attitude — and put a name to it, a natural human tendency is to hang on to it and to more readily make it your own. Naming often nails down a situation.

In my occasional forays into mentoring and workshopping, I also found myself encouraging painters to build lists for themselves — lists that might reflect their own techniques and tastes. Inevitably, I had to explain some items in my own list.

An alphabetical list that might encourage thought and the building of your own lists can be found after the letter. You might find some on my list to be self-contradictory, but that’s the nature of the beast. While anyone can paint, it’s difficult to paint well. If it were easy to paint well, perhaps everyone would be doing it. Our work is also complicated by the fact that we often don’t know what glue we’re in until we’re already into it. A life in art seems to be forever a work in progress. If you catch my drift, you may find that your own words and phrases will pop up and down like a whack-a-mole.

As the lady said, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?”


Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Best regards,


PS: “My own words take me by surprise and teach me what to think.” (French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1908-1961)

Esoterica: I recently printed out and ran my list past a group of artists in a two-hour Q and A. The participants seemed to be stimulated, and some great discussions arose. Some participants have continued to fire off input by email. Without completely throwing away the mystery of it all, I’ve added a short explanation after each key. “A word,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is a struck note on the keyboard of the imagination.” It’s my sincere wish that your imagination might at least be teased. It’s also my hope that from my list you get a few ideas for your own list.

365 Words and Phrases

Abstract core — abstraction strengthening realism
Activation — magic spots that direct the eye
Arial perspective — going back easy
Art schooly — some march to a different drum
Avoidance activity — the thief of productivity
Bee-action — brushwork like a bee at flowers
Big picture — broad design trumps fiddling
Blocked — some artists simply are
Box canyon — places you can’t get out of
Bravura — confident, flamboyant brushwork
Broom and whisk — brush size for style
Butterfly mind — your key to imagination
Chair and feet — hat on and how you work
Chiaroscuro — form by light and shade
Cigar time — civilized, reflective self-crit
Circulation — moving the eye around a work
Clientosis — too much attention to customer
Colour surprise — unexpected pictorial focus
Coming to light — basic principle of life
Commit and correct — a creative principle
Condition — What’s happening in there?
Constipation — creative tightening up
Counterpoint — the secondary leitmotif
Defocus — softening up for mystique
Desire — the world’s greatest power
Distractive creativity — gifted subconscious flow
Edgemanship — know your edges
Educosis — work blinded by education
Ego-force — the power that billows your sails
Eye control — management of the viewer’s eyes
Faxification — imited range of tonal values
Flow — automatic right-brain painting
Focus — here’s the climax?
Form — when all else fails
Glaze down — toning a painting for mother colour
Grace notes — extra nuances for added interest
Gradations and flats — main ways of treating areas
Grey power — sophisticated, delicious neutrals
Guilt — the thief of power
Half-closed eyes — the way to really see
Hard and soft — the two buddies of joy
Homeostasis — the creeping crime of equality
Horizontality — the alpha of back and forth
Infectious dilettantism — good enough is okay
Interlocking patterns — hidden design strength
Iron will – the power to overcome
Joy stroke — where visual happiness prevails
Kitch and callow — beginner’s potholes
Leave out — subtraction as creative ploy
Leave out a primary — a winning colour device
Limited palette — less is more
Literary entrapment — the “red” barn
Lost and found — the music of disappearances
Low expectations — aim low and hit the mark
Magic hour — a great time to paint
Mishmash — a work of too many subjects
Mother colour – chosen colour pervading all
Nap time — the shut down that reboots
Overworking — the boo-boo of perfectionists
Painterly senility — watch for it as you age
Paucity — absence of; key to pictorial charm
Photographosis — photo dependence; it shows
Pink focus — noses and elbows; a convention
Plein air cure — the advent of authenticity
Point system — every work has its points
Pomodoro — the tomato of time
Pump priming — methods of getting started
Put more into it — adding without cluttering
Rebrushification — change brushes; often up
Reflected light — the gentle lift that reads
Scumble — dragging a lighter colour over
Secondary easel — a change of personality
Squeeze out — first thing in the morning
Stringy and thready — a terminal danger
Studiothrombosis — art and you can die of this
Style alert — triggering the advent of style
Surface quality — the work you love to cruise
Syncopation — boogie-woogie energy
Syntagma — similar forms montaging
Talk back — let the painting speak to you
Three four five — stepping back well into
Three sixty — rotate your view
Time inversion — slow work that looks quick
Toil — the professional’s secret weapon
Too one two — a simplistic work
Toolitis — the reliance on tools
Verticality — the power of up and down
Volume — the benefits of making many
What could be? — the golden question
Zips and flourishes — Final focus fun

Guilt and power
by Hannah Pazderka, Edmonton, AB, Canada


custom ring by
Hannah Pazderka

I noticed that one of your Keys was: “Guilt — the thief of power.” I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk more about that?

(RG note) Thanks, Hannah. This was the most frequently queried key on the list. I used to see a lot of guilt, particularly among women artists with issues over the perception of keeping house, etc, but this has certainly diminished. Other forms of guilt—often laid on us by one person or another who disapproves of one part of our lives or another. Guilt can help enable ambition, of course, but it’s mostly like a flat tire that slows down progress. One can either identify the guilt source and confront it, or one can go the other way. For the free flow of independent joy and creativity, artists need to chuck out as much guilt from their lives as possible.

There are 2 comments for Guilt and power by Hannah Pazderka

From: anon — Oct 15, 2013

Gorgeous ring!!!!

From: Mary Jean Mailloux — Oct 16, 2013

ditto about chucking out the guilt, but so much easier said than done. However, it can be done!

Painterly senility
by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA


original painting
by Diane Voyentzie

I am wondering just what is “painterly senility?” Worried here!

(RG note) Thanks, Diane. The second most queried key. Identified by critics and older artists themselves, “painterly senility” might involve tightening up, repetition, overworking, unsure stroking and sloppy compositions. Some of it may have to do with garden-variety boredom from doing the same thing for some time. As in the fight against Alzheimer’s, taking on new projects and challenging old neural pathways is vital. Artists need to stay alive to the very end, and they can.

There are 2 comments for Painterly senility by Diane Voyentzie

From: andre satie — Oct 15, 2013

This 76 year old just copied this and pasted it into my folder of “pithy noteworthy reminders”.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Oct 16, 2013

This may result from a form of aging with OCD (no crime in my book!) Many with Alzheimer’s paint repetitively, to comfort themselves, I think. Others seem to do biomorphic paintings of what’s going on in their minds. Painting to music seems to draw this quality out of people.

Pink focus
by Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA


oil painting
by Larry Moore

Curious about Pink focus — noses and elbows; a convention.

(RG note) Thanks, Larry. Several asked this. If you are a believer in finding colour and emphasizing it in your work, take a look at how you can make people come alive when you make their noses just a bit redder, their knees and elbows just a bit pinker. In my books it’s an inexcusable illusion, but it rings true.

Words to live by
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“View From the Goat Mountain”
acrylic painting by
Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

My beloved grandfather used to collect and repeatedly reuse phrases. One of his favourite ones was “love across the water” for anything promising that may not pan out, especially when we were playing chess or cards. I always thought that this habit was a sign of old age. My vocabulary has been egalitarian, but I am noticing that it’s getting cluttered. Your list has some of my misplaced darling ones and I am very glad that you shared it with us. Maybe it’s the time for me to start writing things down before nature takes its toll.

Here are my contributions for the list:

Parenthood – Protect and cherish, don’t try to make it look like something else

Sincerity – Give it all you have, never become slick or sly

Keep moving – Start, work, finish and repeat

Keep growing – Learn something new every day

Forgive – shortcomings build character

…and thanks very much for publishing so many of my letters and paintings! I love PKeys!

(RG note) Thanks, Tatjana. The people who choose the letters are fond of yours because they are sometimes feisty, sometimes sweet, always informed and always intelligent, and we all think your fellow artists will get value from them.

There are 2 comments for Words to live by by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

From: Rose — Oct 15, 2013

I can not get enough of your paintings…They are such a treat again and again.

From: Tatjana — Oct 15, 2013

Thanks Rose, Sally and Jen. My legs are still sore from the last climb to one of those mountain peaks. It helps to see your kind words.

More wisdom
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA


watercolour painting by Warren Criswell

At the risk of screwing up the calendar, here’s another good one:

Mirror; check it out in horizontal flip.

And to give a broader sweep to educosis:

Forget; all these words.

There is 1 comment for More wisdom by Warren Criswell

From: Anonymous — Oct 16, 2013

Second try… My sublinguals are sometimes the only sweet thing I have all day! I do like that painting.

Lists are meaningless
by Roberta Pyx Sutherland, Grassy Point, Hornby Island, BC, Canada


original painting by Roberta Pyx Sutherland

A recent article by Roger Cohen for the New York Times while traveling and observing in Germany contained the following paragraphs:

Germans have a good word for something authentic: “echt.” We have an echt deficit these days. Everything seems filtered, monitored, marshaled, ameliorated, graded and app-ready — made into a kind of branded facsimile of experience for easier absorption. The thrill of the unexpected is lost.

The modern world’s tech-giddy control and facilitation makes us stupid. Awareness atrophies. Dumb gets dumber. Lists are everywhere — the five things you need to know about so-and-so; the eight essential qualities of such-and-such; the 11 delights of somewhere or other. We demand shortcuts, as if there are shortcuts to genuine experience. Lists are meaningless.”

Unpleasant responses
by Anonymous

I am a person who dislikes poor manners and confrontation. There have been several letters to you lately in both the clickbacks and live comments that go too far. I also notice that you did not illustrate the really nasty one with his work. Is this a policy when they are bad?

(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. Apparently there are three Bill Gahl’s in the USA and we were not able to find art from any of them. If we had found some work we would certainly have illustrated it.

Pomodoro, the tomato of time
by Olga Rybalko, BC, Canada


37 minutes (left) 37 strokes (right)
original painting by Olga Rybalko

We met at the FCA workshop at Whistler BC last month when I had a 15 minute mentoring session with you on the last day. Thank you again for all the advice. I’ve been so inspired from that week and have been painting lots. One of the things you suggested was to try the 37 minute and 37 stroke painting. I really enjoyed the 37 stroke one; it was like a life drawing exercise where you can’t take your pencil off the paper, so it really gets the brain working. The 37 minute painting with the timer was great as well; it made me really plan out the painting in advance. I think I’ll start doing this before I start any big pieces.


Robert and Olga at the Whistler FCA workshop

(RG note) Thanks, Olga. For artists who might want to help others, this sort of mentoring system is useful. One-on-one and behind closed doors gives a good opportunity to see what they do and hear where they’re coming from. I don’t actually charge for these sessions because when I started out doing them a few years ago I figured that I needed to get the unsullied goods, get straight to the point and give them a thought or two to carry on. For some, not all, I’ve found these private meetings to be priceless. The most students I recommend talking to in one day is 24.

by Sara Genn, Santorini, Greece


Sara Genn and Peter Bray were married in New York on October 5th, 2013

We’ve been everywhere on Santorini — the most comprehensive tour of the most microcosmic place. Lighthouse, monastery at the mountaintop, radioactive WWII radar station and bunker, battery, octopus cove, port, marina (with sloops), donkey stairs, cable car station, cathedral, mountain pass, switchbacks, cliff edges, luxury balconies, winery, olive grove, aforementioned goat farm, bee keeper’s spot, kitten cafe with lobsterman meeting, volcano sulphur belching hot spring, white chalk beach, new age restaurant with whole fried sea bass and octopus carpaccio, trinket row, exotic foot spa with fish nibblers, slouvaki cafe, windmills, Nona’s taverna with tomato dumplings, straw hat shop, supermarket, beach umbrella paradise, Sorolla pink rock face, tiny white barnacle hotel clump, sunset points, cruise ship empty-spot, prehistoric volcano petrification village, fresco museum in private home, clay replica gallery, millions of Greek cookies bakery, sleepy beach, and every road connecting them, and here…our white terrace overlooking the submerged Atoll (imploded 1613 BC) and central lava Island (1950). The whole thing has been fueled by Santorini cherry tomatoes, baby cukes, red onion and local capers, Kalamata olives with slabs of Crete feta laying over them, glugged in olive oil and herbs. P drags chips through globs of garlicky tzastiki and breaks up the scampis.

There are 5 comments for Santorini by Sara Genn

From: Jim Oberst — Oct 15, 2013

Congratulations, Sara and Peter. Time to slow down!

From: Rose — Oct 15, 2013

Life is good….Wonderful….

From: Delores Hamilton — Oct 15, 2013

Fuel for about 2000 paintings, it seems. My best to you both on your even greater adventure: marriage.

From: Anonymous — Oct 16, 2013

Congratulations Sara and Peter Though we’ve never met, news of you and your accomplishments have been a constant on this site so I’ve kind of seen you grow. All the best, Mary Jean

From: Mike Barr — Oct 17, 2013

Congratulations Sara and Peter! Hope you enjoy Oz.




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Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for 365 words and phrases

From: Marilyn Harding — Oct 11, 2013

Once again, your newsletter shines a light on the art of life itself. I have tucked “Commit and correct — a creative principle” into my pocket today. It’s that trying to get it right the first time that stalls the answer to “What could be? — the golden question.” Thanks for the nudge.

From: Doug Mays — Oct 11, 2013

I can add two more to your list, first is “Sweet Spot” – where I like to place my centre-of-interest and second – “Spontaneity” – the ingredient I like to incorporate in my watercolours.

From: Kendra Page — Oct 11, 2013

Your “name it and claim it” comment brought back to me the suggestion of an artist with whom I studied years ago: that you should have a name for every color you mix to put on your canvas; that if you can’t give it a clear, descriptive name, however simple or grandiose (tangerine, red dirt, bile), it should not be put on the canvas. Even “mud” should be able to be categorized, if you’re using it for other than a neutralizer, and maybe even then.

From: Barbara Simpson — Oct 11, 2013

I too keep ‘a list’…Moreover, these words spread out on my vision board additional to my visuals…clear where I can see them, use them,….and decide at certain times, revise, elaborate or remove them. Colored stickies affixed to the board make it simple to add and remove. I find the vision board with words not only beneficial but keeping me in check with my purpose! As well, I concur with what you wrote, “While anyone can paint, it’s difficult to paint well. If it were easy to paint well, perhaps everyone would be doing it. Our work is also complicated by the fact that we often don’t know what glue we’re in until we’re already into it. A life in art seems to be forever a work in progress.”

From: Hannah Pazderka — Oct 11, 2013

I was looking at your clickback, and I noticed that one of your Keys was: “Guilt — the thief of power.” I thought that was fascinating… I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk more about that?

From: Norman Ridenour — Oct 11, 2013

I once had a client who told me, ‘Norman your work is good but your real work of art is your life.’ That was 30 years ago, he should see me now.

From: Siobhan Dempsey — Oct 11, 2013

It’s hard to imagine even having the thought process to name anything when in ‘it’. Don’t know how you do it Robert. Love your letters.

From: Russ Hogger — Oct 12, 2013

For someone who is a writer, words can come in handy I suppose. No list of words cannot help me with a painting when I get stuck, but a few unprintable ones can certainly come to mind though. He said with a chuckle!

From: Lauren Rader’s Art and Releasing the Creative — Oct 12, 2013
From: Tillinghast — Oct 14, 2013

WOW, The 365 words/phrases are the best! They capture frustrations and the gleeful moments where we ALL find ourselves at some point in our creative world

From: Norm Shulman — Oct 14, 2013

When I heard you speak in Indianapolis a few years ago you mentioned “literary entrapment — the red barn,” etc. This has been so helpful to me in really seeing colors and watching out for the the “green grass” and “ocean blue”. As you said, a white cigarette held up against a bright window is no longer white.

From: Jose Cruz — Oct 14, 2013

Mine is, “hard work — the key to all the others.”

From: Reinhold Reich — Oct 14, 2013

Just reading down the list was very useful — made me smile with recognition and frown with confusion. We all don’t need to know everything, but what we do need to know about our own direction we need to know well.

From: Sid Chenoweth — Oct 14, 2013

Paintings are not, as some people seem to think, a rendered record of something seen. They are actually dynamic and independent things in themselves. When you talk about abstract core, focus, defocus, activation, and big picture, as you do in these “words” you are talking in the real language of art.

From: Anne Bevan — Oct 15, 2013
From: Rena Williams — Oct 15, 2013

Still enjoying your letters after years of reading them…thanks Robert.

From: Bobbie Kelsten — Oct 15, 2013

I’m new(ish) to painting and have been reading your newsletter for a few months. It is always interesting and has often inspired or helped me consider a task or problem from a new angle. I love this list of words and phrases and have “saved” it for further perusal. One word that came up in an earlier newsletter and that isn’t here that has continued to intrigue me is the notion of “abandonment”. Could you define that for me a bit more precisely? Many thanks for this twice weekly dose of artistic advice and wisdom.

From: nick prins — Oct 16, 2013

a few comments about galleries and art dealers etc. who rip artist off financially and even loose paintings,i have been one of those artist.

From: Michele Hausman — Oct 16, 2013

Faxification — limited range of tonal values Wow a new word! thought this was when my fax machine spit out unwanted solicitations. Thanks Robert,

From: Edward Ellis — Oct 17, 2013

This site is so consistently informative. Thank you to all who contribute information and opinion to it. So valuable, so interesting.

From: Helmuth Flagel — Oct 17, 2013

I have found rebrushification — often just moving up to a larger size, to be one of the best to do to refresh and renew. The tools are right there. You just need to change them.


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