A hundred generations


Dear Artist,

The subject came up again during an impromptu visit with an artist friend in Melbourne: “I’m having trouble finding my style,” she said. “I don’t want to force it — I want to be myself — but how do I make my work stand out as mine?”


“Mill Houses”
oil painting by
A. J. Casson (1898-1992)

With the understanding that style mustn’t be contrived but instead evolve organically as part of a developing voice, like a signature, yours might simply be honed by keeping a lookout for your own unique pictorial penchants. If you’re low on penchants, then consider what I call “idiosyncrasies of brush.” “Your style,” Dutch-Canadian painter Bert Oudendag said, “is what you’re doing technically wrong.” Here’s an idea that might speed up your evolution:


“Hillside Village”
painting by A.J. Casson



Begin with a subject of personal meaning — A. J. Casson painted villages because he loved them, and when urban sprawl made them rare, they shouldered even greater meaning. Perhaps yours is a nearby wood, domestic object, studio friend or your own face. For the time being, avoid the overly cerebral or epic in scale with the knowledge that you’ll get your brush around your thing with some pizzazz. Now, paint automatically, while paying attention to accuracy — this is your chance to get it more or less right, and it’s the last time you’ll look at your original reference material. This painting is called your “first generation.”

Next, distance yourself from the thing and study your new reference: your painting. From here, you’ve set up a playground for future offspring:


“Housetops on the Ward” 1927
watercolour over red conte graphite
painting by A.J. Casson

With each new pass, try borrowing the movements of a few notorious style-monsters, be they cubist, realist, Fauvist, automatiste, Barbazon. You’re doing this for the purpose of trying on — to see how they feel and with the understanding that they don’t have to be “you.”

Now scratch all that and speed up. Do a painting in thirty strokes. Do one in fewer than ten. Slow down, omit a crucial detail, tighten, be loose, be neat, go for surface quality or characteristic line, colour play, softening, hardening or distorting. Make a caricature of your painting’s character. Leave your strokes alone. Isolate and capture in them the “ness” of your thing — that soul-polishing quality that made you choose it as a subject in the first place — as in, its “village-ness,” “forest-ness,” or “Beagle-ness.”


“Village Houses”
oil painting by A.J. Casson

I’m not saying these paintings should be your oeuvre but rather, like a guru’s practice of chanting a mantra, over time your generations may refine, smoothen, run out of breath, gain character, fall over or crack open a personal truth. Know that you are slipping elegantly into a bell-like timbre. “Style,” said Jean Cocteau, “is an easy way of saying complicated things.”




“End of Day”
oil on board 20 x 24 inches
by A.J. Casson

PS: “I had to develop my own style. I began to dig out places of my own… I loved to paint villages, and I’m glad, because they’re pretty much gone now. They’ve all changed, fallen down or been destroyed.” (A. J. Casson)

Esoterica: At the tip of the St. Kilda pier near Melbourne, a colony of 1200 Fairy Penguins carry on with their loving and egg laying, anchovy fishing, moulting and moon gazing, all amidst a near-trampling crowd of eco-tourists. Season to season, the downy grey nestlings emerge hopeful, incrementally better designed to co-exist with their seaside playground’s encroachers. “One arrives at style only with atrocious effort, with fanatical and devoted stubbornness.” (Gustave Flaubert)


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

“To achieve style, begin by affecting none.” (E. B. White)



      • I started oil painting way back many moons ago. I asked myself the same question. How do I create a style. The more I painted the more I started seeing that I had a style within me! I believe we all have a style in our minds and we just have to develop them out! Grant.

  1. Rachel Bushnell on

    A very interesting thing happened just now. As I was reading this letter, I thought this must be a reprint of one of Robert’s letters from the past. There is a real authority in the directions – such clarity in how to search for one’s own style. I was surprised to find your name in the signature, Sara. Thank you very much for this. I shall print it out in point form and hang it where I can see it as I work. Thank you, Sara, for carrying on your father’s voice and in finding your own.

  2. I had to look him up to check but Casson was one of the Canadian group of seven. Great work in a difficult period. I often think Van Gogh could have been one of them. I also think that when one considers their style development, they might keep in mind whether two dimensions, or paint, is where the heart is. It might be more fun when the overall media is secure. Super quotes in your letter, thanks Sara.

  3. I guessed that this was your dad’s writing………you have hit your stride….this message is perfect! The only thing left is to pick up the brush!

    • yes, I agree!

      I was looking for a January pick me up and this did it….to refine and clarify the style is key….and when it’s right I usually KNOW.

      My site was lost in the buyout of a successful web host’s company, and even my domain name of fourteen years was taken for a bit. GOT IT BACK FOR CHRISTMAS and thrilled to find how it makes a difference….a real difference. What’s in a name? A lot, I guess.

      …keyword “usually” :-) But that’s the fun.

      Happy New Year!

  4. Just what I needed to read! I’ve been asking myself a similar question and your words brought to mind the images I’ve been drawn to (the things I’ve been sketching and wanting to paint) and made me see it in a new light. Thank you for this insightful and inspiring post!!!

  5. Oh my! I too thought this was your fathers letter . Excellent and I know my “village-ness” is there in my portfolio of photos. Thank you Sara.

  6. Your terrific lesson applies to a realistic “subject”… I wonder how a similar series of generations of paintings might unfold for abstract artists? Think Rothko, de Kooning, or Still?

  7. Great letter…Sara’s an artist AND a teacher…”…style mustn’t be contrived”…super. And the fast small number of strokes really works. It makes you think quickly about the next one. We used to get down to five strokes, mostly on a dare. It was a silly contest first, but it worked way better than we originally thought.

  8. Nicely put together letter Sara. I’ve struggled with finding my ‘style” forever it seems. I’ll put these ideas to work. I hope you keep up this type of letter. Nicely written and informative.

  9. One of your best letters, Sara. It’s what many of my artist friends struggle with every day. Even those who have been painting professionally for years are often just overthinking, changing direction, wondering what to do next. … This letter helps the struggle. Thank you.

  10. What a well timed letter! At the beginning of a new year, some of us wonder…”what now?” Wondering if we should try something new, different, exciting…a new style. Thank you for reminding us to practice and change things up until it feels like our own. Sage advice. And yes, I heard it too… hints of your father’s voice nudging us along with your own. Thank you for this.

  11. oh my my, i too love this message and thought it was your dad’s. it really spoke to me as your dad’s always did. maybe this your new voice or a variation of your “old” one but truly don’t do what we like and continue to have your voice whether its new or old. you are wonderul to continue these newsletters and whether we all understand some of what you say … its not important. you make us think which what is vital for all of us who call ourselves artists. have a great new year and thank for every message you send.

  12. I shall DEFINITELY print this letter out and paste it to my wall, and experiment, experiment! Thank you so much Sara for a wonderful letter, tremendous insight demonstrating your skill and devotion to art, as a practicing artist, teacher and writer, thank you.

  13. As artists generally we seek to appear unique and therefore strive to create our own ” style “, however it most often appears when we are not consciously contriving to develop it.
    Through our subconscious choices of medium, scale, colours, genre, subject matter, etc. we are already part of the way there.
    Then through lots of practice and many paintings later one day when fellow artists and collectors convince you that they readily recognise ” your ” artwork do you realise that you have a style.


  14. Sara, This letter is such a great reminder of the wonderful things you and your dad outlined in your workshops which encouraged us to find our style by precisely such things as honing in on our idiosyncrasies, limiting and speeding up. A generation of paintings it dies take to know oneself better and trust in the style that developes. I continue to paint and advocate 37 minute paintings and 37 Stroke ones as first practiced at your workshop (see Jane_Appleby_Art on YouTube). And after several years of doing such paintings I feel confident in a personal style developing, both in my representational and abstract work. Thank you again for introducing me to ways to discover how I like to paint, which ultimately feeds my style.

  15. With this artist, Casson, whom I did not know, his style has a lot to do with his love of light, the effects of light, sunlight. Each painting has a special light, a temperature. You can see his brush style actually changing as he works. Each painting is not exactly painted like the others, it has its’ own style but all also have his style.

    Donna Veeder

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Zidonja_Magnolia-Joy-wpcf_300x217.jpgMagnolia Joy
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I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.


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