About the law of recent memory

Dear Artist, We have a patio built out above our overgrown ravine. If I stand on the edge I can drop a ball down into the jungle. Though she can’t see where the ball goes, Dorothy will enthusiastically tear around, find her way down below and generally bring back the ball. Sometimes she can’t find it. If I drop a stick down near the ball — she will go again and generally bring back the stick. Even if the stick is lying right beside the ball she will bring the stick. If I tell her to bring the ball she will bring the stick. This is an example of the law of recent memory. Though the squeaky, bouncy ball is the more interesting plaything, the dog will retrieve from the more recent event.

Decisions, decisions.

An artist’s reference holds to a similar principle. Recent material, however ordinary, is more exploitable than old. And recent material stays “hot” only so long. I learned this the hard way. I used to be cool and try to let new environments and new reference mature in my imagination — so that the results of my travels gained the benefit of thoughtfulness and reflection. I lived with the fact that nothing whatsoever came out of some of my trips. I was thinking about art as a “big thing” that was going to be important and a lot of work. I was wrong. Art is a joyous thing that you can grasp and drink from like a glass of orange juice. Plein air painters know all about this. Some do it daily in the way that other folks play tennis. The creative memory is fickle and needs to be taken fresh. If you seize the day and go to work at the first flush of interest, you’ll find your work and your creative ideas freshen up too. Just as the love of a certain medium can have a “life,” so too can subject matter. Many artists report tiring of themes or subjects. Feeling they haven’t exploited them thoroughly enough, they guiltily resist moving on. Sometimes they get stuck for months, even years. The popular use of digital cameras makes it easy to put stuff in the can — sometimes without even looking at it — for another time. This can be a mistake. The important thing is to be wired, enthusiastic and alive in the moment. You can learn a lot from your dog. Tail wagging is a bit much for some humans, and it can get on the nerves of fellow travellers, but it’s the straight route to creative joy. Best regards, Robert PS: “Paint like a fiend when the idea possesses you.” (Robert Henri) “One must act in painting as in life, directly.” (Pablo Picasso) Esoterica: One of the ongoing curiosities in life is the tendency to act immediately on some things and put others on the back burner. The stick of recent memory is somehow more deserving. Like the pages of a book, the plot of creativity develops in a progressive manner. To interfere with this natural flow prevents the artist from getting on with things. Photographer Harry Callahan said, “If you don’t do it, you don’t know what might happen.” This is a favourite Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Letter previously published as “The law of recent memory” on April 22, 2005.   Dorothy Snows       Smash and grab by John Gardner, London, ON, Canada  

“View from Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland”
plein air oil painting, 10 x 12 inches
by John Gardner

The “in the moment” approach to painting has served me far greater than the “canned” approach you talked about. I can remember standing on the side of an elevated road in Chianti Italy many years ago drinking in the landscape and contemplating the best angle for a plein air piece when a vehicle screamed to a halt right behind me. A man jumped out and introduced himself as an artist. We exchanged pleasantries for about 10 seconds before he took out his camera and started shooting. He was gone in less than 3 minutes. Although I do use a camera for reference on occasion, I have come to the realization the human eye and the camera do not see or experience things the same way.   How to make colour discordant by Robin Timms, North Vancouver, BC, Canada  

acrylic painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Robin Timms

A crisp walk in the valley this morning, and I am playing with colour discords and studying the more esoteric colour theories at the moment. Can you possibly direct me to one or two really good books that would include colour discord which might include colour charts or examples? I want to soak up something good in my little studio on a crisp morning like this one. (RG note) Thanks, Robin. The most “esoteric” colour ideas at the moment are on the walls of cutting edge galleries in the major art centers like New York and London. They include fluorescents, metallics and the addition of loud-mouthed particles of often unknown nature. Shocking colour combinations are currently popular as if the artist’s main goal is to be declared colour blind. In the art world, the idea that “bad is good,” is an interesting and popular one, and not without some merit. This isn’t your grandmother’s atelier anymore. I’m not aware of any book that describes colour discord as an end in itself, but perhaps a subscriber can alert you to one. However, understanding the current knowledge on colour harmony and traditional use might be a guide to finding the other side. Excellent guides we’re currently recommending are both Stephen Quiller’s and Richard Robinson’s video treatments of the subject.   Sketchbook spontaneity by Doug Pollard, Victoria, BC, Canada  

“137 Seastack, Green Gardens”
watercolour, 8 x 10 inches
by Doug Pollard

Now I understand better why my sketchbook has so much more life than the watercolours that are supposed to follow. Spontaneity and immediacy are essential ingredients. I have found watercolour pencils perfect for the task, although I almost always use them dry. Strange how five minutes on a sketch leaves a more lasting memory than 1/500 of a second of photographic exposure.     There is 1 comment for Sketchbook spontaneity by Doug Pollard
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 26, 2013

Elegant and an economy of means. Watercolor pencils? or watercolor? A striking work.

  Early bird gets the worm by Marj Vetter, Three Hills, AB, Canada  

“Happy Hour”
oil painting, 24 x 24 inches
by Marj Vetter

Interesting, when you said, “Some artists take photos for future reference and don’t look at them again.” I talked to a writer about how she wrote. I asked her if she kept a journal to remind her of events or sayings she might want to use in future writings. She said she never did that, because if she did, her brain thought she’d already used the idea and had no need for it any more… Wonder if that can be what photos do to visual artists?     Finding moments of tranquility in today’s world by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA  

“Morning Surprise”
oil painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Cathie Harrison

I am struck by how “current” this post feels. This is probably because the notion of the struggle with inspiration versus perspiration is one of those ever present themes in the painter’s life. I think it was William Wordsworth who defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in moments of tranquility.” It’s the “moments of tranquility” that are hard to come by in the modern world. My most successful painting experiences occur in this illusive state.       ‘Would you like a sketch with your bagel?’ by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic  

decorative wood bowl
by Norman Ridenour

I have lunch in a pub and normally carry a notebook. There have been times that I sketched an idea while finishing the beer, finished lunch, hoofed it back to the studio, ripped out a fresh block of wood, haul what is on the lathe off, put on the new material and go right to work on the new piece. JOY, JOY, JOY! If you keep going Sara and Robert, you will go forever. The letters this month are better than ever.     Inundated with preparations by Joanna Finch, Cumberland, BC, Canada  

Joanna Finch and Jim Lambert
at Studio Live March, 2011

As a singer/ songwriter it is the same thing. I often find myself guiltily grabbing moments to sketch out the first draft of a new song when I ought to be doing something else more pressing. The process of completion is often more than I am able to accomplish. I have scads of booklets and books and scraps of unfinished, unrecorded songs that I think: one day I’ll get to them. But they remain in books. This is the conundrum of being a performing artist. First comes the sketch, then the rework and addition of chords, then the musical conversation with other musicians, then the rehearsals and finally the concert. But that is not the final stage. Then it’s recording the CD and releasing it and marketing till finally — if you’re lucky — your song hit the airwaves. I became despondent with this process. I almost gave up. Now to satisfy that dog wagging, plein air experience I sing out fully, improvising, releasing a joyful noise that only I and the heavens and earth can hear. It satisfies me. Art is not about getting recognition or getting anywhere. It is the process of being in the moment, fully awake to the pleasure of allowing light and breath, vibration and patterns to connect and move through me in a way that feels beautiful. Thank you, Robert. I am richer, wiser, happier thanks to your letters. There are 2 comments for Inundated with preparations by Joanna Finch
From: Sarah Wood — Nov 26, 2013

Love your phrase “fully awake to the pleasure of allowing light and breath, vibration and patterns . . .’ You, too, have made us wiser and happier.

From: cynthia maclean — Nov 26, 2013

What a great reminder that the real purpose and joy of creating lies not in some final approval and adulation from others, but in those blissful moments of total involvement and focus while we connect with our passion. I had never really thought about how his holds true for other art forms besides painting. Thanks for the insight, Joanna!

  Improving visual memory: avoid camera by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada  

“Parcs des Outardes Alma”
watercolour painting, 15 x 22 inches
by Raynald Murphy

My digital camera broke down a year or so ago and since I did not feel compelled to replace it immediately, I discovered that during that period I drew more, observed more intently and finished more paintings on site or soon after. I have noticed that my visual memory has improved, possibly because, among other factors, I do not depend on photo references as much but trust my visual memory. The camera is a great tool, but it can become a crutch, I feel. I would even venture to bet that the “pre-photograph artist” had, in general, a better visual memory than most of today’s artists. This is a valued vintage response. There is 1 comment for Improving visual memory: avoid camera by Raynald Murphy
From: Diane Overmyer — Nov 26, 2013

The more I have grown as an artist, the less I rely on photographs. Even if my finished painting doesn’t totally capture the scene that I was painting, that is a good thing, because I am making judgements out of my artistic understanding rather than simply trying to copy the subject.

  Potential energy from preparatory site-work by Dan DuBois, Toronto, ON, Canada  

“Sunday Morning, Queen Street West”
oil painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Dan DuBois

I am still at the paint-pushing stage of art and have done plein air which, to borrow your image, is indeed something like taking a drink — not in my case orange juice, at least not unspiked. The experience is heady, but the result of my plein air work, which I always love while the paint is drying, doesn’t have much of a shelf-life. I’m subject to the usual self-critical impulses, maybe more than the usual amount, but have discovered lately that doing a good deal of preparatory site-work — pencil, possibly a watercolor of something I’ll rework later in oil — stays remarkably fresh in my mind even months later. The basic requirement is that I should interact with whatever it is I’m looking at, in a way more intense than taking a digital photo. The experience of making a pencil rendering or watercolor sketch on site, in the rush of inspiration, seems to sit somewhere in my brain as a form of potential energy. If I also happen to have taken digital pictures, well then I have the benefit of useful reference points. What I recollect from the site work seems to vivify what I’m doing in studio, freshening the finished work. I’ve had the opposite experience with work I’ve done in the studio, working only from old pictures. This is a valued vintage response. There are 2 comments for Potential energy from preparatory site-work by Dan DuBois
From: Suzanne Jensen — Nov 26, 2013

the colours in that painting take my breath away . thank you

From: Anonymous — Nov 26, 2013

Excellent painting


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for About the law of recent memory

From: Anonymous — Nov 21, 2013

Dorothy snows everything ! So cool !! ‘er cold !!!

Wisdom in ways of being, you’re right, “it’s the straight route to creative joy.”

From: Doug Elliot — Nov 21, 2013

Spot on Robert!

Nothing like the experience of painting plein air, it fixes that moment in time in your memory for ever.

From:Jane Appleby — Nov 21, 2013

Dogs teach us many things that’s for sure and I found my cats do, too. I have heard it said: “Dogs have owners, cats have staff.” I have found that they get me to do just about anything and even take me away from painting – whats with that? They’re just too cute I guess and bring joy just as painting does. I’m thankful for our furry friends.

From: joanne — Nov 21, 2013

thanks for your very warm welcome;

I have followed your work for years; I must agree that one must act quickly when the creative juices flow, or it will quickly be lost and difficult to retrieve; except that life gets in the way sometimes. As a good many women artists may attest. jo in Kelowna BC

From: Dave C. — Nov 22, 2013

Yes Jane, and it has been said that, at one time, cats were worshiped as gods, and they have not forgotten that.

From: ashar — Nov 22, 2013

Whilst I agree with what you have just said, I quite often find that things come out of nowhere and leave me guessing. Until I come across an image from my distant past that had left an imprint on my psyche and then it makes sense.

From: Barbara Rafferty — Nov 22, 2013

I like these thoughts. They seem so appropriate to what I am doing and what you are in the process of…..

From: Elle Fagan — Nov 22, 2013

Amazingman with another so true article!

We all know that feeling when the painting appears before our eyes and we must be somewhere in ten minutes and we take a photo and thrill at the idea of doing it up later, but in our hearts we know it won’t be the same. If I sit in thought and recapture the moment, with the photos in front of me, later….I CAN find the lights again and well enough to do it up well, but not nearly often enough.

From: Jo Bain — Nov 22, 2013

This letter was just as fresh and inspiring “for me” as all the more recent letters. Do keep them coming!!!!! Thank you for continuing to “give”. Sincerely, Jo Bain

From: Carrie Givens — Nov 22, 2013

So well put! Refreshing! Thank you for putting it down in words. Our beloved Fido (Golden Retriever) was laid to rest yesterday morn after a beautiful life of joyful giving and tail wagging. He so beautifully made all the lives he touched from our youngest grandchild (1) to the oldest (8) and many other aquaintences in between, made us wagging our tail feathers as well. Cherished joys in life, in our creative endevours, feel so good, released! May God bless this day for you! Embrace the beautiful Northwest for me. I long for its touch, living in Ohio now. Corvallis in which I had my 1st born is still in my heart. Happy Day!

From: Carol Dougans — Nov 22, 2013

As a fellow airedale lover and owner and aspiring artist, I enjoyed this post immensely. And thank you for all the inspiring words that have come before.

From: Luann Udell — Nov 22, 2013
From: Helen bruzas — Nov 24, 2013

Joanna Finch’s words echo what is in my heart…

Robert, your weekly letters and your books have been such a support and inspiration for me as I prepare for my twice weekly watercolour classes..You’ve enriched my moment in eternity…

From: Ethan Positano — Nov 25, 2013

In memory, in my case, I remember the good stuff from long ago, and not the bad stuff. I was surprised to find out that some of my friends just remember the bad stuff from long ago (mean parents, scrappy teachers, etc) and they are the worse off for it. Maybe the same goes for memories of art. Enough bad experiences in your painting history, and you get worse. (UK)

From: Alvaro de Santa Cruz — Nov 25, 2013

I have found it useful to always try to get started on something significant in the studio the day after a sketching day. Usually I’m disappointed with my sketches but I am aware that something attracted me to the subject and I’m better able to develop it sooner rather than later.

From: Sergi Bonham — Nov 25, 2013

When you go to your reference system–jpegs, etc, something collected a long time ago often jumps out at you as new and exciting.

From: Chris Cantu — Nov 25, 2013

Airedales are the best – and those who own one, or who have ever owned one, share a kind of kinship that is hard to describe. They are not a trendy breed, a glamorous breed or the dog du jour. They are dog personified.

From: Jacqui — Nov 25, 2013

When I am taken by such beauty in the moment of visiting a beautiful fragrant garden or a place that really moves me, I have to take many many photos fast and furious. Later I sit quietly going through them discarding the ones that do not give me the exact feeling of pure joy that I saw at the time, blurred or photos that are not framed as good as they could be…I take them in such a quick spontaneous way anything can happen…I then use the ones I have decided to keep to make a composite painting of my feelings. I am not really into realism or painting what is there…..more painting the feelings of the moment. I was horrified when I saw you burning all those perfectly good canvases and substrates, why not paint Gesso over them and donate them to a school to use?

From: Loretta — Nov 26, 2013

My first ‘art bonfire’ was after taking a class far from home and realizing that I couldn’t transport all the canvases back. I took photos of everything and then burned the ones I really didn’t want to keep. It was a great release. Later i learned that Monet burned his unwanted canvases with his grand daughter (on a regular basis). Not new but it feels great!

From: Carol H Barber — Nov 26, 2013

I have a pile of canvases ready to burn but I was wondering if it is not cost effective to buy a roll of canvas and re-stretch them especially the nicer stretchers? The staples are hard to remove though.

From: robert l snider — Nov 26, 2013

Having an annual gallery open house helps to create the discipline of trashing and burning older work. But I usually give the paintings one last try before execution…..it’s amazing that most paintings can be vastly improved by lighting the lights and darkening the darks. thanks

From: Sue Bussoli — Nov 26, 2013

I can’t thank you enough Sara for keeping all your readers in the loop during this path of sadness and joy. It has been a luxury to have been able to read your fathers notes of inspiration for so many years. He has become a close friend in my heart. Continue re-writing his letters and adding yours. In rereading I have begun to hear them better. I’m not taking them for granted the second time around and your voice is equally ‘art for the mind’. We have had a good teacher! Thank you to you and Robert.

From: Joyce — Nov 26, 2013

There is nothing quite so joyful as watching an Airedale at play: the exhilaration, the freedom to run! I am always delighted when Dorothy appears, as I know she brings you the same joy that my Maggie brings me.

From: Terrie Christian — Nov 26, 2013

I love that Sara is continuing Roberts wonderful gift to us all too. Part of this is sharing this difficult time when many of us might hide under the covers. Truly Inspiring!

I think part of succeeding is affirming that we are an artist,or a writer or musician or any other creativity. Believing it leads to doing it. We are all worth it and the world is a better place to live with creative gifts.
From: gail harper ny — Nov 26, 2013

Great read and shadings as usual.As artist and music teacher I will be sharing Ms Finch’s wonderful insights today.Most artists also play instruments and I have noticed have a faithful furry friend.

From: gail — Nov 26, 2013

Whoops. Share ings my devise keeps substituting d for r

Lol. Pc dinasaur that I am. Lol
From: Nancy Taylor — Nov 26, 2013

Oh, no, not that one. The fall color trees look beautiful. It is the photo where you art holding the large panel close to the fire, while you think about it.

From: Donna Dixon — Nov 26, 2013

Just a note to Robert and Sara- to let you both know how much I have enjoyed these newsletters. They have offered valuable insights and a great biggie thank you for Mr Genn-who seems to have the spiritual knowledge that sharing knowledge is not only pleasurable but also opens the highway for more knowledge to “bless the one who blesses”. Thanks again!

From: Jeanette Rybinsky — Nov 26, 2013

I love the dog video! Dorothy’s quite the movie star. Thanks for sharing.

From: Joy J. Rotblatt — Nov 26, 2013

Loved Dorothy in the snow!!! Boy are you both brave. I pulled a couple of older canvases from their stretcher bars a few yrs. ago and cut them up. Sometimes, I wish I haden’t. I don’t know that I could burn my work, give it away, sell it, but burn, no, seems too final and I hope some of it will live beyone me.

From: Jennifer Taylor — Nov 27, 2013

Your column about burning unwanted paintings followed by Dorothy Snows was very precious. Thankyou.

From: Claire Evans — Nov 27, 2013

Carol, staples are easy to remove if you use an oyster knife. I wouldn’t be without one!

From: Peggy Bagshaw — Nov 28, 2013

I don’t know. I think I liked the painting (the decisions, decisions part). I hope you didn’t cast that one away. Here i am on Pender Island enjoying the tranquility of the place. I remember sitting on the dock at Painters at Painters Lodge enjoying Dorothy and your work!

From: Janet Clark — Nov 29, 2013

I love that you threw those paintings, stretchers and all, onto the bonfire. It was not the time to think about recycling canvases or sparing stretcher bars from the flames. It was a time to celebrate a life well-lived as a painter, time to pass the torch onto the next generation, and time to celebrate the abundance of joy, love, and passion available to each of us in this world. You will be remembered, Robert, for your generosity to other artists and for your exuberant spirit. I wish I had been there to throw a canvas or two on the pyre with you!

  Featured Workshop: Becky Joy 112613_robert-genn-workshop Becky Joy Workshops Held in Tuscany, Italy   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa

French River Town

oil painting by Bonnie Mincu, New York, NY, USA

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