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.
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.
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.
Smash and grab
by John Gardner, London, ON, Canada
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
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.
by Doug Pollard, Victoria, BC, Canada
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.
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Early bird gets the worm
by Marj Vetter, Three Hills, AB, Canada
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
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
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
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.
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Improving visual memory: avoid camera
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada
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.
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Potential energy from preparatory site-work
by Dan DuBois, Toronto, ON, Canada
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.
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French River Town
oil painting by Bonnie Mincu, New York, NY, USA
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