Artistic license


Dear Artist,

“If you want to be an artist — try being artistic.” This deceptively minor slip of info was given to me by a fellow painter, Maurice Golleau, somewhere in Provence many years ago. I’ve come to realize that it’s the life breath of our business. In other words, don’t just paint the boat, paint the most expressive boaty-boat you can drag out of your reference or your imagination.


“Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries”
1888 oil on canvas
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

How to do that? Here are a few ideas to think about and perhaps apply to your own subject or style:

Pattern Integrity


“Street in Auvers-sur-Oise” 1890
oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh

Most of these are self-explanatory. Some may seem to overlap, but in my mind they all have independent value. Of them all, pattern integrity is perhaps the most important. It means composition. Without careful planning, the artist often has to go back in and rework a composition in such a way that it becomes more artistic. In other words, you don’t want to leave your patterns to the vagaries of nature or the limitations of your initial conception — but rather to your own higher nature and finer sensibilities.

Many people don’t understand paucity either. This means smallness of number or quantity. In other words, “the absence of.” Very often it means simple disappearance — the old lost lines and edges business.

Then there’s abstraction. Unless things modify or become other things, or in some way interact through colour, shape or line, they’re merely the straight goods, which tend to be boring to both artist and observer. Don’t be boring.


“The Olive Trees” 1889
oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh

Best regards,


PS: “My great longing is to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes in reality, so that they may become, yes, untruth if you like — but more true than the literal truth.” (Vincent Van Gogh)

Esoterica: I drove south from Arles and headed for Saintes-Maries de la Mer. I wanted to go where Vincent, in 1888, had painted some fishing boats. I guess I was looking to see if they were still there, lined up with the same pattern integrity as he had painted them. I was disappointed. The boats were now replaced by plastic ones with Evinrudes on the stern. If I was any kind of an artist I would have brought artistry to the ones I found, but I was, at the time, too much into the past. And besides, that artistry I admired came from Vincent’s mind, and was his solution. It was a lesson.

This letter was originally published as “Artistic license” on March 2, 2007.


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.

“I exaggerate, I sometimes I make changes in the subject; but still I don’t invent the whole picture. On the contrary, I find it already there. It’s a question of picking out what one wants from nature.” (Vincent van Gogh)



  1. Ah yes, but his olive trees are still there, and other of his trees, and the wind that whips through them in all directions is still there……. quite magical for an artist who loves Van Gogh’s creativity and energy to follow his path …..

  2. I like your second to-last sentence, “And besides, that artistry I admired came from Vincent’s mind, and was his solution.” This is how painters can make everyday, ordinary, things into compelling pictures. It’s also a description of what may be lacking in the centuries old exercise of copying master’s paintings. One is seeing the results, not the battle leading up to this or that decision. It’s like looking at Einstein’s equation in a book, then writing it down and thinking “you got it.” I know there’s a lot to learn from this time-honored student exercise, but there’s much that isn’t learned. Editing, hard decisions. We’re not looking at what the artist is looking at, and we aren’t in Van Gogh’s head when he decides this is a bad brushmark and he should wipe it out, and this is a good mark to keep. IMHO

  3. Pam Hobert on

    I love that you are re-posting your Dad’s advice. His words ring true and I feel his voice on this page as if he were here!

    • Thank you, Sara, for once again sharing your father’s great advice. Makes it almost possible that he has never left us. How fortunate I was to have taken a workshop with hime which started my love affair with acrylics. My son has THREE of his originals.

      • Is this the same Heidi Smith from Alberta? Because if it is I would beg to see Mr. Genn’s paintings. I have not yet seen an original but I have loved everything about the ones seen on the computer. He was a master at simplifying and composition and he is my inspiration!
        Maria Sieben

  4. kathryn taylor on

    Love the advice. And love the Van Gogh paintings. “Fishing Boats …” and “Olive Trees” I had not seen before. Thank you!

  5. I had a great teacher once who told me : “Whatever you decide to paint do it up to the absolute hilt; take it as far as you can go.” This fits the boaty-boat theory. Donna Veeder

  6. Patty Cucman on

    Sara, your dad also told me once, ” You can’t be a prize fighter by going to a match. You have to get in the ring.” Sounds like very much like the same advise. Don’t be boring – ie on the side lines. Get in the ring,

  7. ” In other words, don’t just paint the boat, paint the most expressive boaty-boat you can drag out of your reference or your imagination.”

    Today was windy, and I happened to be gingerly and carefully planted on a local dock, my camera up to my eye; several well-aged row boats and an orange canoe partially filled with water were my focus. They were noisily jostling and rocking up and down with the choppy waves. This advice from Robert was timed perfectly to suit a painting I now can’t wait to begin. Thank you, Sara!

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