Catching the eye


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I’ve been a photographer for longer than I care to mention and have recently taken up painting in acrylic. I find that all the subject matter has been expressed through my photography and not much, if anything, catches my eye for painting. There are always subjects to paint, but none that I want to paint. My wife and I are packing up and moving to the B.C. Gulf Islands in an attempt to spark the creative juices again. Have you ever run into this kind of block?”


“The Grain Sifters” 1854
oil on canvas, 52 x 66 inches
by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Your block is called PFS (Photo Familiarity Syndrome) and it’s as common as influenza. Some of us fight it daily. There are many ways of looking at it and several ways of dealing with it. Taking photos is a creative act in itself. Some artists, as they move through their life-images, find that less and less interests or moves them. As it becomes more difficult to be surprised by joy in the external world, reality-based images become used up. The trouble with photography is that it uses up joy too quickly. Also, by stealthily teaching dependence, photography can turn out to be dangerous. Unlike the purist and pre-photographic masters of landscape — Courbet, Corot, Millet, etc., by visual volume alone it is possible to become jaded. Moving to a new environment may not solve the problem. You need to realize that painting can exploit a different — I didn’t say greater — range of feelings than does photography. Painting, in its most exalted forms, can bring another kind of creative imagination into the mix. With painting you have an opportunity to add a unique personal spin — to put a different kind of style and signature to your product.


“The Large Oak” 1843
oil on paper mounted on canvas
by Gustave Courbet

For most of us, photography, in all of its marvelous manifestations, is one of a number of tools in the kit. An extreme purgation is to take your photo apparatus and shove it into a vault for a year. Forget you ever did it. I know it’s tough for those of us who love to look through viewfinders and are used to collecting images in nanoseconds. In this deprivation, painting becomes more of a savoured event — a timely act of deliberation, consideration and contemplation. Painting becomes less capture and more conception. Worthwhile subjects begin to appear from nowhere. With independent painting you move into the lively and mysterious darkroom of your own mind. In this place something else again is sure to catch your eye.


“The Cliffs at Étretat After the Storm” 1870
oil on canvas
by Gustave Courbet

Best regards,


PS: “The expression of beauty is in direct ratio to the power of conception the artist has acquired.” (Gustave Courbet)

Esoterica: “What do I want to paint?” is not only the main question, it’s perhaps the only question. Many painters find they bump along and somehow inadvertently touch on a “hot spot” where an idea or a motif suddenly gels. It’s important that these golden occasions are recognized and noted. The artist pauses and looks around for related and peripheral ideas that can also be exploited. It’s often in this “second generation” where the most involving and exciting work is done. “Paintings come out of themselves,” said the great Canadian landscape painter Lawren Harris. “The idea,” said Damien Hirst, “is more important than the object.”

This letter was originally published as “Catching the eye” on October 14, 2005.


Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“Beauty, like truth, is relative to the time when one lives and to the individual who can grasp it.” (Gustave Courbet)



  1. This advice is timeless and timely….Sometimes I forget that painting is more than capture. I will go and “deliberate, contemplate, and consider” what catches my eye in “the lively and mysterious dark room of (my) mind” and yes sometimes it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to this “dark” place when I choose to turn off the flashing neon lights that sometimes dominate it. Thank-you again for the deeper thoughts on creating paintings.

  2. I have had exactly the opposite experience of the person above. As I age, I find ever more things in our amazing world that I want to paint, not less. In fact, sometimes I feel a kind of desperation that I will never even scratch the surface of the things I would love to create in response to God’s wonders, and this is of course true. I won’t. I will leave behind a gazillion subjects never attempted. But that is good. How much worse, if like the person above, I ran out of things that inspire me to pick up my brush or pencil. Perhaps the difference between the person who wrote and me is that I only began photography to aid my art. It was never my art form in the beginning. And while I love photography, it is still only a tool now…not the end in itself. No photograph thrills me like a well-executed painting, although many photos are stunning and eye-catching.

    • Steve: You wrote almost precisely what I would have written! Although I have created close to 800 paintings in a 47 year career, on a wide range of topics, I never run out of ideas and have many files/concepts, regrettably I’ll never, ever get to. When artists tell me they don’t know what to paint, I just suggest they look deep inside at what moves them and start there.

      • I feel that artists who rely totally on photographs do not use their imagination to make a painting totally theirs. To me, being creative means making something original that is your way of portraying an idea.

    • Agree, I use my photographs as an inspiration or as a way to record information about a painting I am working on. The photographer turned artist may find success painting without use of his photographs be it through colour, value, form, line…

    • I’m with you, Steve, and with Robert Genn. I can’t capture fleeting moments, say, at the Grand Canyon, if I don’t use a photograph, but then I can share those moments through painting in ways the photo never saw or shared. It’s just a tool. But a great tool for those of us who treasure the fleeting moments.

    • At the risk of sounding wilful, I have had exactly the same experience as Steve Clement, but with photography. I have taken pictures for fifty years and haven’t begun to reach photography’s limits, especially now that it is possible to have total control from the instant of taking the image to printing it. The difference between painting and photography is a bit like the difference between a film drama and a documentary. For me it’s far more challenging to work with the elements that present themselves than to fill a blank canvas. To each his/her own preference. What needs to be underlined is the artfulness of photography, as artful as the art of painting. Although he misleads by his reference to the nanosecond it takes to take a picture, Robert actually affirms the artfulness of photography even as he guides someone who is turning away from it.

  3. As a long time photographer, I can understand the frustration behind this person’s dilemma. Subject/object is dominant in photography. However, I can say from experience that moving to a Gulf Island will further restrict him/her as images of nature can grow tiresome, particularly in the cool, soft light of winter.

    However, introducing figure into the equation opens a realm of possibility and depth. Figures in the landscape open new dimension for thought. Portraits offer challenge and endless opportunity, particularly on these islands as characters abound.

    Painting offers a totally different perspective. Non objective, abstract work frees the artist to a new realm of pure expression, something that is difficult to achieve in photography. Exploring and expressing the relationships between colours, form, space, stroke and frame are enough to keep one occupied for a lifetime and I feel that painting is an exceptional opportunity to do that.

  4. Playwright Samuel Beckett commented often on: The restrictions of Freedom and the freedoms of Restriction. After some time ‘discovering’ Acrylics while recovering from a long illness, I eventually abandoned painting and moved on to Photography. The camera demands it be aimed at something. Perhaps your painting might benefit from… imagination.

    • The photographer is tightly constrained by his subject matter, viz. by the literal scene before the lens. If there’s, say, a telephone pole in his image that he doesn’t like and cannot eliminate by a change of viewpoint, he either accepts it or moves on to something else. By comparison, the painter has infinite freedom.. He can leave the telephone pole out or make it a tree. Better yet, he can stay in the studio and paint from mind’s eye, limited only by his imagination and the dimensions of his canvas.

      • Kathryn Taylor on

        I liked what a lot of the subscribers said in response to this blog by Robert. And what John B. said, but disagree with photography being constraining. I love taking pictures. I went by the ocean a few weeks ago. There was a storm coming up. The waves were “crashing” and I was getting pelted by wind driven light rain. But I started taking many pictures of the ocean, from this angle, and that angle, closer, farther and straight on. Took pictures of the beach. Then, the Lighthouse with mist and clouds swirling around it. Came up to the wooden walkway, connecting the beach to the parking area. Took pictures of dune grasses blowing in the wind. Looked over a railing and saw a bunch of yellow wildflowers amidst long, green grasses. Took a picture of them. There was so much beauty in that one area. I just kept taking pictures. And got a lot of nice ones! Some were “regular”. But when you take a lot, at one time, which was advice I was given, years ago, you will always get some special pictures, that way! Thanks Robert, and Sara. Courbet paintings beautiful.

  5. The problem with moving somewhere to solve a problem is you have to take you with you. There are solutions to your problems right where you are now.

  6. Waiting on the muse is time wasted. Put some paint on the white canvas/paper… see what happens. I remember an item about Robert loading his little car with Many canvases and heading out for a day to paint … maybe not one perfect subject but many choices to Start! It gave me courage to start..

  7. I am painting from my imagination now, but I painted from my own photographs for many years. When I painted a landscape It had to be a scene that was really special in some way but my goal was always that I had to “beat” the photo. In other words, my painting had to better than the photo usually by using texture (palette knife), improving the composition, adding interesting colors to the shadows, punching up the the contrast, etc., but most importantly trying to develop my own individual and unique style — things that not just anyone standing in the that same spot could accomplish with their camera.

  8. I am a fiber artist, but it sounds to me like “putting away the camera equipment” is akin to the rising art of “slow sewing” rather than fast fashion or “quick quilts”. I sometimes use phots in my art but I always try to reach beyond them. I agree with Harry Perry (above) the geographical solutions is rarely the correct one.

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The Power of Paint; Creating the WOW factor in your paintings with Dutch artist Carole Boggemann Peirson
April 10, 2019 to April 17, 2019


Location: between Puerto Vallarta & Mazatlan, Mexico


Week-long workshop in gorgeous paradise retreat for beginning and intermediate students in oils (or acrylics with experience). You will learn how to create a painting with beautiful light that captures viewers’ attention and keeps them fascinated. Small group size guarantees personal attention.


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For more info, visit: or contact Carole at: or call: 001-757-678-3340 (EST).
Oil on Canvas
48 x 48 in.

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