Claim your rival

Dear Artist, Ferrari driver Niki Lauda was Formula One’s World Champion in 1975, 1977 and 1984. Ron Howard’s 2013 feature film “Rush” explores the relationship between Niki and his rival, English driver James Hunt. “A wise man can learn more from his enemies than a fool from his friends,” says Niki in the film. He reminds us that rivalry can be a powerful source of innovation. When used for a positive outcome, it’s called a productive rivalry. Creative folks can use this system.

“How do I beat that guy in the McLaren M26?”

The management consulting firm McKinsey and Company suggests that companies in search of creative bursts refer to the rivalries that catalyzed artistic innovation during the Italian Renaissance. In a relatively short period of time the Italians invented linear perspective and modern-day portrait painting. They made startling innovations in sfumato and chiaroscuro that continue to influence painting to this day. As well as strides in glassblowing and bronze casting, Italian architects and craftsmen produced the world’s largest masonry dome. In Renaissance Italy, those who competed for patronage, commissions and prestige produced better work. To today’s artistic sensibility, it might all sound a bit uncomfortable. In modern times we are often encouraged to protect our ego-force and individuality by securing a private world in which to develop our unique artistic voice. Many artists find themselves solo-paddling along a private and unchallenging river.

Pope: “When are you going to be finished, Mike?” Mike: “When I’m finished.”

Could rivalry be a productive system? Here are some thoughts: Study the processes and methods of those who are better at it than you. Even though you’re the resident genius, you can bet your last Lira there’s someone who knows something you don’t, who has honed a skill more than you have. Rival your rival. Know your space. In 1506, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Originally, portraits of the Twelve Apostles were proposed. Michelangelo countered with a grander scheme portraying humanity’s need for salvation. Michelangelo stuck to his vision and Julius finally agreed. Your rival may be your boss.

Looking toward the future.

Stretch your goals. Media mogul, conservationist and philanthropist Ted Turner, not exactly an Italian, lived by his father’s words: “Never set goals you can reach in your lifetime.” In other words, think big and think far off. Your real rival is Time. Sincerely, Sara P.S. “He who falls in love with himself will have no rivals.” (Benjamin Franklin) Esoterica: In Michelangelo’s day, the term closest to rivalry was paragone, which translates as “comparison.” Not meant to diminish, but rather to push to greater heights, its goal was to generate respect and passionate striving. As a result, those Renaissance guys were up in their studios late at night wearing out their chisels and brushes. In 1515 the young Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design a few tapestries for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Knowing they would hang directly below Michelangelo’s ceiling, Raphael knocked the bocce ball right out of the court. Raphael’s Sistine tapestries set a standard for all tapestries yet to come.   Absolutely spectacular family

In the studio (left to right); Peter Bray, Dorothy, James Genn, Sara Genn, Shawna Delgaty, Robert Genn, Tamara Taggart, Zoe Genn, Carol Genn, Beckett Genn, David Genn, Poppy Genn, Stanley

  Nine minute CBC Radio interview with Robert Genn here.   Revenge on a rival by Rick Ross, Winnipeg, MB, Canada   While I agree with the basic tenets of benefitting from rivalry, and that our rivals force us to reach and better ourselves in whatever field we find ourselves, the idea that Michelangelo and Julius agreed on a grand theme for man’s need for salvation is spurious. After reading Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, I was surprised to learn that the theme of the paintings on the famous ceiling are all based on Old Testament and apocryphal stories with absolutely no New Testament references. Dixon believes Michelangelo did this in defiance of Pope Julius who in reality forced Michelangelo to paint the ceiling and this was how the great artist fought back. During the years of painting the ceiling the illusion of religiosity allowed him to continue to paint what he did but upon completion it was evident that the ceiling had very little to do with salvation with no New Testament disciples or Jesus. It was Michelangelo’s way of obtaining revenge upon his rival Pope Julius. The theme if any was entirely a Jewish one. Who won in this game of rivalry? Why we did of course and we can still appreciate the greatness of this work of art thanks to a 16th century rivalry that had little to do with salvation.   High cleaning job by Mabel Gawne  

original painting
by Mabel Gawne

I enjoy your column, each and every time it is published… but this one today is special for me, because I actually spent two hours in the Sistine Chapel (along with a group of other people, on a guided tour). You will be interested to know that there were a few Canadian Art Students that qualified to help clean the soot off the ceiling. Laying on their backs on a movable platform, they washed the ceiling with carefully controlled soap and water, and clean cloths. It was stunning to see the difference when the grime of centuries was removed. Fabulous. The colours were beautiful and some were very delicate… and very detailed… I could not believe my eyes.   There is 1 comment for High cleaning job by Mabel Gawne
From: James Derby — Dec 06, 2013

Something you notice standing on the floor below is the foreshortening that Michelangelo worked into the figures. They read well from far below — not so hot up close.

  Primitive human drive by Jason Beck, Dorset, UK   From the earliest times, primitive people competed for food, mates, attention and other more subtle needs. The idea of rivalry is innate to Mankind. Those artists who might deny the condition and consider themselves “doing it just for themselves” are missing out on a powerful, natural force.   Building energy by Alok Hsu Kwang-han, China  

“Tias and Surya”
calligraphy painting
by Alok Hsu Kwang-han

I appreciate very much shifting the gestalt from rivalry as a destructive fight to using it as a source of innovation and creativity. This way the rival is not looked at as an enemy but a friend and teacher. The energy is no longer wasted in opposition but harnessed as complementary support for both the self and the rival in the advancement of art that includes all of us. Engaging with the rival can also be seen as Taichi for building the energy and skill as we learn to dance with the “real rival” which is “Time.” Thank you for this “key.”   Who doesn’t compare? by Arlene Woo, Honolulu, HI, USA  

“Flute player”
original painting
by Arlene Woo

Although we artists like to think we are painting for our own enjoyment, who among us doesn’t compare our”work” to others, whether it be in a class critique or in the marketplace. In this day and age, where everyone gets a trophy for participating, we need to strive for our personal best. We must be our own honest judges.       There is 1 comment for Who doesn’t compare? by Arlene Woo
From: Rosie Jones — Dec 07, 2013

Very pretty painting!

  Strive forward together by Davin Hatch   In response to “Claim your rival” — so articulate and relevant to so many areas of our lives. I have read the Latin base of “compete” is “to strive forward together” or to that affect. My wife, Vicki, had mentioned your writings — unfortunately I have been late to the table. I wish I had discovered this earlier, as it truly is sustenance for the soul and for our creative selves. There is 1 comment for Strive forward together by Davin Hatch
From: Jason Sydney — Dec 06, 2013

The Greeks were well tuned to competition — the Olympic Games — and the Romans developed the concept – -until it became unfair to the Christians. What would we do without competition?

  Finder’s Fees by Christine Girvani O’Brien, Carpinteria, CA, USA  

“Candalabra of Magnolias”
oil painting, 12 x 9 inches
by Christine Girvani O’Brien

I have to tell someone what the Finder’s Fees percentages will be for referred sales and referred commissions. This is artwork that I’m doing on the side of my Fine Art that helps to pay the bills — more of a commercial nature I guess, so a couple of these particular pieces will be on an easel in a store for sale but also advertising commissions via a sign. Here are the figures I came up with but have not yet passed on to him: Between $0 – $800 = 15% commission to Finder Between $801 – $2000 = 10% Commission to Finder Above $2000 = 5% Commission to Finder. Does this sound acceptable to you? The store does not have a “gallery section” — it is purely retail. This is a Pet retail “Boutique” that sells quality items. So a portrait of mine is on an easel advertising my commissions. I doubt he will do any extra PR for it, except MAYBE mention it on his website. Other than that, it’s just sitting on an easel in the store. (Sara G Note) Thanks, Christine. Sliding scales are too fuzzy. I’d make it a steady figure across all referrals and commissions — say 10% — very reasonable. If paintings or other artworks are directly sold “off the wall on their premises” then a 30% to 50% commission is normal. Sounds a lot but there has to be an incentive for the “dealer” and so you can get on with what you do best.   Friends and rivals by Elihu Edelson, Tyler, TX, USA  

original painting
by Elihu Edelson

Matisse and Picasso — A Gentle Rivalry is an awesome show that was held at the Kimbell Museum in Ft Worth, Texas. Their mutual challenge brought out some of the best work by both artists. (RG note) Thanks so much for reminding me, Elihu. I had written about the rivalry between Matisse and Picasso on May 2, 2003. It’s here.        

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Claim your rival

From: Jane Appleby — Dec 02, 2013

The artists that rivals against themselves will also make progress – if also intended for a positive outcome. But working along side fellow artists in a “battle” to do their best can be a good push in the right direction too (as I found in the Vancouver Art Battle painting along side other good artists to complete a 20 minute painting). Thanks for your letter Sara – you’re a chip off the old block and I’m happy for it.

From: Carol H Barber — Dec 03, 2013
From: Ted Duncan — Dec 03, 2013

Your competition is not so much other artists these days. Its all the expensive toys and their available to adults with disposable income. Your percentage of the market is probably greatly diminished these days.

From: anon — Dec 03, 2013

Ha ha, you got it right Sara. I am in a very competitive industry and the growth has been phenomenal. People will say well I compete with myself but there is no competition like competing with the best.

From: Michele — Dec 03, 2013

“Respect and passionate striving” – I am going to put those words up on the wall in my studio. Actually these are words that all of us should remember no matter what we are doing. Thanks Sara!

From: Helen Tilston — Dec 03, 2013
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Dec 03, 2013
From: John Ferrie — Dec 03, 2013
From: Melanie Peter — Dec 03, 2013

My thought on time being the real rival: ok, as long as we don’t interpret it as an injunction to paint faster. Many painters I know consider it a victory to knock paintings out in great numbers and sell them at low prices. I dislike working on a painting for a month or two because, after all, how can you make a living like that?

From: anon — Dec 03, 2013

Those that achieve great celebrated (as in celebrity) successes in any playing field, have to play the game. Many artists don’t commit to that, from fear or by choice. This makes one miss out big time on the social ladder, but that’s just fine as long as there is integrity. Just as they say – there is no such thing as undiscovered genius, and I am so happy that don’t think I am one. I have a deep mistrust of the rich and famous, and wouldn’t give a precious minute of my day to the games of celebrities.

From: james — Dec 03, 2013

all you have to do is look at the tennis pros. they play better and better tennis because they play against eachother, player to player, up to excellence. you would play better tennis, too, if you had to return those pro serves

From: Mary Ann Laing — Dec 03, 2013

Chip off the old block is right, timely thought for me, Sara. This is something we all ponder in life, not just artists. Of course the learning must involve competition, the only way we can measure our development is by comparison to a standard we are reaching for. But after many years of doing that, I have come to realize what “they” are doing is not my artistic bench mark, it is now my calling to strive to do what I can do to the best of my learned ability. The day comes when we must turn in our student’s uniform and don the attire of responsibility for ourselves, which should also be taken seriously, so much so we never stop striving for the very best and most sincere we can be. Doesn’t mean we aren’t playing anymore, no, it just means we are in a premier league of expectations, and those should come from ourselves, our toughest critics.

From: anon — Dec 03, 2013

Maybe calling all the competition a “productive rivalry” is just a way of softening the soul-destroying climb required when trying to make it in the arts.

From: Joanne Thompson — Dec 04, 2013

Wow! Keep up the great work, Sara! You hit another article out of the park with “Claim your rival.” Your father must be very proud. My good wishes are with him. Thank you and take care.

From: Frederick Sturgiss Blaikie — Dec 04, 2013

The good thing about this advice is that there is always someone better at it than you. Sitting at their feet, supplicant style, may not be your style, but there is so much to be learned not only from their books, but by rubbing shoulders with them. Great people know great people.

From: Norm Martiny — Dec 04, 2013

Regarding Ted Duncan’s remarks above, about the competition to art from all the technology available to people, he’s right on. Paintings are pretty slow moving compared to video games. Are we losing the ability to sit still and contemplate–a view, a feeling, a painting?

From: Dick Daley — Dec 04, 2013

Rivalry is why schools work. Students see the efforts of others and either accept or reject the challenge to do better. For some, competition does not work. They’re called “drop outs.”

From: Kay Christopher — Dec 04, 2013

Sara, your writing is awesome. Please keep doing it. You are greatly appreciated. Wishing Robert all the very, very, very best!

From: Phil Chadwick — Dec 05, 2013

Rivalry can have some negatives similar to jealousy. I try to rise above that and take the higher road – I do not always succeed. Learning something new every day is the goal. Become a better artist and maybe a better person. It makes my day and if I can help someone or something along the way, so much the better. I do not view anyone as a rival even if they may not share that viewpoint. It takes two to “rival” and I won’t play that game.

I am more like that solo paddler both literally and figuratively. I do not know where my painting or even canoe will go. I do not care if others have already painted the Canadian landscape like I do now. It was a fun discovery process for me along my personal path. I do know that my canoe will not follow the whims of the art market. I paint for me and a long meteorological career has allowed me to do just that. Isn’t art more about that positive, self-discovery, creative process? A mild day outside in eastern Ontario and I need to paint it … life is good!
From: Thomas Scully — Dec 05, 2013

Robert and Sara, it never ceases to amaze me at the fascinating tidbits of information which you cull and share. It is like living next door to a salon during the turn of the century in Paris when writers and artists gathered to share their thoughts and yes, their rivalries. Thank you for joining the lonely creators in their studios to all of the other ones, world wide. You have created a brotherhood of endeavor beyond the confines of a painting, and have woven tapestries of challenge, love and joy in which we may share and develop our gifts – hopefully to continue in the growing process.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 05, 2013

This one is very interesting. I’ve written about artist’s being on a world stage. And with this newsletter that idea seems to be coming – out of the closet. Too many of us think we are small regional artists; satisfied with the “little” communities we work in. We don’t reach out to a bigger audience. Artists need to see themselves as a larger voice with something to say. Not just be content with making pictures for the “local” show in town. When we create anything, it should be with the idea and thought that the world may see it; a world beyond the local community. That the ideas we create are universal ones and the quality we imbue in the work should be worthy of universal notice.

Artists today are beat down by the lack of respect we should receive and then begin to think maybe we are not worthy of doing this thing called making art. We must never see our efforts as small or regional. We need to listen to our inner voices and shut out all the negativity that surrounds us telling us we are not doing valuable work for humanity; for future generations to appreciate. And we must always strive and make goals for ourselves that we know we may never reach. Our time here must be to push out limits if we are to believe we are true artists. The only rival we should fight against is mediocrity, complacence. We should never settle for just so work or work that gets us by or for that matter only reaches high enough for a slap on the back. Artists are better than that.
From: Jake Nolly — Dec 05, 2013
From: Phil the Forecaster — Dec 06, 2013

As far as rivals go, I have some thoughts. Rivalry can have some negatives similar to jealousy. I try to rise above that and take the higher road — I do not always succeed. Learning something new every day is the goal. Become a better artist and maybe a better person. It makes my day and if I can help someone or something along the way, so much the better. I do not view anyone as a rival even if they may not share that viewpoint. It takes two to “rival” and I won’t play that game.

I am more like that solo paddler both literally and figuratively. I do not know where my painting or even canoe will go. I do not care if others have already painted the Canadian landscape like I do now. It was a fun discovery process for me along my personal path. I do know that my canoe will not follow the whims of the art market. I paint for me and a long meteorological career has allowed me to do just that. Isn’t art more about that positive, self-discovery, creative process? A mild day outside in eastern Ontario and I need to paint it … life is good!
From: Meg Koziar — Dec 06, 2013

Thanks for sharing the interview, and photo of your family. After reading your letters for years, hearing your strong voice helped complete the picture. You inspired me to put a whole bunch of failed watercolors in the trash this week. and to start a better one.

From: Nadya — Dec 06, 2013

Thank You so much for your letters and for sharing the interview! Nice to hear your voice!Stay strong!

From: Caraleen Baker — Dec 06, 2013

Robert…. What a beautiful family you have! Just want to say thanks as you made me think and rethink today. Starting with the foreground has not been my practice for as long as I remember. Quite the opposite, the foreground is often what I am finishing up with. I am going to put the foreground at the forefront and see where it takes me. I would love it if you were to go onto Facebook and look at some of my work and offer some overall constructive criticism. Hang in there and keep painting. Caraleen Baker from London Ontario.

  Featured Workshop: Michael Chesley Johnson 120613_robert-genn-workshop Michael Chesley Johnson Workshops Held in Sedona, AZ, USA.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa  


oil on board, 16 x 20 inches by Judy Minor, Aylmer, ON, Canada

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Nicoletta Baumeister of Surrey, BC, Canada, who wrote, “The origin of the word ‘rival’ is tied to water competition. It comes from the Latin, rivalis — one who uses the same stream.”

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