The courage to play


Dear Artist,

In his latest book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle discusses how the human mind is almost constantly engaged in private thoughts. These inner rumblings reflect our personal trials, dreams, needs and obligations. To function properly as a creative person, an artist must divorce himself from some of this clutter and begin a process of rebirth into another mode. “Even though people may travel,” says Eckhart Tolle, “they tend to remain where they have always been — in their head.”


“A New Earth”
by Eckhart Tolle

Early yesterday morning, my daughter Sara and I were painting at the end of the Laniloa Peninsula, Oahu, Hawaii. From a parked car nearby, a young man in a white shirt and tie watched her out of the corner of his eye. As I passed by, he rolled down his window and said, “That girl just took out a canvas and started painting. She hardly drew things out at all.” The fellow and I struck up a conversation. He turned out to be a Teaching Assistant from the nearby Brigham Young University at La’ie. He was “having a quiet read and some meditation.”

I told him the girl was my daughter and that she was working “alla prima — all at once.” Then he said, “It looks quite a lot like play.” Later, when Sara and I were going over our day’s efforts, we agreed the young man had got to the truth of the matter. As far as plein air painting is concerned, play has its own methodology:


Sara Genn painting en plein air on Oahu

Feel and relish the environment.
Get into a “be here now” state of mind.
Start your work anywhere.
Look cleanly and with an uncluttered mind.
Be joyous and unencumbered in your stroke.
Work everywhere at once when you can.
Try to leave your strokes alone.
Do not labour or think too much.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Let the painting tell you what it needs.
Though it may be small, make your picture big.
Without being a wimp, serve your subject.
Don’t verbalize your sight — sense the being.
Surrender to earth’s beauty and wisdom.
If you make errors, fix them in good humour.
Be suspicious of what you’ve been told, how you ought to do things, and what you ought to think.


“Where the Road Officially Ends”
acrylic on canvas 16 x 20 inches
by Sara Genn

Best regards,


PS: “Van Gogh didn’t say, ‘That’s just an old chair.’ He looked, and looked, and looked. He sensed the Beingness of the chair.” (Eckhart Tolle)

Esoterica: The plein air act requires a mental transformation and a shift in consciousness. Playful looseness is a virtue. Running on old methodologies or rigid game-plans can be detrimental. Sara and I both remarked on the value of amateurism. Amateurism can induce clear sight and creative optimism. At least you are not held in check by a lot of stuff you already know.


Sara Genn on Oahu


Plein air requires finding a decent place to sit. It also requires a state of mind that promotes confidence, clear seeing and a sense of play. Considerations of ordinary life should be left behind.


“On the tip of the Laniloa Peninsula”
The North Shore Oahum February 27, 2008


“Approaching Laie”
The North Shore Oahu
February 27, 2008








Achieving inner peace
by Paul Burns


acrylic painting
60 x 36 inches
by Vicki English
(Mrs. Paul Burns)

The most amazing athletes, artists, and scientists reach this state through various avenues — Einstein wrote about it. This state also embraces hard work as an inner peace (not an obsession). Clearing the mind of the psycho-babble is one of the primary meditations the Buddha taught. It takes concentration but requires a light-hearted attitude. The first result is joy, then rapture, then a cessation of desires. It’s a turning inward to clearly see the external world. Eckhart Tolle described this best for me — the Buddha called this progression the first four Jhanas.





Absence of peace in the outdoors
by Debbie Lambert, Ashburton, New Zealand


oil on canvas
by Debbie Lambert

Having the courage to “play” is often not what holds people back from the plein air painting scene. Time and time again I have seen frustrated artists (and been one) out there painting, with an audience of ‘experts’ coming over and offering their expert opinions on what we are doing WRONG! It kind of takes a bit of the fun out of the experience (unless one develops a very thick hide) and can be daunting for the students who have finally plucked up (or been forced, in a nice way of course) by their tutor to tackle the experience. Do you have any words of wisdom to pass on to either the audience, to get them to “back off” and not comment, or to the students trying to overcome their inadequacies and dealing with unwanted advice? There is always someone who has a relative or best friend who is an artist — and they always know everything. I usually head for the Mountains and lose myself out in the wilderness, to revel in the loneness… but amazingly people still find you… Sometimes it has been bus tours traveling to the Lord of the Rings country (with lots of Asians, wanting a picture of the artist at work), the fisherman, and the odd hunter out in the 4wd. We have even had 30-plus old “mash” army jeeps blat past out on a Sunday outing 4 hours off the nearest shingle road. This constantly reminds me how small our world really is, but it doesn’t help deal with the experts who feel the need to enlighten us.


Restless brush syndrome
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany


original painting
by Faith Puleston

Whenever I need something to cheer me up I write my name and a few “clues” into google and I’m guaranteed an hour’s entertainment, and these musings owe quite a lot to your efficient marketing! Web-crawling is definitely the healthy alternative to pub-crawling! Do you remember writing a piece on RBS? At the time I thought it was satirical and replied with some satire of my own. But ever since then there has been some sort of cult about it! Scrolling down the page of this admirable website I found a few more tips which might be of use. I think they apply to pretty well everything art-connected or art-disconnected. Here they are:

1) The condition may be a natural consequence of aging rather than a medical problem.
2) Lifestyle and diet changes may be viable alternatives to serious medication.
3) Maybe it can’t be cured at all.
4) Perhaps it’s all “humbug.”
5) The condition could be of some benefit to the sufferer.

Obviously some creative people, including the admirable John Mack of the website, have jumped right onto this particular bandwagon. So what is the truth about RBS, Bob? Come clean. Should we be aiming for heightened creativity through decontrol or practicing painting by foot and mouth?


Stifled by rules
by Michelle Madalena

It is interesting that you should talk about such strategy of just starting to paint without drawing first. I often do this and find that when I am immersed in the creative process it is often best if I just let my paintbrush do the talking and my instincts pick the colours. My best work is often the ones I just paint without seeming to have given my actions much thought, but truthfully I have probably spent many hours dreaming of such a painting and when I finally get my muse it come quickly to life with little effort and the painting is done and usually symbolizes some of my best work. Actually 99% of the time when I am in such a creative it state it is my best work. I have not been able to paint for some time now although I have plenty of supplies. I find I am stifled by the rules that I have picked up on my journey to be an artist. I have often wondered if it was worth going to Art College as it has complicated my simple process of desire to paint and has affected the freedom and rapport I had with my canvas and paints. I am hoping that my muse will come back and I will unleash it once again on canvas. For the moment, however, writing seems to be what I want to do on purpose or on a whim.


Ego is the enemy
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Doe River Bridge”
pastel painting, 15 x 19 inches
by Paul deMarrais

It seems like we are born free and as we progress into childhood we are saturated with rules and regulations, formed and shaped to conform to our society and its descriptions of the world. In Eckhart Tolle’s book, which I am currently reading, ego is the villain. Its chatter and noisy demands keep us grounded but enslave us to endless repetitive scenarios replayed as voices in our head. These are not new ideas. Carlos Castaneda referred to the voices in his book as our “internal dialogue.” People have set out to quiet the voices for hundreds of years, through meditation and other means. I often experience moments of a quieted mind while painting. The normal time sequencing seems disturbed so that I am not aware of an hour having passed by. Plein air can be good for creating this mode. You become a part of the scene with all of its sensory delights and surrender to the intuitive process of painting. Soon you’re finished and the whole thing seemed like magic. Ideally, I think you need both a bit of mind and a bit of mindlessness to make a painting. It’s a play between control and surrender.


Truthful innocence
by Susan Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA


“Big Blue”
acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 inches
by Susan Burns

The human mind could never exhaust the essence of even a single fly. I think it is not amateurism you speak of, but more like truthful innocence, and presence. In a painting, we don’t need to know that a tree has bark. We need to know that your tree appears to be barking, or whatever quality you share with it in the moment you paint it. Eternity is here, right now, not somewhere else in time or space. That is what is in a good painting, or poem, or story, or a piece of music.





Re-enchanting the world
by Louisa McElwain


“Conference, Earth and Sky”
oil on canvas, 56 x 72 inches
by Louisa McElwain

The methodology you describe is very close to that which I have discovered and experienced on my own, over 25 years of painting in New Mexico. Another painter friend, the marvelous Hannah Shook, recently gave me a copy of Free Play by Steven Nacmanovitch about improvisation in Art and Life. It is a wonderful, learned, articulate book about the creative process, and I cannot recommend it more highly for creative people working in any medium. Please read it and enjoy his kindred spirit! As he understands it, play is a sacred act in direct communication with the divine, the current of raw creative energy which animates the universe. Play is the important work of artists to re-enchant the world.


More wisdom than I
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA


“The Welcome Party”
oil on linen, 18 x 24 inches
by Liz Reday

The great thing about painting plein air is that it becomes an event. Actors talk about “being in the moment” and it’s the same when you stand outside and experience nature firsthand. Don’t think! Good advice. Every once in awhile it becomes pure playful joy. The painting paints itself and every stroke is just how it should be. You could come back at the same time tomorrow and paint a completely different painting because you’re painting the immediate response before it has time to become analyzed and over-intellectualized. My biggest obstacle in art is my tendency to overwork a painting, so being outside with the fleeting light and sometimes the tide coming in can create a sense of urgency. Mother Nature decides when the painting is finished, and she has more wisdom than I.



Regaining innocence
by Derek Bollen, Pender Island, BC, Canada


“The Healer of the Earth and the Sun”
original painting, 19 x 24 inches
by Derek Bollen

It will be twelve years this March that a deer tried to bound over my Motorcycle and landed on my lap. Both arms were shattered, and I was told I would never paint again. But a funny thing happened as I saw the deer racing down the hill. I heard a voice to the right of me say, relax and go with it. I turned and said, you relax and go with it, but there was no one there. So I sat back down in my seat, tried to relax for the impact, still holding down the brakes when all my life would change. I did not go out, and felt the last kick from the deer to my knee as we lay there, and said oh yeah, you get to go while I wait to see what colour car hits me. But as fate would have it my mask fogged up, and the car stopped. I ended up going through five years of physiotherapy, when my ICBC financial help pulled the plug. Yet years later I started to paint again, at first just blobs of paint for about fifteen minutes a day, if that. It was just too painful, then I heard that voice again, relax and go with it. Of course I got angry again thinking now I am losing it. Then I thought the voice was right before, and took out another canvas. Ok what does this mean, relax and go with it. When I use my mind and put effort into what I think I should be doing, it hurts. So I will not think. I will put paint on the canvas, and just play. It worked, I was able to get up to an hour of work done. So every day I would flip the canvas and begin again. Then in time hours past as I kept the canvas in continuous motion. Years passed and one day they began to form into many of the strange dreams I was having. To my surprise people seemed to be drawn to them more than my earlier work. So on reading your letter I found it touched me, for what I was doing was seeing through the eyes of a child and regaining some of my innocence.


Hoping to paint with courage
by Margo Landwer, Cody, WY, USA

I could read this every day and hope to paint with courage. I have lived in Wyoming in Wapiti Valley for ten years. I have opened my home as a B&B with the desire to share where and what I experience here. My painting is timid at best and never plein air. If I could paint what I feel and hear — the wind in our pines, the mountains surrounding and comforting, the space the openness, the air, the light the clarity, how to put it down with a brush. I am quite under-schooled in the painting life, but I will go for it with great courage.


Dog-a-day project
by Kimberly Santini, Lake Orion, MI, USA


acrylic on canvas
26 x 30 inches
by Kimberly Santini

Your list is practically my mantra. My Dog-a-Day project strives to accomplish these goals — within the context of a small surface (rarely larger than 8×10), and within the confines of 1 hour, my assignment is to paint a pet portrait. I started in October 2006, and intended a Dog-a-Day to be a platform for experimentation and challenge without the added concern of possibly compromising a larger commission. There is little laboring over passages, no preparatory studies. I allowed my momentum to dictate the direction of the piece, and there is no stress of having to produce a “real” painting. Each contains a lesson, and therefore has value in itself. As a result of this project and following your guidelines, I have refined my decision making skills, gained confident brushwork, and become more intimate with my palette. Something about the spontaneity of my looser brushwork and carefree color choices struck a chord. Sales from the daily project are such that I can be more selective in what I choose to paint.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The courage to play



From: Faith — Mar 07, 2008

To whom it may concern: Why not forget the brushes and go for other tools such as paint knives and fingers? Or dilute paint and pour it on (that’s very satisfying). And stop mixing colours. Just choose a limited number and use them as they come out of the pot or tube! Don’t use white until much later as white drains off colour and could make your work “timid”. Plein air simply means outside and no one did it much before Turner. It has nothing to do with style but with a “back to nature” movement. But you can paint plein air inside too, if necessary on the kitchen table! Take some rosy apples and celebrate them on your canvas. Paint them in the “wrong” colours. Paint them square. Paint in the dark. Turn the radio up loud on some really brutal rock music and fight it! Get your aggressions going! There must be something you are furious about! And of course, nature cannot be surpassed. Use it for inspiration rather than imitation! ……. Now I just have to try to take some of this good advice myself!

From: Tina Steele Lindsey — Mar 07, 2008

One of my best paintings, a portrait of a bride and her groom, was painted without drawing on the canvas first. I’ve found over the years that subjects that interest me require nothing more than a quick outline with a very dry brush and I am on my way, and I work fast and precisely, and love the paintings when they are completed. Pieces or commissions which do not highly interest me become tedious and a bore, and when completed I thrilled to be through with them. When not enthused initially I do a drawing first in hope that I may muster some enthusiasm about the subject. I am definitely one who works better when I am intrigued with my subject. As creative people I think that is how it is supposed to be, and because of it I am considering giving up commission work.

From: Sonia — Mar 07, 2008

Regarding commissions: Is it a good idea to always have a contract (friends, & family included) spelling out expectations, payment plan, delivery date, etc.? Is it best to require partial payment on the deal or full payment on delivery date? I’m new to commission work and find negotiating awkward especially with friends and family, often doing work “gratis” in order to free me from obligation to work that is not favorable to me or the client.

From: Consuelo — Mar 07, 2008

Commissions can be debilitating in that they rob the inspirational excellence of the artist and replace it with mediocrity. If you are in a financial position that allows you to turn down commissions, consider yourself lucky.

From: Tina Steele Lindsey — Mar 07, 2008

Consuelo, I appreciate what you wrote regarding “debilitating,” because that is precisely how I feel when doing a commission that does not inspire me. No wind in my sails. I manage to pull off a good result regardless, however when completed I am relieved in lieu of exuberant.

From: Janet Sellers — Mar 07, 2008

Great advice. Commissions are by nature not entirely free to create for the artist, unless the patron asks for “just paint whatever you like”. I once had a gallery that told me this, and wow. Everything I submitted sold, albeit only small pieces. And yet, we do create our own freedom in order to make it “freedom” at all. I liked reading the new direction idea; have to try that next commission… it all depends on the freedom!

From: Callie B. — Mar 07, 2008

Just a note to Debbie Lambert about how to avoid unsolicited opinions from people watching you work when working in the public eye: Headphones. They should be attached to some sort of music playing device for authenticity, but they don’t actually have to be turned on if you need to concentrate. I find they’re a fantastic outward sign to the world that you aren’t interested in having a conversation. Many people will still watch you work, but they won’t try to speak if you leave them on. I found this trick indespensable when working in group studios in college.

From: Lyn Cherry — Mar 07, 2008

“I find I am stifled by the rules that I have picked up on my journey to be an artist.” So saith Michelle Madalena, above. It was just a week ago when I realized the same thing has happened to me! At an exhibit, I showed an older piece I had done in 2003, right after I began watercolors. I had painted in oils 18 years before, but nothing in the intervening years. Comments from fellow artists were “That is the best work I have seen you show here.” My more recents works had been exhibited the prior two months and received the dreaded “That’s nice” comment! Thanks to all above for providing some insight into freeing myself from “the rules.” I’m going right in to the studio and try some of them!

From: Hugo — Mar 07, 2008

As so often is the case, I find the truth for me is somewhere in the middle. When we go out somewhere, we take our “self” with us (that’s why geographical cures don’t work). And if I am bothered by something someone else is saying, that says more about me than it does about what was said. These days I try to have the internal response “why is this bothering me” (notice I say try). The answer to that kind of questioning sometimes leads to amazing understanding. So there is a way to be thankful for the annoying comments/questions. Embracing what Buddhism teaches me is that acceptance is the answer to everything. And you know, I design my paintings. I would consider it disrepectful to start painting without knowing what I am going to do. But then all the wise stuff contributed so far applies to me at the pencil sketching stage.

From: Rick Rotante — Mar 10, 2008

Playfulness is as difficult to learn as learning to paint. Picasso always wished he could maintain what he knew as a adult but paint as a child, unencumbered from all the knowledge he gained through the years. Which leads me to think, playfulness is a (re)learned skill. One can only experience playfulness after one has become a somewhat skilled artist. When one is new at this process we feel everything must be precise and accurate and as a result the work looks stiff and unimaginative. When we learn to play, we loosen up and produce work that has the spirit of freedom and ease. Once you can put down the theories and methods that have been absorbed into your subconscious, then you have the freedom to play. I do this when I’m faced with a scene or model that doesn’t necessarily excite me immediately. In fact, it has helped me produce some of my better work. I try and not feel too guilty when the magic is working and I glide thru a painting effortlessly. When clients wonder how I can charge so much for a painting that took only an hour, I tell them that the painting actually took sixty-five years and one hour to paint.

From: Val Norberry — Mar 11, 2008

Yesterday I got two watercolor paintings done, botanical copies from a book of wildflowers, before I did my week’s worth of dishes. I felt pretty good as I did the dishes, and was able to serve a friend of mine who is in terminal illness, last stages, because I had “taken care of myself” first, by playing with my paints. I am joyful today.

From: Anonymous — Mar 11, 2008

Dear Robert, I am always reading your newsletter but I haven’t written to you so far. I like your paintings and I wish I could paint half the way you can paint. I’ve got the courage to write to you and ask you -as you have the experience – to comment (if I don’t ask too much) my drawings. My blogsite is: My site is in greek (you won’t understand anything), but you can click on the photos to see them bigger.I want to pass into the next level of professionism. I would greatly appreciate your opinion.Thanking you in advance, Best regards, Elias Rigas

From: Vicki Ross — Mar 19, 2008

In answer to Debbie Lambert (Dibbie) from New Zealand…when painting with Charles Reid in Amalfi, Italy, on the steps of the church in the square…a tour bus empties and they crowd around…take your largest watercolor brush, get it good and wet, and give it a Charles shake in a downward motion. The tourists will back away to a safer distance! I’ve also found in the last year that my ipod in my ears, whether playing or not, will deter the social aspect of other chatty painters or onlookers. As a bonus, the music direct in my ear quiets the ego, the analytical left brain that chatters and ‘directs’ the right brain. Distracted with the music, my right brain can make wonderful marks!

From: Jan Morrison — Mar 26, 2008

I’ve been painting with my grandchildren. It is definitely play for me and perhaps oddly work for them. But at some point a bit into the time we put aside for this sort of play/work something happens. We don’t go looking for it but somehow a pleasing puzzling grace happens upon us all (ages three to fifty-six). Maybe it is when Hannah mixes a particular pink all on her own or when Riley decides he can use the canvas anyway he wants or when Sawyer gives up worrying about how good he is (he’s the three year old and definitely the one who most wants to shine- we other three have less grand desires) or it might be when we all throw ourselves into one grand work together. No matter – the thing is that it is absolutely dependable. If we get the paints and brushes out we will experience that joy. On Wednesdays when I go to my regular painting class I try and remember the truth I learned from my younger teachers.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Mar 26, 2008

Just this week, I received my order of paints, brushes, and linen panels. As I took them out of the box, I felt stunned. I haven’t used oils in (X) decades! What in the world am I doing? HOW in the world do I do it? It was a feeling of panic that seemed to paralyze me. Then I remembered what it was like picking up pastels for the first time. I did it with no expectations, but with a sense of anticipation. I played. I made strokes. I mixed colors. I started making tiny little pictures of things around me. The tiny pictures became big pictures, and I am having a ball. It is FUN!

From: Brad Greek — Mar 26, 2008

Step one, on the way to a location to paint plein-air, is to get into a mindset. Look at the atmosphere, think about the location if you’ve been there before, prep yourself for what you might like to paint that day. Walk around the area, after arriving, what is inspiring you, it will jump out at you when you find it. Always remember to look behind you, that’s usually where it is hiding. I like to get set up and the canvas covered completely within the first couple minutes, this will set the pace of the painting. It will also show me how the paint is reacting to the atmosphere, which plays a huge role when working outside. With acrylics they either dry very fast in hot weather or stay wetter longer when in an overcast, cooler enviroment. So the effects you can achieve are very different. Like Sara, I don’t do any sketching ahead of time, I go for it. I let the painting take its own path and I follow along. If I set myself a time limit of say an hour, the work usually turns out a lot more spontaneous. Look at your work outside when you’re finished but don’t judge it then. Take it home and hang it up in the studio, let it dry, study it for a few days, put a frame on it. I’ve found that usually the painting is finished even though you thought it might need more work when you get home with it. There is usually a reason why you stopped when you did out on location, and only what was painted got painted for that reason. That could be the painting saying Stop!!







Sashenhna Series

photograph, 15 x 15 inches
by Brad Michael Moore, Perrin, TX, USA


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 Ed Terpening of Redwood City, CA, USA who wrote, “We need a solid foundation in technical skill and analytical thinking before we can respond without thinking. Certain things technical must become so learned that they are automatic, freeing us to emotional creativity.”

And also Louwtjie Kotze of Johannesburg, South Africa who wrote, “I tend to get bogged down by the detail I think I should paint. I have only been painting for 3 years and not full time either. I’ve had painting tutoring for approximately 1½ years by two different teachers. I’ve learnt so much, but I’m just so sorry that I only started painting at the age of 50. Hopefully I have another 50 years to look forward to!”

And also Carole Pigott who wrote, “Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now was the most freeing book I have ever read, and being in the now with a clear mind has done more for my work than any lesson ever has or could. It clears the way for total right brain painting, and being in the moment makes painting pure joy.”

And also Russ Henshall of Norfolk, UK who wrote, “I particularly was stirred by the Tolle mention you made that we are constantly engaged in private thoughts. I have traveled all over the world whilst still in my own mind world. Perhaps I have not traveled at all.”

And also Vernita Bridges-Hoyt of Spring, TX, USA who wrote, “I am more than half way through Eckhart Tolle’s book, and through so much of it I’ve thought (there’s that word again) he writes of the “artist’s zone” which is totally being in the now, disappearing from the world as we know it to channel a painting. I’m always happier with my paintings that come through the zone.”

And also Coco Carey of Wheat Ridge, CO, USA who wrote, “We all have respect for the effort of our labor, the years of study and honing one’s skill to the best of our ability but too often a seriousness of self, of one’s ability, clouds the sheer pleasure of what we’re doing. Fun and play in artistic endeavors does not mean sloppy, careless and without talent. I think that’s what people fear about allowing play into their work. Fear in art does more damage than lack of talent!”

And also Connie Frey who wrote, “My creativity mentor, the late Barbara Mettler, who brought creative dance to everybody as a creative art activity (including visual design and music-making), reminded us of the French definition of ‘amateur,’ which is ‘lover of.’ ”

And also Rick Rotante of Tujunga, CA, USA who wrote, “Playfulness is as difficult to learn as learning to paint.”




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