Creative archaeology


Dear Artist,

Find something to paint and then find a good place to sit. That’s been my system. In the last while I’ve been favouring a system of the respected Canadian painter J. E. H. MacDonald. He recommended finding a good place to sit and then looking around for something to paint.


“September Snow on Mount Schaffer” 1924-32
by J. E. H. MacDonald (1873-1932)

Why the comfort first? It’s partly to do with the nature of the creative act. The subject itself is not as important as what can be done with it. And being comfortable has something to do with what can be done. You feel the potential of a place when you show up. It’s intuitive, and it’s also about remembered joys. “Something tells me I can get my brush around this,” you find yourself saying. Get comfy, set up, squeeze out. Motifs appear like genies.

Sara and I were guided above Lake O’Hara to a remote ridge known to the “Opabin Shale-Splitters.” This was where MacDonald and his friends painted in the summers of 1924 to 1930. We could well see the appeal. Patterns of rock and snow in all directions. Light. Shadow. Atmosphere. Dramatic mountains all around. Lots of places to sit.


“Lake McArthur, Yoho Park” 1924
by J. E. H. MacDonald

With the use of old photos and paintings, we identified specific rocks, specific views. Apart from the high snow levels this year, nothing is much different. Down in the corner of an ancient photo there’s a lard can that MacDonald used to brew tea. A bit of sleuthing and the rusty can turned up, stashed under a rock perhaps for the 1931 season. MacDonald never made it back. His health deteriorated and he died in 1932.

Our guides alerted the park’s archaeologist, who arrived the next day to fetch the artifact for analysis and museum preservation. A national treasure in an old tin can.

MacDonald was a believer in mix and match. He’d catch the spirit of a place and then assemble the working parts. To him, the mountains were a source of poetry — inhaled in their totality. “I have memories of the clearest crystal mountain days imaginable,” he said, “when we fortunates in the heights seemed to be sky people living in light alone.” Up here with low-flying clouds in the Shale-Splitters’ sky, it’s a privilege to try to catch the spirit.


“Lake O’Hara” 1924
pen and black ink with white gouache
by J. E. H. MacDonald

Best regards,


PS: “The fine frenzy of the poetic eye need not blind the poet to painting.” (J. E. H. MacDonald, 1873-1932)

Esoterica: Like many excellent painters, MacDonald came from a background of graphic design and commercial art. His lesson is to move a tree here, redesign a rock there, have the sky echo the foreground. The elements are everywhere, but the artist needs to focus. “Art is the ordering of the material in harmony with the spirit,” he said. Contemplation is needed. The results are often simple, direct, strong and expressive. You can sometimes do this sort of thing if you find a good place to sit.


Creative archaeology: J.E.H. MacDonald


Our guides Stan Munn and Patty Cucman discovered this can that was used to make tea by painter J.E.H. MacDonald in 1930. The pole on the left marked the ‘Shale-Splitters’ point.


Happy Days in 1930 Catharine R. Whyte, Adeline Link, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Peter Whyte; George Link photographer. Catherine and Peter were fine painters who accompanied MacDonald. Note the lard can next to the fire at lower left.










“Cathedral Peak and Lake O’Hara”
by J.E.H. MacDonald (1927)


“Lake O’Hara”
by J.E.H. MacDonald (1928-1932)









Rush of confidence
by Richard Hawk, San Diego, CA, USA


“Girl In Striped Shirt”
oil painting
by Richard Hawk

You mentioned the sudden feeling “I can wrap my brush around this” at the sight of a particular slice of landscape, a certain tilt of the land, or perfect outcropping in plein air painting. As a figurative painter I feel that charge too. Why is it that a hundred faces, a hundred model poses, leave us only mildly inspired, and then a certain attitude of body presents itself, a particular eye, contour of mouth or cheekbone, and we’re on fire? The feeling is “My brush can do that,” and so it does. Maybe connecting with subject in that headlong rush of confidence is the better part of talent.


Cosmic connection
by David Sharpe, Stratford, ON, Canada


Catalogue Cover Design (1927)
pen and black ink with white and sepia gouache drawing
by J. E. H. MacDonald

What a wonderful discovery, and to be there, exactly where he painted! You must have felt a cosmic connectivity to the man who I believe painted the best ‘designed’ compositions of the group (and that is saying a lot as they were all in their own way superb). You might want to look at the book that’s out on J. E. H. MacDonald’s work as a commercial designer… what an eye.

(RG note) Thanks, David. Another excellent book that we have referred to frequently is Lisa Christensen’s The Lake O’Hara Art of J.E.H. MacDonald and Hiker’s Guide.




MacDonald — the designer
by Grace Cowling, Grimsby, ON, Canada


“Winter Calligraphy”
oil painting
by Grace Cowling

Some of your readers may be interested in the design side of J. E. H. MacDonald’s work. He contributed to the panels in St. Anne’s Anglican Church, Parkdale, Toronto. The church is considered Toronto’s “Group of Seven” Church. My paternal grandfather, Samuel John Ireland (1854 – 1915) taught J. E. H. MacDonald, then a young lad of about 14 and just out from Scotland.


St. Anne’s Anglican Church: interior view




Stay cool
by Bill McEnroe, Tumwater, WA, USA


“New Bottom”
acrylic painting, 26 x 32 inches
by Bill McEnroe

Nope — you’ve got it all wrong, working the plein air gig.

1st. Look for shade.

2nd. Locate a nice place to sit — then

3rd. Find something interesting to paint.

— all will be lost if you have to battle the sun on your palette and board.


Brush recommendations
by Marie Louise Tesch, Rapid City, SD, USA


“Home to the hills”
acrylic painting
by Marie Louise Tesch

I just watched the Lake O’Hara video again. I’m wondering about the brushes you use. It seemed like you really loaded up the brush and could paint much canvas before dipping again. I paint with acrylics also, but the past week I have had great difficulty getting the stuff to spread out on the canvas. I blame the nearly zero humidity with temps in the 90s and above. I’d appreciate some tips on the brushes; we have discussed the type of paint and the various mediums. What do you recommend for brushes?


These are the brushes I would take to a desert island.

(RG note) Thanks, Marie. On location I like to keep it simple. Regarding speedy drying of acrylics, palette and support should ideally be in the shade. In hot locations I sometimes resort to a spritzer. I use lots of medium and try to work fast, sometimes on a wet ground. I start fresh and re-squeeze when the paint starts to dry on the palette.



Zen Day in the mountains
by JoRene Newton, Georgetown, TX, USA


“Landscape with Tree and Moon”
acrylic and pastel painting
by JoRene Newton

I like your take on the “place, then the paint.” I held a workshop in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado several years ago and when I took a poll of which lesson they enjoyed most, it was the Zen Day in the mountains. I took the students up into a secluded spot beside a creek. I separated them with their paints and sketch books. I told them to sit for 10 minutes, without talking and just look around to observe what they could see close to them. They were amazed to discover colors and textures that they had never seen before. They were to record in their sketch book those things in nature that they observed. Rocks, dead leaves, bugs, growing grasses, etc. At the end of an hour of perfect quiet, even the wind rustling the leaves was recorded!



Drawing in the loo
by Susan Canavarro, Florence, OR, USA


“Just sittin’
watercolour painting
by Susan Canavarro

Regarding Creative Archaeology and the idea of first finding a good place to sit and then choosing what to paint, I once had to come up with a final project for a college figure drawing class. Figuring drawing was not my strong suit, not what I enjoyed the most. While I liked drawing hands and feet, I dreaded having to do something with the whole figure. I thought my art career might be flushed down the toilet due to failing this one class!

One day while sitting in the loo the “aha” factor kicked in, as did my rebellious nature. There I was just sittin’ in a good spot and it occurred to me I could do a complete figurative painting by doing just my feet and hands as I was sitting on the “john.” I factored in the landscape of the checkered floor, toilet stall, graffiti on the stall door, pencil in one hand and a roll of toilet paper in the other. My bare feet and long toes barely poked out from under the top of my knees. And voila, I had a successful watercolor which now hangs in a place of honor above the throne in the water closet of one of my favorite teachers! Choosing the most comfortable place to sit and then choosing what to paint worked for me!


The importance of comfort
by Diane Overcash, Concord, NC, USA


“Clouds & Sea I”
oil painting
by Diane Overcash

What a profoundly simple suggestion, sit down to paint. When painting outdoors I usually like to stand so I can take a giant step back and look at the painting from the distance the viewer would normally see it. Into about the fourth hour of this painting expedition I would start to lose focus, and an uneasy feeling of something not quite right would start to take over. Then I realized that my feet and legs were aching. So I would try to ignore it and tough it out. Eventually I would take some photographs and pack up and go home. I much like the idea of finding a comfortable seat first and then looking around for something to paint. I’ll go sit down now.


Plopping down without wandering
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, Michigan, USA


“Wetlands Jewel: Albert”
pastel painting
by Sandy Davison

This year I have been sitting more often, standing infrequently and only as I work up to larger sizes. Last night at my usual swamp, I set up and sat against a gusty thirty mile-an-hour “breeze” that rattled the edges of the umbrella so loudly and so long I became irritable sitting within inches of it. The rational mind said there were no bugs so no need to smell the now tiresome citronella and it told me to be glad. Still the sitting became difficult. The sunset: clouds moved in and the light changed too much to go further with my simultaneous 9x9s. Antsy and irritated, I left.

The second sitting, I was in a parking lot, with my seat next to the car in the long cast shade from a rather large ash tree and facing away from the sun — no umbrella and some shelter from the rub, rub, rub of that wind. Fewer things to carry/set up, more paintings and opportunities, more places to work without elaborate views.

MacDonald was right, as long as one finds the right seat. John S Sargent sat. It’s said that he perplexed fellow artists by his habit of plopping down without wandering to inspect the possibilities, but I suspect he evaluated the landing pad well enough! One doesn’t sit behind the bush! Like so many things in the art mind, it’s not separate but intertwined and braided: place to sit/possible painting. Three hundred sixty degrees of options are good, one-eighty works, and there is a lot that can be done with thirty or forty degrees of view. It just depends on where your butt is and it being comfortable enough to proceed.


Great questions
by Hank Zauderer, CA, USA

Was that Gesso White that you applied to the top shape of your painting? I never use Gesso. Looks like I should try it. Is there a place at your website where you provide some ideas for people like me on Gesso use? Also, I am in Northern California. After I go to Vancouver, how do I get to Lake O’Hara? I sure would like to visit there.

(RG note) Thanks, Hank, and to all the others who asked technical questions which we have tried to answer directly. Golden Titanium White is the anchor for me, although lately I’ve been using more of M. Graham acrylics. Gesso is used in the grey primer that I’m currently favouring. Regarding getting there, Yoho Park and Lake O’Hara are in B.C. just off the 401 on the way to Banff, Alberta. They only let so many in at a time so you have to contact them with your intentions.


Alpine Club of Canada
by Celestine Segers, Montreal, QC, Canada

I am a member of the Alpine Club of Canada (and a painter). As you probably know, the club maintains about twenty huts in the western mountains. I was lucky enough to visit the Lake O’Hara area and stay in the Elisabeth Parker Hut four times. I think the Lake O’Hara area is the most magnificent place in the Rockies! You’ve got everything you could wish: grandiose mountains, shining glaciers (melting!), turquoise lakes, waterfalls, lively streams, beautiful forests and wildlife! And no crowds, thanks to Parks Canada’s policy of making it difficult to get there. Let the throngs of visitors go to Lake Louise, not to take anything away from the beauty of Louise. And Lake McArthur with Mount Biddle. Simply breathtaking. I can never get enough of Lake O’Hara. The ACC hut on the alpine meadow is so popular with members that the club has a lottery system to allocate time there to the sections which put in a request for a week. Three times my section (Montreal), has won a week there and I have taken the opportunity to go every time.


Artistic networking
by Marie Martin, Fountain Valley, CA, USA


acrylic painting, 30 x 40 inches
by Marie Martin

After all the discussion on critiquing, etc., it occurred to me that your already wonderfully helpful network might serve another purpose. What about offering the opportunity for artists to find other artists in their area to begin critiquing partnerships or groups?

As one of your respondents pointed out, a lot of us work alone. I find it difficult to locate artists who are of the same mind. Maybe it’s merely a fantasy, but I’ve always been attracted to what the Impressionists appeared to have had. They (apparently) met for energetic discussion of their artistic efforts, and to keep up with the art world in general. I am connected with a couple of people who I hold dear because we have the same goals regarding critiquing and sharing art information, but would love to increase that network. This need not be more complicated than a registry, where readers can go to add their name, city, and email address. People can locate others in their area to begin exploring whether or not there is a match.

(RG note) Thanks, Marie. Artists who thrive on contact with others are constantly writing to say how they have made friends on The Painter’s Keys — particularly through our Premium Artists Directory. While it’s not always easy on our site to find others in the same neighborhood, many have reported new friendships with fellow travellers just down the road.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Creative archaeology



From: Iris M. Brooks — Jul 16, 2007

Hi Robert! Although I have not and may not respond to your twice-weekly newsletters…Know that each one is an inspiration to me as an aspiring artist. Continue to send them because I value each and every one.

From: Peter Hemmer — Jul 17, 2007

Robert, What plug-in/software is required to view the videos in your clickbacks? I get a blurp that says click to activate this control, but I never see anything in the video window.

From: Sylvia — Jul 17, 2007

Peter, do you click a second time, once to activate, and once to play it?

From: Jane Champagne — Jul 17, 2007

About finding a place to sit comfortably and then paint: John Bennett, the artist/teacher who liberated me into painting full-sheet watercolours on location, has a favourite theory, the “Theory of Discomfort.” He maintains that a degree of discomfort is necessary to egg you on to painting more intuitively, focusing on the heart of the matter, not the details. I have always painted standing up but now am obliged to try it sitting down. How do you avoid getting cramped — physically and in the painting?

From: Laurel Johnson — Jul 17, 2007

So let’s see the painting done in the mist ….

From: Carol Lyons — Jul 17, 2007

Re: Creative Archaeology Staying Comfortable: Known primarily as an experimental artist, there was still one problem I wanted to overcome. I was not able to get myself out of bed early in the morning to give myself an early start. I hit upon the following solution: The night before, I arrange my pencils and paper beside my bed. Instead of turning over for a few more winks, I started drawing the first thing I lay my eyes on–my pillows. Thus developed “Pillow Personalities,” faces I “see” in the depressions and creases of the pillows. The drawings started as hostess gifts when I visited friends. The demand grew and soon friends requested their personal pillow drawings. On their way to work they started delivering pillows on trays at my doorstep and my art took on an interesting expansion. It became broader-based and more varied, always with the humorous touch. Now I Can’t wait to get up and look at the pillows.

From: Ken Flitton — Jul 17, 2007

Hi Bob: I have a lifelong friend in Montreal, whom I never see or talk to, named John Little. I’m sure you know of his work. John used to go painting in plein air quite often with Lorne Bouchard and I’m sure these encounters helped John develop his style of rapid-fire brush strokes and deadly accurate architectural details which he used to great success after he, as he says, “took to the streets” to paint nostalgic old Quebec and Montreal. I didn’t know Lorne was so much older than we. Too bad he died rather prematurely. Thank you for the very pleasant reminiscence.

From: Sherry Hall Shelton — Jul 17, 2007

I teach….and keep reminding students: Knowledge is not ability. You must practice. Practice, practice, practice. (I enjoy your newsletters so much….especially now that I’m a widow and have so much time on my hands….able to read, read, read….all those art books I bought and haven’t had time for anything but snippets of reading. Thank you.

From: Susan, New Mexico — Jul 17, 2007

Robert…..I was delighted to see your brushes! I am always slightly suspicous of painters who have brushes that still look new, no paint on the wooden part. The “neat-nics” paintings always look somewhat stiff to me, also too tidy. I love the well used guys: the “workers” that don’t care about their appearance!

From: Sue — Jul 18, 2007

I’ve really enjoyed your newsletters in the past, but haven’t had the time to read them for awhile; now I’m back again but am not seeing any examples of paintings to go with artists’ responses to your letters, and there’s only a large blank blue square where the Painter of the Week used to be featured. Have you made some changes while I was away?

From: Nancy Poucher — Jul 21, 2007

My best work is often when I am uncomfortable. The chill of the setting sun or the biting mosquitoes bring an energy to my work that is lacking if I am too comfortable.

From: Anonymous — Jul 23, 2007

Lake O’Hara is on Trans-Canada Highway #1, in B.C.







Beavertail Raincloud

oil painting
by Elsie Kilguss, Richmond Hill, 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 Adrienne Godbout of Grande-Digue, NB, Canada who wrote, “You certainly light a fire over here and make me want to get out of the studio and paint outside — how exciting.”

And also K. Z. who wrote, “Your jottings are really lovely and insightful. You should put them together into a book of daily creative inspirations.”

And also Jan Woodford who wrote, “Unfortunately, too often, life gets in the way of painting.”

And also Yvette Muise of Montreal, Canada who wrote, “How wonderful to find MacDonald’s lard can. And a big thank you for the video clip. I enjoyed watching every second of it.”

And also Les Ducak who wrote, “A sitting place should be examined first, lest it turns out to be an anthill.”

And also Mary Isenman of Nashville, TN, USA who wrote, “I enjoyed the video, but I can’t find the song anywhere. What can you tell me about the music and its singer?”

(RG note) Thanks, Mary. And thanks to the many others who wrote to say the demo video was okay but it was the soundtrack that made it memorable. It was written, played and sung by my daughter, Sara. It’s actually from her new CD Songs for Longing. Sara’s painting site is, it features Sara’s Lake O’Hara paintings.

Also, for those others who asked, here are the lyrics to Sara’s song in the Lake O’Hara video:

Fallen Hard
by Sara Genn, Songs for Longing

what will become of us when our universe cools and the stars come out
like a blanket I sleep beneath
what is the sum of us and our hopelessness and our pretty virgin bed?

how could I let this happen, how could I let you go?

a fallen angel fallen hard with nothing left to prove
a fallen angel fallen hard and all because of you

how will we remember us, as a torn out page in our autobiographies.
(nothing much to worry)
I don’t want to conjure us cause it kills too much and you didn’t wait for me

how could you let this happen, how could you let me go?

a fallen angel fallen hard with nothing left to prove
a fallen angel fallen hard and all because of you.




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