Cultivating ‘notions’


Dear Artist,

On Saturdays, my mom used to take me along when she went shopping in the big department store. Inevitably we rode the elevator to “Notions” on the third floor. “What are notions?” I asked one day on the way up. “They’re things you didn’t know you needed, but when you see them you have a notion to get them,” she told me. Mom seemed to wander around in a mental daze, picking up things like needles, buttons and cuticle remover. She once bought a red pincushion “so grandma can have a place to organize her pins.” Pin organization was one of my lesser concerns in those days, and this sort of frivolity only confirmed how much I hated stores, a prejudice that lingers against many stores to this day.

These rubber ended ‘brushes’ come in a great variety of styles

These rubber ended ‘brushes’ come in a great variety of styles

A notion, as well as being a department in a store, is a state of mind where you do something on a whim. It’s largely triggered by seeing an item, handling it and figuring out how it might be used. In marketing terms it’s called “point of sale” and apparently it works better than peering at a screen.

Over the years I mellowed and now consider attendance at well-stocked art-materials stores a desirable deviation and an art in itself. Materials-shopping can actually be a creative event not unlike the experimentation that happens in the studio.

A bit regular in its effects, it’s best used just here and there

A bit regular in its effects, it’s best used just here and there

You need to be relaxed, open-minded and prepared to stay in the store just short of the time it takes to get picked up for loitering. I recommend putting your hands in your pockets for the first while and then only handling stuff on the second pass. Well-stocked stores are loaded with new gadgets, tools and materials that invite pause and the inevitable creative question, “What could be?”

Novelty is vital to the stimulation of life. This Christmas, for example, Dorothy the Airedale played harder and had more fun with this year’s ball than with last year’s. It’s in human nature. The same old same old is transmogrified by the creative crossover triggered by seemingly minor novelties. New neural paths are sparked by caving in to notions.

Detail: Glazed and scumbled, the effect can be enhanced or minimized

Detail: Glazed and scumbled, the effect can be enhanced or minimized

Best regards,


PS: “The true method of knowledge is experiment.” (William Blake)

“I didn’t think; I experimented.” (Wilhelm Roentgen)

Esoterica: On Boxing Day it took me about an hour to find the thing I wasn’t looking for. There was a bunch of them in a bin in all shapes, sizes and configurations. The one I got was a rubber spatula-type thing about an inch wide with rubber prongs like a short springy comb. I don’t know what it’s called, but it has “Catalyst by Princeton” on the handle. When I got back to the studio I didn’t take off my coat before trying it out. When used to push around relatively thick paint and combined with glazing and scumbling, it provided a few textural touches I’d been missing.

Detail: Just a little variety, perhaps novelty, just a notion

Detail: Just a little variety, perhaps novelty, just a notion

This letter was originally published as “Cultivating ‘notions'” on December 30, 2012.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“Life is ‘trying things to see if they work.'” (Ray Bradbury)



  1. This reminds me of an anecdote about Gilbert Ryle, the prominent English philosopher of the mid-century. When riding on trains he was often asked by seat mates what his occupation was. Finding it difficult to explain his rather esoteric work to laymen, he hit on the solution: “I deal in notions.”

  2. This is the most perfect approach to both art supply stores and book stores… “ You need to be relaxed, open-minded and prepared to stay in the store just short of the time it takes to get picked up for loitering.“ Robert’s instructions made me laugh out loud. Happy New Year Sarah and everyone!

    I have a new painting just finished yesterday and another started. The gallery’s winter studio is warm, the misty rain heavy with a wind picking up. It is the kind of day where the lamps are need to augment what passes as daylight. But paint I shall!

  3. And now I really want one of those “Catalyst” tools. Hm look on-line, go to a dollar store, go to an art supply store, go to a thrift store … Our notional shopping opportunities have become world wide in scope. And I like to shop. Oh dear. But a new tool may jump start me into my studio with a blank canvas to start off 2020.

      • Yes I suspect a fairly large number of artists hate shopping as its, boring and repetitive, distracting and uninspiring except for the profusion of colour. But mostly it sucks because it takes valuable time away from painting! Your dad had an engaging sense of humour, especially in his letters which resides at my bedside.

    • Any decent supermarket has them. It’s the perfect tool for basting bread hot out of the oven with butter. Easy to recognize, they look like a rubber paint brush.

  4. My favorite places to find creative notions are thrift stores. They offer an endless supply of possibilities for assemblage artists….Oh what fun!
    Happy New Year All….2020….imagine that!

  5. This is so funny. I am down with how much your Dad disliked shopping….I am the same. Folks are always puzzled when , if asked what I want for a gift ( a weird question on any day) I say…if you must , get me a tube of paint, I’ll be delighted! Why isn’t that easy to understand?? Sheesh.

    • That is interesting, Linda, because I did the essentially the same thing. I painted a picture for a relative and then didn’t really want to charge him (which is why I dislike doing paintings for friends of relatives). But he insisted. So instead of ‘cash’, we went together to an art supply store where I chose about $300 worth of stuff – paints I likely wouldn’t have otherwise purchased because of the cost – 4 metallics – plus a lot of other things. He felt good about it and so did I.



  6. This article gave me a good chuckle as I am anti-shopping, anti-big box stores, anti-shopping in general. I pretty much agree with Robert for his disdain with shopping but eventually mellowed to doing the-look-around in good supplied art stores. I also loved Robert’s suggestion about being picked up for just short of loitering; keeping one’s hands in one’s pockets on the first go around. He has a terrific sense of humor in this article. Thank you, Sara, for reposting it. May everyone have a successful New Year filled with joy, peace and lots of love……Suszanne

  7. I loved, loved, loved this one! …could picture every sentence…was with him in the art supply store…was with his mom in the notions dept. ( I sew quilty things of a sort, but not for a bed.)
    Exploring is basic to all art whether in your mind, or with a brush or through the brush with shoes on. Life is boring without exploring. William Blake would agree!

  8. … it had to happen sooner or later – a post from Robert Genn that just ruffles my feathers. I can think of anything quite as pathetic, and destructive as humans’ collective fascination with shining baubles; and nothing quite as disgusting as those who manipulate others through “notional hypnosis”. Still … one *epic fail* in a thousand posts is a more than acceptable stat.

    • That collective fascination may well be tied to the desire to be surrounded by beauty and things that give comfort or, as in the context of Robert’s letter, the impetus to experiment, dream and think, “what if?” It seems to me that we artists need that collective fascination if we are to make our best work AND have people who want to appreciate and buy the art we create.

      • Indeed my reaction, and my views, obviously reflect a personal issue. I was careful not to lay blame on the author. I love it when some piece of writing “ruffles my feathers” – it allows me to share a controversial current of feeling. The fact that its the first time it happens to me after years of Robert’s posts … is almost miraculous; trust me. I will nonetheless nourish my experimentation requirements through other channels. ;-) Thanks for the reply!

    • Hey Marco. Thankfully we are not all the same or what a bleak world it would be. Personally, I ADORE shining baubles. Some of my happiest moments revolve around browsing in shops. My husband is like you. I tell him that to view the creativity of the people on this planet makes me positively giddy. In fact, as I write this, I have butterflies of anticipation in my stomach for what I will see and experience next. Whether it be a beautiful fabric design, an exquisite piece of jewellry, or exotic woodwork, I am totally awed by what others manifest and create. I don’t have to buy these things; just appreciating them is enough, although sometimes I DO buy!! Lucky me to be blessed with such an amazing and happy soul.



  9. Kathryn Taylor on

    I agree with Robert. I don’t agree with Marco, though I understand his cynicism. I tend to think cynically. For example, when I started reading this email, I didn’t like how the first part sounded, something about the child not liking shopping for notions, with his mother. I wasn’t going to read the rest of the email. But, then I thought to read the whole email, their could be something valuable in there. And there was! Robert mentioned being “open minded” about things, and in doing this, going out of our comfort zone, and checking out something we think we don’t like, maybe giving it a little attention, we may actually find something of value in it, or something that encourages us. And, in the world we live in, I don’t think it is stupid, or frivolous, to have a “shiny bauble” or two. Or, taking a day, here or there, to go shopping for “notions!” Having something in life to enjoy is good! Thank you, Robert. And thanks, Sara.

  10. “Life is ‘trying things to see if they work.’” (Ray Bradbury)

    I’ll say!!! Thanks so much, as always ~Love Julie ps apologies, my website is so neglected, I put everything new on Facebook :)

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February 19, 2020 to February 26, 2020


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