Demo devils


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I find that doing demos is extremely challenging as I never know quite where a painting is going until I get there. There seems no time to ponder, to try this and that. The expectation is to just keep painting and turn out something reasonably competent in the given time.


“From the Mt Assiniboine Trail
near the Bob Hind Hut”
acrylic on canvas, 10 x 12 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)
Canada House Gallery

“I know students benefit greatly from watching demos — I just don’t know if I will ever get comfortable giving one. It’s not getting any easier. I once watched you do a demo and you seemed very relaxed. What’s the secret?”

I’ve been curious about demos, too. My apparent relaxation is just a facade. But doing them gives a few clues to the nature of creativity. The elements you question — expectations, need for private pondering, time constraints, over the shoulder discomfort all add stress to the job. Furthermore, as every demo-doer knows, having to talk about what you are doing tends to derail the flow.



“Point, Eaglenest Lake,
North of Winnipeg with Al Stewart”
2006 acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches
by Robert Genn
White Rock Gallery

I’ve noticed that technique-oriented artists do well when they are simply demonstrating their systems one after the other — which may not include producing a winning painting. This system may be of more use to the students. The observers simply grab what they need and adapt it for their own work. Having said that, a lot of us seek the “wow” that we get when we do manage to pull off a good one. It’s hard to resist. Recently, as an experiment, I completed three 11″ x 14″ demos one after the other with the same group — one while explaining and taking questions; one while babbling anecdotes from my life; the last in total silence. Which turned out to be the best? In the silent one I was still wondering what they were thinking, feeling guilty about not explaining, and it turned out to be inferior to the babbling one. The explanatory one was a complete dud.

In the babbling one the word flow had the same effect as Mozart has in the studio. I had the feeling that my observers were relaxed and entertained. As the old right brain was free to flow, that painting turned out the best of all. I’ll never know which demo was of most value to them. There’s no secret, but sometimes I think it’s good for people to watch someone trying to struggle out of a quagmire. I’ve found that my quagmires give confidence to others.


“Yoho Pattern”
acrylic on canvas, 10×12 inches
by Robert Genn
Hambleton Galleries

Best regards,


PS: “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.” (Gail Godwin) “A true teacher does not explain — he invites you to stand beside him and see for yourself.” (Raymond Inmon)

Esoterica: In the “bag-of-tricks-type-demo” you attempt to show what might be useful to your students: They’re interested in your systems — your imprimatura, palette, impasto, lay-in, brush handling, compositional ploys, glazing, scumbling, patterning, gradating, coming to light, self-critiquing, finishing, etc, etc. There’s lots to show and we all have our specialties. As Robert Henri said, “By my teaching I hope to inspire you to personal activity and to help you find your way.”

This letter was originally published as “Demo devils” on September 27, 2004.

Painter’s Keys videos on YouTube


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Art is fluid, transmutable, open-ended, never complete, and never perfect. Art is an event.” (Robert Genn)



  1. Love this letter. I’ve been to quite a few demos, can not imagine giving one. Of course it is normal and natural for an artist to feel this way. Thank you for this gem.

  2. Ha! I remember Robert posting this one from way back :-)

    It takes me about two to three hours to paint an alla prima plein-air. Students tend to get bored after an hour or so … demos need to be succinct & not spend too much time talking. get in the flow & stay there!

  3. On the few occasions that I’ve done demos, and even just when somebody is watching me in the studio, I feel like I’m just pretending to paint. Hard for me to let the right brain take over when I’m being observed, I guess.

    • ‘Pretending to paint’ resonates with me, Warren! I always feel a bit of a fraud standing up there doing a demo as though I should know all the answers and produce a masterpiece in under two hours!

  4. I do daily demonstrations as part of the workshops I teach. I narrate as I go. I’ve always encouraged students to ask questions as I paint, so long as the questions pertained to the work at hand. (That is, no asking how long I’ve been a painter, what music do I like to paint to, etc. Questions have to be more about: Why’d you mix that color?) Most of the demos turn out okay; maybe 10% make me say, “Wow!”

    Lately, I’ve been trying another approach. No questions; just let me narrate and get into the zone. That seems to work better.

    My demonstrations tend to be 60 minutes or so. Rarely are they finished in that time, but most get close.

  5. kathryn taylor on

    I love these letters, posts. And people’s comments, too. Robert’s paintings are beautiful! Thanks again, Sara. And Robert.

  6. Paulie Rollins on

    I do my best, most creative and productive work when I’m demonstrating. People tell me they love listening to me talk my way through the piece so they know when I’ve made a mistake and how I work it out; why I’ve picked up a different brush or that weird dab of paint. I give a little happy dance when a stroke of the brush accidentally does something great. Like a ballgame commentator, my comments are a running play by play of the action with all its ups and downs taking place in front of the spectators.

    I think my “out loud thinking” technique came from one of my first shows when a young boy maybe 4 years old kept coming to my booth to stand behind me to watch. I could talk to myself but he wouldn’t answer or would leave to come back later if I talked to him. Late in the afternoon, I didn’t talk directly to him, but loaded a brush, pointed to a spot on my canvas and said, “there…dab, dab, dab”. He took the brush, held it exactly as I had been, hovered the brush, wiggled his tiny butt, and hollered, “dab, dab, dab!” He did an amazing job, so I gave him his own canvas, his own brush, and we painted away the afternoon. His painting was phenomenal after all the scrub, scrub, scrubs, dabs and tickles. Of course, he got to keep his truly gorgeous painting, but his mother brought it back to me later while apologizing for her son taking it. She was stunned to learn he had done that all by himself, that every artist has a right to keep their own paintings, and she stood there crying.
    If I hadn’t been thinking out loud that day, that miracle would not have happened, both for me, the little guy, and all the future amazing encounters to come.

    I don’t talk out loud to myself when I’m painting alone, and I know a miracle can’t happen in the studio so in my estimation my work is never quite as good there. If I’m not teaching or doing a show where I can demonstrate and encourage others to know they can do it too, I go paint someplace where the people are, and the possible little “miracles” that can happen there.

  7. I once demonstrated in a workshop where I obviously was creating a nightmare and could feel myself becoming frantic. So….I completely discarded the painting after a bit of time had passed and began another. Much later two of the students came to me and said they witnessed reality and were so appreciative of my willingness to allow myself to fail.

  8. These “Letters” always seems to hit home just at the right moment! His thoughts, feeling and experiences reminds me I am not alone. His words often come across as these inner thoughts going on in his head as he was painting or teaching. And once he was back at the studio he wrote the words to share the experience with others cause he felt it was a “Teachable” moment to share.
    Sara, Thank you for keeping your Dad’s wisdom and memory going.


  9. This Blog and the letters are so well done. So many thought provoking subjects. In part of my career I was a technical sales rep. I demonstrated high tech vision measuring systems. A lot of the same pressure to get it right. Now, I am retired. Learning to do art and trying to Blog. Doing a painting is difficult enough without the pressure of doing it as demo. Lots of artist are doing demos on YouTube. I enjoy watching them. I can’t imagine myself doing them. In my latest blog I demonstrate painting with a palette of colorful excuses.

  10. As Paulie said, I also often do my best work when presenting a demo in one of my workshops. It’s partly experience. After over 30 years of teaching and doing demos for florals, landscapes and abstracts, I have got used to talking through my techniques and answering questions while I teach. But it is also the need to finish the demo quickly, making my work more spontaneous. There is no time to stand back and evaluate so I just have to “go for it”. Sometimes I see a glaring mistake once I do stand back. I will explain this to the students and correct it there and then. This adds value for the students and they tell me the demos are really useful. Not to copy implicitly, but to show them techniques and give them ideas for their own paintings.

    Having said that, I always work out my composition (value sketch) and my colour palette before hand. Sometimes I will also do a quick colour sketch the night before to make sure I am on the right track. With this preparation I have worked out most of the potential problems and feel confident in moving on with the demo in the class. I would recommend this for any one who feels nervous about doing a demo.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

to the Wall
oil on canvas
24 x 30 inches, 2017

Featured Artist

My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.