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.

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

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