Discover your archetype

Dear Artist, As soon as you enter the world of fairy tales or myths, you become aware of recurring types of characters. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called these characters “archetypes.” He felt that the human race had a shared heritage and a collective unconsciousness of understood characters that acted in a certain way. Myths held important keys to the understanding of why we live and act the way we do.

Self-Portrait 1889
oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm
by Vincent van Gogh

The character types can be herald, threshold guardian, trickster, shapeshifter, shadow, mentor, hero, or others. Some characters combine more than one or include further types. A Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler, ostensibly a handbook for writing film-scripts, tells film writers what mythical qualities they must build into their characters in order to make engaging films. Vogler writes, “Being aware of archetypes can expand your command of your craft.” His book is also an example of carrying Jung’s ideas to the crafting of life. Carrying the idea further, it’s not surprising that we artists are ourselves built around mythical types. Furthermore, understanding these types explains why some artists are indifferent or hostile to branches of art other than their own. The “herald” artist, for example, may wish to announce new happenings, break new ground or warn of trouble ahead. The “threshold guardian” artist, on the other hand, holds a conservative and traditional rein on taste and license. Persistence of “quality” is the desirable goal. To her, newness for its own sake is a temporary cult. The “trickster” artist works by joking, deceiving, and having sport with the minds and sensitivities of others. The “shapeshifter” artist modifies her direction and even her personality in order to achieve goals. She does commissions and can pretty well do what’s required. And then there’s the “shadow” artist — the true-to-herself villain who sees the dark side. “Life,” says the shadow, “is depressing, and I’m not going to let you forget it.” The “mentor” artist is the Obi Wan Kenobi of the art world — the wise old man or woman who passes the golden brush to the “hero.” I like to think of artists as heroes. “Hero” artists fight against odds that may include indifference, tyranny, stress, competition, poverty, as well as the artist’s own shortcomings. Hero artists overcome and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Hero artists tend to be tenacious, patient, thorough, passionate, strategic and focused. Best regards, Robert PS: “This is the tale I pray the divine Muse to unfold to us. Begin it, Goddess, at whatever point you will.” (Homer, The Odyssey) Esoterica: Without getting carried away, the artist’s life is a hero’s journey. From a state of ordinariness and relative ignorance, the hero is “called to action” and proceeds through a variety of obstacles, alliances and learning experiences until, after much struggle, she reaches a kind of epiphany. Fulfillment, joy, and success can be the natural outcome of this journey. This is a favourite Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Letter previously published as “Choose your archetype” on June 1, 2004.   Whatever, Carl by Lionel Bradley, Timaru, South Canterbury, New Zealand  

Concept art
digital art
by Lionel Bradley

I think Carl Jung read too much into things but I suppose he had to in order to formulate a thinking process that would give credence to the psychological labyrinth.             Gathered together in another reality by Carol Spicuzza, Indianapolis, IN, USA  

“Lotus Effect”
acrylic on board
by Carol Spicuzza

Jung tells us that, strictly speaking, what we experience is the image of the archetype, because the archetype itself is unconscious and unknowable. They are the forms — one could even call them images of instincts — through which our experience of life is shaped. The archetype not only structures our animal reactions but also has a spiritual aspect in that it determines the forms through which the transpersonal may present itself. In looking at a painting that has expressed an archetype, a peculiar feeling of familiarity may arise. It is as though the artist has pulled something from our own dreams and united it with an eternal, mythical world. Unaware that we are on stage, we are revealed as being embedded within a larger drama. The image has gathered us together in another reality. In a previous age it would have been considered a feat of magic; it is the numinous, the mysterious quality of a shared experience of the archetypal realm and the collective unconscious. There are 4 comments for Gathered together in another reality by Carol Spicuzza
From: Nancy — Dec 03, 2013

Whew! I believe it’s called “thinking.”

From: Cathleen — Dec 03, 2013

Not Sure what Nancy means by “thinking”–please clarify. The experience Jung speaks of is beyond “thinking” an experience beyond conscious control-we do not “think” the archetypes into being nor evoke them…they arise from the deep layers of the psyche unknownable, as Carol states, in their totality. They are a felt experience as one “feels” something in the presence of a work of art, a piece of music, a poem, etc.

From: Rose — Dec 03, 2013

What a painting…Wonderful…

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Dec 03, 2013

Is there anybody in here anywhere who is (also) and adept tarot reader? Because a study of the tarot and its language of symbols IS a study of archetypes and it’s really quite simple to bring awareness of the many archetypes to the surface of one’s conciseness and then use that information intentionally. And so you get it — I own and can use at least 2 dozen different decks. Lots and lots of festive archetypes!

  Truth vs myth by Sandy Robinson, Jasper, AB, Canada  

“Pyramid Mountain”
watercolour painting
by Sandy Robinson

For a moment I thought you were speaking about the Bible! Speaking of myths, that is… and certainly much of the modern day art is in a mythical vein or total fantasy. This is found not only in two-dimensional work but video and movie genres, much of it with heavy violence. And, speaking of the Bible, I like to quote Pope Leo X who said in 1513, “It has served us well, this myth of Christ.” Then Pope Leo XIII added in 1881, “The Church needs nothing but the truth.” There are 10 comments for Truth vs myth by Sandy Robinson
From: Sherry Purvis — Dec 03, 2013

Wow, Bible bashing……..

From: Sarah Atkins — Dec 03, 2013

It is not necessary to denigrate the beliefs of others while expressing your own, Sandy. It’s called civility and respect for one another, aka the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Your point about modern day art is a good one; you did not need to reference the Bible in order to make it.

From: mkevorkian — Dec 03, 2013

Thank you both for setting Sandy straight.

From: Michael Jorden — Dec 03, 2013
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Dec 03, 2013

Sorry to all you biblesists out there- but I’m a not/heterosexual male and ‘cristians’ continue to bash me and my kind pretty much every day. So you should expect it back- even though your religious certainty (not/faith) makes you often arrogant beyond measure. The persecuted ‘cristians’ have done a fine and dandy job at persecuting untold numbers of not/cristians. I’ll forward you some current stuff if you’re the least bit interested- unlikely though that will be…

From: Sherry Purvis — Dec 04, 2013

What you are, or are not is your personal business. But, in the same breath what I believe or don’t is not your business. I have not bashed you, nor would I, because I do not live your life, nor do you live mine. It still amazes me that my Christianity is up for grabs to bash from those who don’t believe. Shame on your for not having the civility to believe that, even I, can have a thought of my own that doesn’t have to be the same as yours.

From: anonymous — Dec 04, 2013

Arhh Bruce – the reason for you chosen art form is now clear.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Dec 04, 2013

To mr/ms anonymous… I learned to sew when I was 8- the same age I stated to experience 52 (out of 60) years of gay/bashing- primarily from heterosexist christians. I’ve always worked with textiles- needles- threads- cording- patternmaking- because they are the materials that speak to me. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do- find the materials that speak to us and then use them? So even I’m not sure how you mean ‘my chosen art form’ as it relates to who I am as a person. I may be gay- but I’m decidedly not female. I do recognize myself a in-between- though… However- Sherry’s comment requires some additional opinionating… Let me put a spin on that golden rule- with the fool’s golden rule! Treat christians exactly how they’ve been treating you for decades! Sherry honey- I don’t need to ‘believe’ in your Jesus- I’m practicing Gnosis- I’m having a DIRECT EXPERIENCE. And I can prove it. I’ve written an entire book about it. You have no power over me TO SHAME ME. I don’t believe in your system- at all. If christians had spent the last 52 years practicing the golden rule- YOU wouldn’t be getting from me what you’re getting. Too bad. For you. When you (all) stop bashing- maybe I’ll stop handing it back. Large groups get away with what they get away with because individuals can say and do what they want while the ‘group’ doesn’t have to take responsibility for everyone in the group- so some in the group can claim innocence. It’s a common practice/ploy that’s been going on for millennia. Jesus the human may have existed. If he did- then he may have turned into Jesus the martyr. But Jesus THE Christ is pure myth- built by christians much later on. Jesus wasn’t a christian. And until you grasp that Jesus the (potentially) enlightened master teacher is purported to have said ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’ and you then go within and find that reality yourself- you ‘believe’ in something you could find- but haven’t. But it is work and you will have to do it yourself and not take anybody’s word for it. That’s why it’s called self-work. However- if/when you do find it- you pretty much stop needing a ‘belief system’ to crutch on.

From: Sarah Atkins — Dec 05, 2013

It’s obvious Mr. Wilcox needs an on-line forum from which to spew his unhappiness with himself. I suggest that, henceforth, his comments be treated with the disdain they deserve. After all, how much validity should be given to someone who needs Tarot cards to bring his “conciseness” to the surface but can’t accept that others are entitled to their own beliefs and methods? Uh oh! Shouldn’t have said that! Now this art forum will be subject to a rant about Tarot cards and how stupid those of us are who do not understand them. We may even be offered material on that subject from his vast library (not that we’ll be interested). Can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next. Let’s just allow him to yammer to himself from now on since it’s obvious he isn’t capable of having an intellectual discussion.

From: Jane Smith — Feb 08, 2014

I’m disapointed, I’ve come back to read a number of newsletters which I’ve not caught up with due to life getting in the way. What should I find but two commentators being spiteful about each other. So sad that this kind of nastiness should spill into this otherwise wonderful foum. IF YOU CAN’T SAY ANYTHING NICE DON’T SAY ANYTHING.

  Archetype? Painter true to self by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada   I don’t know what archetype is as a painter. What I know is that I respond to the world around me and I paint where I get inspiration whether it be a person, a place or an idea. I strive to express my aspirations and be true to myself as much as I can be. I may take a long time to discover my archetype. If I could be something, it must be what I am supposed to be. I will continue to paint and be inspired and hopefully will inspire others. There is 1 comment for Archetype? Painter true to self by Edna Hildebrandt
From: Nancy — Dec 03, 2013

Here, here! Inspiration may be the real motivator. Trying to put things in a box puts limitations on the creative process, I think.

  Agenda for manipulation by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Maligne Lake”
acrylic painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Regarding the archetypes, I always wondered if Little Red Riding Hood was commissioned by an equivalent of the NRA. I suspect that archetypes are not just “keys to the understanding of why we live and act the way we do,” but also intentionally nurtured by those in power in order to manipulate people into a certain way of living and acting.       Use of myth in troubling times by Irvane Spracklin, Mt. Holly, NJ, USA  

watercolour painting, 14 x 22 inches
by Irvane Spracklin

I and four other artists definitely feel that myths hold important keys in understanding how we live and act and that the human race has a shared heritage and collected unconsciousness. As a result we have created a multimedia installation called ‘Spiritual Symbolism’ incorporating life-size sculptures, mandalas and masks in a meditative setting. The symbols that we use represent the universal language and the many images that occur across cultures, religions and civilizations. The public response to this art form has been very satisfying — probably because so many people are seeking solutions to the troubling times of today. This is a valued vintage response. There are 5 comments for Use of myth in troubling times by Irvane Spracklin
From: Jackie Knott — Dec 02, 2013

Stunning painting.

From: Sherry Purvis — Dec 03, 2013

Your painting is not only very moody, but so gorgeous.

From: rainy — Dec 03, 2013

I love this painting!

From: allan dunfield — Dec 03, 2013

what a magical painting

  Painter’s Progress by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey  

“Why II”
oil painting by Alev Oguz

Regarding choosing your archetype, during this heroic journey, the artist’s work reflects his/her life path. The persistence of failure teaches not to be carried away with early success. When one fails, there is no more to lose. Therefore, once accepted, failure opens a gate to new horizons: recharges and teaches patience. Patience neutralizes ambition, clears the mind, clears the soul, invites connection. Connection brings pure joy. Joy leads to creative energy. One creates and succeeds. Success heals the wounds of failures. Success brings self-confidence which cures insecurity and fear, which leads to power: the heroic power. However, if this feeling of power is in overdose, she fears losing the gained success. Fear of losing? The outcome is evident: one loses. One is back to the start of the journey. “Success is a journey, not a destination.” (Arthur Ashe) This is a valued vintage response. There are 2 comments for Painter’s Progress by Alev Oguz
From: Rebecca Stebbins — Dec 03, 2013

I find this comment insightful and helpful on multiple levels, both personal and professional. Wondering, though, what a “valued vintage response” is?

From: Comments moderator — Dec 03, 2013

A valued vintage response is one from the letter on first publication.

  It’s hard, kiddo by David Martin, Las Vegas, New Mexico, USA  

“Looking for me”
original painting
by David Martin

I recently moved from a very large studio in Las Vegas, New Mexico to a very small studio in Oakland, California. (Yes, relative rents had a lot to do with the change in size.) I have never felt the necessity to “lighten the load” as intensely as now. But gosh darn and %#@*^$& just the thinking about it hurts. It is hard, kiddo, no doubt about it. So, feeling as a kindred spirit to your Dad, I haven’t done it. Scotch would definitely help, but I had to give that up years ago. I know it’s coming but that doesn’t make it easier. Your email helped, though. Gotta have a burning party. There is 1 comment for It’s hard, kiddo by David Martin
From: Rose — Dec 03, 2013

Good luck….

  “The Internet is here” by John Mast, Vancouver, BC, Canada   You do a remarkable job leveraging the Web for good. It’s interesting but when I think of it I cannot come up with many better, more “great” uses of the Internet than your Twice-Weekly letters and the Painter’s Keys website. I was in university when the Web showed up in the library one day for the first time with a big sign over it with an arrow pointing at a PC — it said “the Internet is here.” I remember thinking… I wonder what that is?… who cares? Early courses in IT theory taught me that it would become a leveler for the people and that information would flow freely and that the people would be better off for it. While that is likely true in a lot of ways — The Painter’s Keys is one of the best really pure examples of how one remarkably passionate artist leveraged the Internet to share his passion in a generous and bold way. I have been a subscriber for a long time and, while I work in advertising and am not an artist by definition, I have gotten a tremendous amount out of them over the years. I have found many tips on creativity and colour and perseverance and have even upon occasion “gone to my room” when I really needed to focus. So this is me expressing my sincere gratitude to you for sharing your world and doing what you do each week! It’s easy to see from all the responses in the forum that you have been a profound positive influence on many artists and people around the world. Not many can say they lived a life and career so focused on progress and betterment of both their personal craft and their chosen profession. Very well played sir! (RG note) Thanks, John. With my daughter, Sara, gradually taking over, I’m excited that we’re going to see an even wider range of connectivity for creative people. And yes, John, we’re absolutely thrilled that this effort has been valuable to so many. For me, it has been such a joy (with the significant help of younger and brighter people) to make my contribution and that it has gone as far as it has. There will be some changes ahead, but believe me, we’re going to make it even better. There is 1 comment for ‘The Internet is here’ by John Mast
From: Sarah Wood — Dec 03, 2013

You’ve eloquently expressed what I feel about this website. Thank you.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Discover your archetype

From: Bobbo Goldberg — Nov 28, 2013
From: Jenny Adams — Nov 28, 2013

Thank you for this…heroes…yes. I call myself a painter as I feel I have not yet achieved the title of artist. However I do feel artists are heros in their ability to transcend the viewer. I am enjoying the journey and so appreciative of these newsletters along the way…thank you so very much!

From: Mona Stratos — Nov 29, 2013

The Bhagavad Gita tells the story of the warrior Arjuna. Krishna implores him to do all acts in His name and detach from the results. This is also great advise for the hero or warrior artist. Courage and bravery are the weapons of choice that are wielded inward. We are the battleground. The enemy is ourselves. This is the spiritual discipline of the artist. I had an instructor many years ago who said, “When you do a good painting that you really like, doubt you’ve done it.” I would like to say that goes for the stinker too.

From: Ned Fahimi — Nov 29, 2013

While Vincent may appear as a “herald” by introducing a bold new energetic and a full-strength-color way of painting, his style was really the result of his fighting his own demons. If you read the journals you will find all facets of a multiple personality that includes “shapeshifter” the desire to please collectors and for himself to become successful. Perhaps the Vincent we like best is the joyous appreciator of life, the enthusiast for his personal focus, and his persistent grappling at understanding what he was trying to do.

From: Dave Maynard — Nov 29, 2013

Vincent Van Gogh was the “hero” archetype, pure and simple.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox> — Nov 29, 2013

Hey Mona- why is it that gods exist (at all) that tell us ‘somehow less-than humans’ to ‘do all acts in His name’ (your/krishna’s words) in the first place? Now detachment I understand. But really- being profoundly hooked up to the Creative Spirit- it’s still me doing the actual work- good or bad- good and bad. It may be- it is in fact- me and the creative spirit doing the work- working together- creating. But how is it we’ve given away our power to any god that implores us to do it in any god’s name? If everything is god (my understanding) then everything includes… me- and detached from the result- I AM doing the work.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Nov 29, 2013

Artists who were ahead of their time- as Vincent was- used to end up as Vincent did- unrequited. And it took Vincent’s sister-in-law many years after his death to get him recognized as the Archetypal Artist he was- it didn’t just happen- somebody made it happen. Question this… If Vincent just kept doing the work because doing the work was simply the thing he had to do- (unrelated to his consumption of toxic paint) why is it so difficult to recognize that phenomenon as it’s happening- rather than at some distant point beyond our own deaths- and why does that actually make us heros? We are- after all- just doing what we came here to do? I hate to break it to you all- but making us heros intentionally sets us apart as better-than. The hero may be isolated at the top of the heap- but the hero’s still isolated.

From: Julia — Nov 29, 2013

I am a hero- oh it sounds so special! I am rather White Rabbit from Alice ” I am late, I am late for an important date, no time….” kinda hero. Alone, fighting for the greater cause, romantic type, misunderstood, prone to be overwhelmed by feelings, spontaneous and definetely an artist in the journey to the greater self – ” Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”.

From: tatjana — Nov 29, 2013

The thing with being a hero is that it comes packaged with archetypes and other stuff that comes with it – just like those cable bundles. I find that I can only be my own self.

From: Jackie Knott — Nov 29, 2013

I don’t see artists fitting that neatly into such narrow archetypes and prefer Jung’s observations on individualism. Genre, technique, and mediums available today are so diverse we might need a more contemporary list. Like so many aspiring singers did in his day, Elvis Presley went into a recording studio in Memphis. Anyone could make a record for a fee. He was asked, “Who do you sound like?” and he said, “No one.” Exactly. Elvis Presley was one of a kind; he was all of those archetypes and none of them … Elvis was something else altogether. Those artists that broke through the molds are the memorable ones, of course. If you can’t fit yourself into any of those archetype classifications that may be a good thing.

From: Carol Spicuzza — Nov 30, 2013
From: Rick Rotante — Dec 01, 2013

Today the Artist is his own archetype. He/she fights for the understanding and appreciation of what Art is and can be. For that matter what Art should be for those willing to take the time to see it. Art has the ability to transport, to edify, to illuminate to transport the mind. Where the mind goes the body follows. Art is something different for all people. It speaks to your inner most hopes, ideas as well as to your fears. Through Art, we see life not as it is but as we see it. Artists make it possible to see things normally not noticed. To focus in on a moment in time. Conversely, Artists make us see universally what can be. Today most artists are second class citizens. Some of this is our own doing. Much of it is because society has taken their eye off the ball and followed more pecuniary ideas. Idealism is almost a dirty word in life as well as in art. Artists at one time were the conscience of society. They showed the world as it was and as it could be.

From: Barbieh — Dec 01, 2013
From: Sook Park — Dec 01, 2013

These days so many artists are “tricksters” masquerading as sincere beings. They are not true to themselves and change their style and direction in order to please markets and fashion. Maybe it was ever thus, eh?

From: Colleen Bleinberger — Dec 02, 2013

I am new to your blog, but can’t tell you enough how meaningful it is to read your thoughts. They are helping me to define my own feelings and views.

From: Betty Covington — Dec 02, 2013

I like what you wrote today Robert… and I think I’m a Hero Artist…

From: David Skrypnyk — Dec 02, 2013

This article is splendid! It goes straight into my collected writings of Robert Genn! But first I shall pass it on to some youngsters in need of mentoring.

From: Caroline Planting — Dec 02, 2013

Love it. Made me try to figure out who I am really.

From: Laura Power Davies — Dec 02, 2013

Just saw the photos of you and Robert burning old works – wow. Feels right to do it but how do you choose? Writing from Australia.

From: Nadi Spencer — Dec 02, 2013

And speaking of heroes Robert, you are mine. From your glorious tome of letters to your amazing artwork, you have made a huge impact on my life. Please give yourself a hearty whack on the back.

From: Kathleen Dawson — Dec 02, 2013

I like today’s post too because you are a colourist a master of colour, an explorer? Painting is so much about colour and value among other things but colour is always a challenge. Decades ago you stood in front of one of my paintings at the Federation Of Canadian Artists.I was standing nearby and you commented that ,this artist,(me) understands colour. I never forgot that compliment/comment that day although you were unaware that I heard it but the comment has been with me all these years and because you said it I believed it and was encouraged to paint.

From: Valerie Vanorden — Dec 02, 2013
From: Sue Smith in Arnprior Ontario — Dec 02, 2013
From: Peter — Dec 02, 2013

Thanks for that one, exhilarating.

From: Lynda Lehmann — Dec 02, 2013

And you are a “threshold guardian,” Robert, as well as a “hero-” and “mentor-artist.” Are there categories for exemplary “communicator” and “facilitator-artists”?

   Featured Workshop: Lin Souliere
120313_robert-genn Lin Souliere Workshops Paint in a small 800 year old village in Tuscany, Italy — and then sketch Florence and San Gimignano.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.


oil on linen, 44 x 72 inches by Edward Minoff, 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.

“Fishing pond at Airlie”
pastel painting
by Frances Stilwell

That includes M. Frances Stilwell of Corvallis, OR, USA, who wrote, “Anyone who has the guts to destroy substandard paintings is a hero. One of my misguided mentors told me never to throw anything away. Sometimes I’ve been glad for his advice, but as my studio fills up, taking space from new art, I wish I could throw out that mentor’s advice as well as some of the paintings.”

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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