Art not for the faint of heart

Dear Artist, I’m crouched on a stack of easels with eleven other painters on the top of a snow-clad mountain waiting for a thumping Bell 212 helicopter to rise away in a swirl of whiteout. At times like this, thoughts run through one’s head.

With places like this, who needs a studio.

There’s the sheer brutality of this great gas guzzler with its thundering twin jets and the swish swish swish of the killer windmill just off the top of our precious little heads. The other thought is the outrageous privilege and joy of being whisked to places you would never otherwise see — often with an altitude change of more than 4000 feet — all in less than ten minutes. Then there’s the miraculous and eerie silence when your chopper leaves and you’re simply king of the world, gobsmacked with 360 degrees of infinitely paintable magnificence. With a lump in your throat, only humbling praise comes easily.

This is what happens to an acrylic palette when the snow flies.

We’re staying at the Bugaboo Lodge, high in the Purcell Range in southeastern British Columbia, Canada. Bundled up for the blown snow, hail, and sharp, sub-zero winds, we have the added fun of painting in mittens. Another spot included sunshine, soaring golden eagles and alarming bear scat. Daily we’ve staked out our territory, not too much out of sight or earshot of one another, coming to grips with our private terrors of plein air. No matter what we’ve done or accomplished in this life, we take our winnings and our weaknesses to the peaks and carry with us the methods and processes of our prior learning, great and small, right and wrong. Breathless in the high altitude, tears in her eyes, a painter turned to me and said, “I simply can’t do justice to this place.”

Liz Wiltzen holding down the good stuff

“Calm down, settle down, get into the flow, feel the magic; today’s second painting will be better than your first.” At times like this I think of the words of the Austrian-Canadian mountain guide and climbing pioneer Konrad Kain, (1883-1934) who, well before helicopters, was first to the top of many of these spires: “The guide should never show fear, should be courteous to all and should always give special attention to the weakest member of the party.”

Liz Wiltzen’s Alla Prima Pochade Box made by Ben Haggett

Best regards, Robert PS: “Whatever is in any way beautiful hath its source of beauty in itself, and is complete in itself; praise forms no part of it. So it is none the worse nor the better for being praised.” (Marcus Aurelius) Esoterica: The rules apply. Find a good place to sit or stand (look for shelter, sunshine, more than one visual opportunity). Rotate through the compass and look well at this and that. Anticipate changes of light. Check out possible foregrounds and possible design potentials. Lay up an imaginary frame here and there. Half close your eyes and make value judgments — foreground, background, light and shade. Know that paintings need not be what is seen, but what will be seen. Squeeze out. Praise it with paint. Love it.   Heliwork in the Bugaboos

The ‘Best Brella’ plein air umbrella attaches to the easel


Light and shade. Don Cavin at Kickoff


Spectacular, clear light. Don Cavin and Ina Climpson


Paintings in progress for evening crit

          The Bugaboo Ten

Before our trip we had a wine and cheese reception at Canada House in Banff, Alberta. Left to right standing are Hormoz Poorooshasb, Laurel McBrine, Tatiana Mirkov-Popovicki, Sinisa Mirkov, Louise Swan, Sharon Stone, Dennis Fairbairn, Don Hodgins, Sally B. Pearson and Robert Genn. Nathan Cao had not yet put in an appearance. In front are the gallerinas Shauna, Amber, Katherine and Theresa. These painters are officially known as ‘The Bugaboo Ten’ and will have the results of their efforts in the Bugaboos exhibited in this gallery in May of next year.

    Up in the air about it by Laurel McBrine, Toronto, ON, Canada  

original painting
by Laurel McBrine

I always approach every painting with the hope of capturing that elusive special something that makes a work irresistible. That is what makes me want to continue plein air painting, despite the occasional discomforts — enjoying the pleasure of color, the beauty of nature and the tactile painting process, while wishing for a masterpiece. It is a good thing this is pretty much impossible to achieve, so we never lose interest in trying to get there and boredom is never an issue for a painter who always wants to improve their work. I am so happy I decided to go on our helipainting trip to the Bugaboos. It was fun, exciting, inspiring, frustrating, joyous and humbling — truly an amazing experience I will never forget.   How dare you talk about helicopters by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA  

“Winter, Mt.”
oil painting
by Peter Brown

We are mere mortals that walk and drive on this earth. We struggle while you flit around. Spit that silver spoon out of your mouth. Spit it out! We live in the real world. We humans have been making art for 35,000 years. How dare you to talk about helicopters. My son and I hiked up to a glacier when he was nine. I walked up there last year and I am 60 years old. I can paint anything. I do not need a helicopter.     There are 3 comments for How dare you talk about helicopters by Peter Brown
From: Darlene Derksen — Sep 14, 2010

True. It is a very privileged experience that not many artists can afford.

From: tikiwheats — Sep 14, 2010

Phooey!!!!! I’d take a helicopter up to those gorgeous mountains to paint anytime, esp if I had the money! A few years ago I rode horseback, w/others in Colorado, up to 11,000 ft and just the experience of nature and the view is an unforgetable, treasured memory.

From: Verna — Jul 22, 2012

TFB!!! The older I get, the less tolerant I am of intolerance. I’m 66 and flying high (to the Bugaboos in 2012 with Robert and Liz). In a helicopter. With another 4 or so billion years left for our sun/star to shine in the Milky Way Galaxy, surely it will all work itself out. Relax Peter. Rejoice in all that our beautiful planet has to offer in whatever way brings you joy and let others do the same. PS. How extremely grateful to the Universe I am for my silver spoon! And it is equally joyful to share it with others.

  Finding her own way by Kelly Walker, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“Fresh on the vine”
original painting
by Kelly Walker

I was so glad to see the photos of all those happy faces. I looked and was thankful, those seemingly normal people, those whom I love in my heart. I know only one of these faces, and yet I imagine them standing around me with love — sending me magic as they push their way through their own mountainous struggles and pains. I am reminded of Franklin Carmichael while he was in the bush painting with the Group of Seven. He was the “train runner,” the one who went for the supplies that were tossed off at a certain spot. He was the first of the last. I am happy at weddings, sad at funerals, glad to hear a baby cry and yes, I truly enjoy those friends of yours — those imaginative, wayfaring painters who help create a stronger vision, allowing me to find my way home. There are 3 comments for Finding her own way by Kelly Walker
From: Linda Mallery — Sep 13, 2010

Love your painting!

From: Vyvyan in NC — Sep 14, 2010

me too, beautiful!

From: Delores Hamilton — Sep 14, 2010

Luscious and delicious painting.

  Basis for studio work by Don Hodgins, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada  

“Bugaboo peaks”
acrylic painting
by Don Hodgins


Photo of Don Hodgins
taken by Louise Swan


“Louise at Hourglass Lake”
acrylic painting
by Don Hodgins

          I got a lot out of that Bugaboo trip. The experience was worth every penny, and helped convince me of the value and pleasure of plein air work. We’ll see what evolves by way of paintings — I’m not much impressed with what was done in the field, but they will serve as the basis for some studio work. I am also looking forward to the arrangement we have set up for the exhibition of the “Bugaboo Ten” work at Canada House in Banff next May. There are 3 comments for Basis for studio work by Don Hodgins
From: Linda Mallery — Sep 13, 2010

Please tell me you photo shopped in the bear!

From: Angela — Sep 14, 2010

someone has a sense of humour!!

From: Brenda — Sep 14, 2010

Is this for real?? (the BEAR, I mean)!!!

  Life changing event by Hormoz Poorooshasb, Surrey, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Hormoz Poorooshasb

The Bugaboos was truly a life changing event. I think it is appropriate to make some observations and give advice to my fellow artists who may be going on a workshop for the first time: 1. Do not try to compare your work with the others. For if you think you are inferior to them you will go into a deep depression. 2. Be aware of the workshop rules: It is not a painting class. It is an environment for you to enhance your ways. Paint the way you usually do and the Master Painter will give advice on how to improve your art. Your way of painting will get new dimensions even if overall it remains the same: yours.

3. Go prepared. Although we had been advised to bring warm clothing, I had not brought enough and I experienced cold as I had never done before (except perhaps in the Iran-Afghanistan border where I was on a geotechnical consulting job.) So I told myself as soon as get back I’m going to paint me a warm Bugaboo. And I did. There are 2 comments for Life changing event by Hormoz Poorooshasb
From: Liz Wiltzen — Sep 13, 2010

Hormoz, this is absolutely lovely, you have captured the spirit of Hourglass Lake perfectly. Bravo!

From: Laurel Alanna McBrine — Sep 15, 2010

Very wise advice and love your warm Bugaboo painting!

  Bonded Bugaboo Buddies by Louise Swan, Langley, BC, Canada  

“Golden Ears Winter Magic”
acrylic painting
by Louise Swan

No one really wants the helicopter to show up at the end of the day, but we are plein-aired-out and hungry. The Lodge will look after those needs with their gourmet meals and toasty warm facilities and appointments. I don’t want to leave here and I can feel I am descending into serious Bugaboo withdrawal. One cannot have experienced this incredible place without gaining an emotional attachment that is hard to overcome. We artists went there not knowing each other, but at the end of our adventure we are a group of Bonded Bugaboo Buddies forever with an unbeatable shared experience. It is often said that the mind once expanded never regains its original shape. Well, that just fits! There is 1 comment for Bonded Bugaboo Buddies by Louise Swan
From: Anonymous — Nov 09, 2011

This painting is wonderful Louise! THe experience of going on that trip sounds exquisite.Oh how I WANT to join this group…Will have to put money aside to get there! Stephanie Gauvin

  Frozen yogurt by Susan Delaney, AB, Canada   The mountaintop experience sounds fantastic. I’m curious as to how you deal with the freezing of water, paint and brushes in sub-zero plein air situations.

(RG note) Thanks, Susan. On this trip the air hovered around zero in only a few places higher up. In others it was warmer. In super cold, acrylic paint tends to granulate — ice crystals I guess — so the solution is to keep moving it around. Hot water from a thermos stays unfrozen for some time in a yogurt cup. If ice forms on your paint water, break it. I keep my brushes in water while I paint so the constant in and out keeps things happy. Our oil painters had no problems. Hypothermia can catch up on any static artist. Good to get up and move around, drink tea, etc. Bears prefer warm people.   Terrific trip! by Sharon Stone, Victoria, BC, Canada  

Sharon Stone at Hourglass Lake in The Bugaboos

The trip was terrific! I learned a lot — not just about painting either. Every difficult but rewarding trip you take gives you insight into yourself. Probably the last time I felt that way about a trip was a camping expedition throughout the continent of Africa.       Got an idea for a project by Alana Cullen, Halifax, NS, Canada  

“Martinique Beach, Nova Scotia”
by Alana Cullen

If I could afford it, I would get permission from the Nova Scotia Government to paint and photograph the Sable Island horses on Sable Island. Only a few are allowed to go there and we buy up their photographs. To my knowledge, no one has actually painted there en plein air.     There are 2 comments for Got an idea for a project by Alana Cullen
From: Georgina Hunt — Sep 13, 2010

I would be very interested in an artist event there. two loves wild horses and painting. Email me

From: Rae Smith — Sep 14, 2010

I too would love to go there, a few years ago a friend of mine went there with a Dalhousie U group , she loved it , but she was not an artist.

  Head-wise and game-wise by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany  

“Centre Piece 1”
original painting
by Faith Puleston

I came across this in Andrew Agassi’s autobiography Open and think it might help a few of us: “You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times. It’s all about your head, man. With your talent, if you’re fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you’re going to win. But if you’re ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head-wise, you’re going to lose, lose, lose.” Although people talk about being creative as though it were a headless achievement, I think this quote does actually hit the nail on the proverbial head. Examining the achievements of the achievers, there’s no denying that a lot of their success lies in the marketing, and if that isn’t head stuff, I’d like to know what is. I’d quarrel with the mathematics in that percentage calculation, but I can’t quarrel with the message. But the other point is also salient, I think. I know from my own experience how negative the striving for perfection can actually be. Self-criticism, certainly. Self-annihilation, no. But how does one know when that line has been crossed? Is it now time to re-gesso those 50 colorful canvases that have been hanging around for longer than I care to reveal? Or do I show mercy yet again? The answer must be in that quote. It’s a case of what Agassi’s coach Brad Gilbert calls “meat and potatoes.” When you play tennis, you don’t have to beat the world, just make the opponent fall down (= lose) or better still, let him lose. When you make an artwork, you don’t have to be better than Rubens or Picasso or anyone else for that matter. But maybe just a bit better than the worst thing you’ve ever done yourself and then a helluva lot better at selling it! There is 1 comment for Head-wise and game-wise by Faith Puleston
From: Brenda — Sep 14, 2010

NOW THAT’S A PAINTING!! I love it …..

  The Ballad of ‘The Bugaboo Ten’ by Dennis Fairbairn  

“The Lookout”
acrylic painting, 9 x 12 inches
by Dennis Fairbairn

Well now in the autumn of two ought and ten While led by Liz Wiltzen and Robert Genn A group of intrepid artists will set out to see What they can paint in the Bugaboos of BC. We number twelve with Wiltzen and Genn But Bob decided to call us “The Bugaboo Ten.” Now many posts followed when the trip was announced Most congratulatory and some envious they pronounced But others were angry and on the “Ten” they pounced “The Bugaboo Ten are wasteful Dabblers!” they pronounced “polluters and destroyers of God’s great work” “Each should stay home and not be such a JERK!” Now many others came to the defense of the “Ten.” Wiltzen join in but only silence from Genn. At the first my reaction was just to say, K.M.A! They had theirs, now I’d have my say. I’d get them back with my poison pen! But then I took a cue from Wiltzen and Genn.

“Cobalt Dreams”
acrylic painting, 9 x 12 inches
by Dennis Fairbairn

Liz had been respectful and conciliatory And now I’m sure as I write this story That Bob was too much a gentleman To roll in the mud of any dissention. So now in the autumn of two ought and ten We’ll be led by Liz Wiltzen and Robert Genn We, the painters known as “The Bugaboo Ten” A group of intrepid artists we’ll set out to see What we can paint in the Bugaboos of BC. It will be life altering of that I have no doubt. For expanding our horizons is what life’s all about. For those with envy, just trust that your turn will come around For those who scold I hope some enlightenment can be found. For those whose words were only supportive and kind I dedicate my trip to you and hope you find Encouragement in whatever you do Just as I found encouragement from you. So if you happen to be posting this September third I hope you’ll remember to send us a kind word. For now in the autumn of two ought and ten We’ll be led by Liz Wiltzen and Robert Genn We a group of intrepid artists will set out to see What we can paint in the Bugaboos of BC. We number twelve with Wiltzen and Genn ….But Bob decided to call us…”The Bugaboo Ten.” There are 2 comments for The Ballad of ‘The Bugaboo Ten’ by Dennis Fairbairn
From: martha abernathy — Sep 14, 2010


From: Cindi — Sep 16, 2010

Humor and graciousness always dispell envious spouts. Thank you, and I am dreaming of a day I cannot afford to participate in physically, but got to see through your eyes…


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Art not for the faint of heart

From: John Ferrie — Sep 09, 2010

Dear Robert,

in Vancouver, near my studio, is the glorious Millennium Water complex, formerly known as the Olympic Village. Right in front of the village is a decrepit old building called the Opsal Steel Building. I probably drive past these buildings at least once a day and never given the new or old buildings a second thought. I recently got a commission to paint this Opsal Steel building for a client and her chef husband and their new home. I immediately did some research into the building and its immense history. What I thought was a condemned building, turns out to be a Heritage Building! The problem was, the building was so big i could not get a good perspective nor a photograph to work from. The client had a young boy who loved Science World and that also had to be in the piece. I was trying to piece together various shots from either corner and I just wasn’t satisfied. Then I noticed, kiddy corner, a five story storage building with a roof top view that I was certain would give me the perspective I so badly needed. I walked in, bold as brass and told them I was an artist and that I was painting the building across the street and asked if I could be taken to the roof. The very nice fellow at the counter seemed to welcome me on his quiet day and whisked me to my perch. The shot was better than I was hoping for and turned out perfectly. I felt like the sails were full of wind and I was on course, full steam ahead. ok, so, I wasn’t on the top of a mountain and all i took was a photograph and then painted the piece back in my studio, but I was up pretty high! That is just me…today. John Ferrie
From: Nelson Damien — Sep 10, 2010

Artists more than deserve to experience the great highs. You, Robert, give everyone who is willing to listen, permission to do so.

From: Gavin Logan — Sep 10, 2010

To traverse by foot an increase in elevation of 4000 feet, with backpack and equipment, you are looking at at least four hours, more likely six. This would leave precious little time for painting unless you planned to stay up there overnight. The helicopter is a reasonable solution, though it seems like a plot for a new reality show.

From: Elizabeth Bettger — Sep 10, 2010

Anything is possible!!!!!

From: Gene Martin — Sep 10, 2010

Know that paintings need not be what is seen, but what will be seen. Squeeze out. Praise it with paint. Love it.

And weep for those who do not see, understand or feel what we do. Know they are diminished by it.
From: gail caduff-nash — Sep 10, 2010

holy cats! you got 11 painters & their easels AND THEIR WET PAINTINGS back into one helicopter?! wow. i’m not sure which part impressed me more, that or you all standing in your winter coats painting. way more than i want to experience first hand.

From: Terrence Graham — Sep 11, 2010

Nothing like new vistas to open up your sight. Somewhere I read that “For most people, seeing is used mainly for not bumping into things.”

From: Allan Beck — Sep 11, 2010

No one should miss the implications of “religious experience” that going to the mountains presents for us. I do not know of any other place on earth where one seems so attuned to the gods and the generosity of space and magnificence afforded to those of us who are prepared to seek and find. Sure, you can hike up there but this ‘helicoptering for sensitive souls’ is pure genius and should be encouraged. Congratulations to all you mountain artists.

From: Naomi Marc — Sep 11, 2010

It’s the proper use for helicopters!!!!!

From: Brian — Sep 13, 2010

More helipainting, less gunships!!!

From: Andre Pineault — Sep 13, 2010

You don’t want to look for sunshine as you mentioned in your esoterica, it’s rather better to look for shade. Sunshine dries the palette prematurely and often gives a glare that interferes with the production of art. If you are working without a sun shade it’s always a good idea to place the canvas in the shade and anticipate that the sun will not swing around and get on it later.

Limoges, Saint-André-du-Bois, France
From: Lauraine — Sep 13, 2010

What an inspirational story! I loved reading about the Helipainting trip and seeing your wonderful photos! Wow! it would be a great way to overcome artist’s block! lol Thank you so much for sharing this experience…and for all the sharing you do in this bi-weekly letter. I look forward to receiving it each week!

From: Carol Lukitsch — Sep 13, 2010

My husband sometimes introduces himself by saying, “I’m her sherpa!” Yes, art takes you to amazing places.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Sep 13, 2010

As our plane was en route to Las Vegas last month, the aerial view was so clear. The Grand Canyon and the contrasting flat lands was so interesting. I thought to myself I would like to spend a day painting everything down there. We also had a day trip to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona and as we looked at the majestic view around us I felt humbled. How can I be so naive to imagine that I could capture the beauty in such a grand scale?

From: Dore’ Anderson — Sep 13, 2010

Sometimes I feel Like I live in my own world and come out of it every now and then for air, food, a bathroom break and entries in juried shows. However it is within ourselves and that “studenthood” you spoke of which keeps us on edge.

I teach painting and sometimes I’ll see a student that has progressed so much in 6 weeks, it floors me….sometimes i need to follow my own advice..
From: Tom Albano — Sep 13, 2010

I feel at times so lazy… but your weekly insights help to keep my painting spirits way up! Have a great, safe ride coming down from that beautiful piece of Canada. I have flown in helicopters many times and never got used to it.

From: Rebecca Abarr — Sep 13, 2010

I am a drawer, painter, potter and printmaker who happens to be working in weaving things from what I grow on our farm here in Iowa. You never know what you might be doing next! I work with 3 galleries and really enjoy the letters and perspective you give.

From: Dennis Fairbairn — Sep 13, 2010

Talk about sensory overload! I’ve been back a week and I still can’t get the smile off of my face. My mind races as the memories return. The awe inspiring magnificence of the mountains. The quiet loneliness of the wilderness. The thrill of tree top flight. The unease upon discovering still steaming bear scat. The biting pre-winter wind. My carefully placed paint running down the canvas like tears, as the snow flakes from a sudden squall melted there. The cold, the hot, the wet, the fog, the cloud, the sun….the elements in all their variety. And the colors, oh the colors!

Then, after a day filled with adventure upon adventure the camaraderie and feeling of security back at the lodge. Outstanding hospitality. Excellent food. Too good wine. Stories and plans and eager students hanging on every word as Robert and Liz demonstrated their considerable talents with pigment and brush. But most importantly new friendships. We laughed a lot and even cried a little. The experiences, the quiet courage, the talent, the dedication, the desire to do and be better. The generosity of time and talent. The compassion. The patience. These people are truly an inspiration to be around. Wow! Was I really there? Am I worthy of such a gift? Can anyone truly be worthy of such experiences? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know I am better for having been there and that it has changed me. No one can do this and not be changed by it.
From: Tatjana — Sep 13, 2010

The Bugaboos trip was an amazing adventure for me and my husband. Thanks Bob and Liz and “the 10” for your wonderful friendship! Hoping to see you all again in Banff next year!

From: Glenn Church — Sep 13, 2010

Paintings placed over fireplaces can work with proper design. There is a difference between wood burning fireplaces and others such as those using natural gas. To me, the fad of placing big, flat screen TVs over fireplaces in new condos in have visited is also questionable. How does one watch except by straining to look up constantly?

From: Perry Porter Solars — Sep 14, 2010

As was offered by others, I can paint anywhere. That being true, why not paint amid majestic scenery? I bring all my painting “problems” with me, my skill or lack of it, my age-failing body functions, and whatever attitude I wake with. But that stuff’s all at home as well, so, all things being equal, let’s head for the hills!

From: Bayard Throng — Sep 23, 2010

Mountain scenery serves lofty functions for the human psyche. Mountain climbers “aspire” to their tops, as if life itself was a climb, a sense of survivorship and communing with the gods. There have been about 20,000 attempts on Everest. Climbing to the top of things is hard wired in our souls. Can painting them be far behind?

From: Patricia Kellner — Nov 27, 2010

Robert, The photos of your painting trip to the Bugaboos are so inspiring. I would have loved to have been there. You have one photo of Liz painting and using the umbrella I invented — the Best Brella. I wonder if you would give me permission to post that photo in the photos section of my website, with a link back to this site and to Liz Wiltzen’s website? Please let me know. — Patricia
     Featured Workshop: Painting in the Bugaboos with Robert Genn
091010_robert-genn24 Painting in the Bugaboos with Robert Genn The date for next year’s Bugaboo Helipainting trip has been set for September 7 to 10, 2011. To obtain more information or to be kept up to date, please call Audrey Frey at 1 800 661 0252.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.

Curve on Swanson Rd. watercolour painting by Charlotte Rollman

  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 Helen Musser of Terrell, TX, USA, who wrote, “What an adventure in the Bugaboos. You people are forever young when you accomplish this paint out high.” And also Carol Lavoie who wrote, “What would I do without your inspiring and insightfully wise letters? The quotations you find and your wisdom-filled snippets of esoterica never cease to amaze me and make me take pause to fully digest them as the thoughts they contain spin around in my head all day long.” And also Vivian Chamberlin who wrote, “I recently unearthed a series of ‘plein air’ paintings I did in Mexico years ago. I could feel what it was like to sit there — sometimes on the curb — in all that sun and colour.” And also Mel Davenport of Cedar Hill, TX, USA, who wrote, “One must always keep on taking risks, enjoying adventures.”

acrylic painting
by Sally Browning Pearson


acrylic painting
by Sally Browning Pearson

            And also Sally Browning Pearson of FL, USA, who wrote, “What an experience!! You said a ‘trip of a lifetime’ and it was indeed! Thank you so much for all the advice and help.”    

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