Fellow Travellers


Dear Artist,

Two kayakers take particular interest in the operation of the floating easel. Brothers Karl and Guenter Schuerer have been on the Mackenzie and it’s tributaries for three months. Grey-bearded and bronzed, these are seasoned river-men who have shaken off their bindings in Bremen in exchange for a life of adventure in a wild and challenging land. Their folding boats are masterworks of neatness and organization — they have to be — they must explore efficiently.


oil painting by
Emile Gruppé (1896-1978)

It’s something to do with the acceptability of change. In the floating easel, work can take place during purposeful movement. The landscape and its various motifs unfold so there is not the inclination for one particular view. The essentials must be photographed quickly with the mind’s eye, for the next time you look up what you think you saw has changed. I think we may be on to something here.

The system helps me with what artists have traditionally called “the big picture” — the simplification of complexity. As I paint in the bow of the Alexander Mackenzie, slowly powered forward by Sara at the helm, I’m beginning to think that what I do back in the studio is too fussy and constipated. I’m not saying these Mackenzie paintings are masterpieces, but they are a direction. When it’s Sara’s turn to paint she mentions the calming satisfaction of doing one thing while accomplishing another.


oil painting by Emile Gruppé

The last time we saw the brothers Schuerer they had drawn their tiny craft on a beach at the foot of a great mountain. “We are going up,” Karl shouted across the rumbling river. He pointed to the top. When I’m painting again I’m thinking something about efficient brushwork — meaningful, cursive stroking that gets to the point.

Best regards,


PS: “Change everything, except your passions.” (Voltaire)


oil painting by Emile Gruppé

“Efficiency of a practically flawless kind may be reached naturally. But there is something beyond — a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill, almost an inspiration which gives to all work that finish which is almost art — which is art.” (Joseph Conrad)

Esoterica: In The Underpainter, Jane Urquhart says that her artist must stop in order to paint; a writer must stop talking in order to write. Sara and I are wondering what others might have to say about producing while on the move.

This letter was originally published as “Fellow Travellers” on August 22, 2000.


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.

“When I paint outdoors, I’ve always liked to let the paint do some of the work. I go for the big effect; and when I get it, I let the rest go.” (Emile Gruppe)



  1. I do love the concept of going for the big picture, and letting the paint do the work….I intend to do my work like that- at the start. However …the knowing when to stop, so often eludes me. I go into the details with pure pleasure, only to back up and feel all is much tighter than I intended…again! Maybe the key is painting outdoors, as things change too fast to fuss so.
    Incidentally, I adore those paintings by Emile Gruppe’…..talk about awareness of Notan! The compositions are great, too. Thanks for the exposure to such fine work– as well as the inspiring and well written letters. Such a gift!

  2. I am set up outside with a large linen canvas stapled to a thin piece of foam core, my palette is loaded with paint. I am working once again in one of my outside studios. I place my easels in different sheltered corners so I can have perfect “south” light. Working outside on this crisp fall day gives me an excitement that I do not think I will reach in my studio today. Hopefully the rain or cold will not become too vicious, or in I will go. Nature helps to feed this exciting process with my two completed oil sketches of Venice, Italy for reference. The wind, the sound of the dry leaves, the Bluejays cackling as they ready themselves, and me, for what is to come. I stop everything else beckoning now and begin quickly with brushes flying, a gift of artistic freedom is taking wing on this magnificent fall day. Join me!

  3. A peer of Emile Gruppe, as well as a close personal friend, was the equally wonderful painter, John F. Carlson. Look up his work as well – they were both masters of brushwork, composition and colour. Wow ! What a pair to learn from ! John F. Carlson wrote a book as well. It can still be found online if you look, and is a most worthwhile additional to any painter’s library.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/james-sclater_afternoon-sun_indian-point_IMG_4191-wpcf_300x225.jpgThe late afternoon sun on the tip of Savary Island's Indian Point highlights the design elements of the logs and the summer surroundings of the island.

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My enjoyment in representing the beauty of our world with strong design and bold colours is what drives my passion for my landscape painting of Savary Island and other parts of our amazing planet.


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