Finding spirit


Dear Artist,

Early in my career I came to know an artist by the name of Lawren Harris. On one of our walks together he told me that he thought paintings came out of themselves. He explained that the painting you are doing right now is the springboard for the next and the next after that. When paintings follow one another, in series or in similar format, they “learn” from one another. A useful technique is to vary the approaches to the development of the series. The whole idea, as I’ve come to understand and apply it, is to better extract the spirit of subjects. Here are a few methods:

Canadian Fine Art resale market

Untitled abstract painting, 1950
by Lawren Harris (1885-1970)

Exploit a subject or a theme to its greatest potential by bringing all possible reference to bear — then put aside the reference and create again using the potential of your unfettered imagination. Be prepared to dig around and try this and that. Time and again this third-generation work will gain “importance” and be superior to its precursors.


Untitled abstract painting, 1952
by Lawren Harris

Attempt to see through the prima facie material in front of you. So many artists are capable of rendering the obvious surfaces of nature. They may even bring great skill and facility to the job. Spend a minute or perhaps an hour truly looking at a subject and asking what may be the exploitable potential of the material. I’m thinking of concepts like “struggle,” “rebirth,” “monumentality,” “humility.” There are hundreds of these words, and, whether you recognize them or not, they can be found in the crevices of your individual personality. Further, you may wish to add an idea or a motif that was not remotely there in the first place. It’s this kind of thinking that makes the act of art truly satisfying and exciting, and if this means anything to you it lifts your work so it connects with the sensibilities of others who pass along in the human stream.


“The Spirit of Remote Hills” 1958
abstract painting by Lawren Harris

Best regards,


PS: “It was an ever clearer and deeply moving experience of oneness with the spirit of the whole land. It was this spirit which dictated, guided and instructed us how the land should be painted.” (Lawren Harris)

Esoterica: Leaving this green island, this Ireland, I pack my sketches, my records, to my home studio on another continent. From these, from my acquired feelings, from everyone and every place that I’ve touched, I’ll try to build something of value. All of this may only result in one painting. Some of us live with this scantiness. My hope is that whatever I make will exemplify in some way the spirit and magic that I found while here.

This letter was originally published as “Finding spirit” on June 15, 2001.

Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.


And light has no weight,
Yet one is lifted on its flood,
Swept high,
Running up white-golden light-shafts,
As if one were as weightless as light itself –
All gold and white and light. (Lawren Harris)



  1. of course I have always loved and studied the group of seven’s ability to capture the spirit of this place, but I admit being blown away by the power of Harris’s abstracts when I saw them at the VAG…. His abstract works are that vision of spirit in all that he painted that came before and you can absolutely feel this power….

  2. What a beautiful, inspirational segment! Truly defining the undefinable essence of creativity….it grows by default, and the artist is the catalyst and vehicle of its development. When fueled by the passion of creation….one feels potent and irrepressible….a dangerous exciting experience! It’s no wonder we cannot stop….no matter what our audience might think of our results. We have become “weightless as light itself”.

  3. Loved this piece – thank you! I’ve just returned from a 3 day river trip in the mid Yukon (where we live). It was simply spectacular and my heart swelled with each bend in the river as the fall scenery became ever more beautiful. It’s like being in a ‘holy’ space and I’m ever grateful. I believe that Emily Carr and her cohorts in the Group of Seven must have had a similar sense of AWE. Seeing Lawren Harris’s work is like falling into this space.

  4. Thank You, thank you, thank you for this post. I’ve been painting abstract painting from nothingness, no subject, no object, no preconceived ideas of what the end result would be, just following the flow of the paint and my instinct. I met with challenges, and sometimes I felt as if the painting was talking to me, arguing, and resisting to move forward, which caused me to paint the canvas over and allowed it to guide me. Some of the outcome did not make sense to me, so I stopped painting it. And another time, after two or three paint over, it pushed me to a place I’ve never been or attempted to paint. After reading this post, I will test the methods, and see what comes out on my canvas. In gratitude,

  5. Such beautiful and moving words! Lawren Harris’s abstracts emanate such power and a sense of timelessness. Seeing them at VAG a few years ago was an extraordinary experience and one I will never forget. I love the idea of meditating on a scene in nature and trying to connect with a concept…and ultimately striving to convey the feeling through the subject on canvas. I feel inspired to slow down and look more closely before diving in to composition!

  6. This was a wonderful article in content and paintings. Thank you for sharing it! Very inspiring and encouraging to us mortals!

  7. What great inspiration to pass on through the living river we call Art. Lawren was able to verbalize what many have felt and Bob was able to pass that information on to many more. We get things every day we live from our teachers and role models. This forum never gets old.

  8. I have to confess that I’m not ‘into’ the analysis and psychology of art, I just do it and love the result, or not! So I can’t really comment on all the above, but you’ve introduced me to Lawren Harris, and I love the work! Thank you so much! I love abstraction as well as all other styles and kinds of creativity, but it’s not often I’m introduced to someone totally new who’s work I really enjoy, so thank you!

    Jo Hampshire UK

    Creating My Odyssey – Liberating the Real Me After Thirty Years Of Depression and Anxiety

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Batik Workshop at Rancho Santa Cruz
October 8, 2018 to October 13, 2018


Participants will have 6 days to explore and immerse themselves in the ancient art of Batik. There will be a $30 materials fee.  The instructor is renowned artist Dikki Van Helsland, who has taught throughout the US and Germany.  She is represented by several galleries in Arizona.

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