Five surprises


Dear Artist,

When Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer discovered reinforced concrete as a way to construct shapes that seemed previously impossible, he was suddenly free to explore his vision of form following beauty. “The artistic capability is so fantastic — that is the way to go,” he said of his new favourite material. “There is no reason to design buildings that are more basic and rectilinear, because with concrete you can cover almost any space.” Niemeyer’s projects — mid-century houses, government buildings, the United Nations in New York City, even Brazil’s new capital city — were lauded and criticized as “sculptural monuments” as Niemeyer pushed the boundaries of structural logic and explored with abandon the aesthetic possibilities of concrete. “I search for surprise in my architecture,” said Oscar. “A work of art should cause the emotion of newness.” Here are a few surprises:


International Cultural Centre, Asturias, Spain
opened in 2011
architect Oscar Niemeyer(1907-2012)

Colour surprise: Establish a mother colour, or even the absence of colour by staying within one side of the colour wheel or within a narrow value zone. Now, surprise with a punctuated colour block or rhythmic meandering of the mother colour’s complementary. In painting, think of a field of Cadmium red Indian paintbrush peeking through a blue-green forest, or a cerulean sky cutting a reflecting pool in a snow patch.


Contemporary Art Museum, Niteroi, Brazil
completed in 1996, architect Oscar Niemeyer

Surface surprise: Is there a way of giving your audience an extra pleasure close up? Without getting mired in weeds, details add interest — even awe — by way of unexpected surface quality. In painting, scumbling, transfer, characteristic line, glazing, shine, soaking, resist and impasto all add an abstract poetry, attracting the possibility for a second appreciation from those who step up to your work and look closely.



Oscar Niemeyer Museum, Curitiba, Brazil
inaugurated in 2002

Omission surprise: “My ambition has always been to reduce a building’s support to a minimum,” said Oscar. “The more we diminish supporting structures, the more audacious and important the architecture is. That has been my life’s work.” In painting, consider what can be left out and what can be described in the pause of your brush. “The secret to being a bore,” said Voltaire, “is to tell everything.”

Shapeshifter surprise: I once entered a gallery to get a closer look at what I thought were paintings — large, graphic colourfields — only to discover upon closer examination that they were sewn blocks of denim and screen-printed silk.


Popular Theatre, Niteroi
home town inauguration in 2007
architect Oscar Niemeyer

Contrapuntal surprise: Oscar traded his mentor Le Corbusier’s straight lines and blocky shapes for the curves and flowing swooshes of Brazil’s mountains and crescent beaches. By drawing from the aesthetics of home, he made magic from unexpected form while expanding upon his most familiar notions of movement and nature. Juxtaposing lushness and austerity, excitement and calm, playfulness, elegance, gravitas and joy exceeded the expectations of what a mere building could accomplish. “Curves are the essence of my work because they are the essence of Brazil, pure and simple.”


The Palácio da Alvorada, official residence of
the President of Brazil, built from 1957-8



PS: “Surprise is key in all art.” (Oscar Niemeyer)

Esoterica: Oscar Niemeyer was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907 and started drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil. He studied architecture while working in his father’s typography house and interned with a group of Brazilian architects who had become interested in the advancements of modernist building and design materials in Europe. In a twist of fate, Le Corbusier was invited to Rio to consult on the firm’s commission for Brazil’s new Ministry of Education — what would be the first state-sponsored modernist skyscraper in the world. After imploring his superiors to allow him to participate, Oscar was given the job of helping Le Corbusier with his drafts. The impression he made established him as one of the leading artistic voices in what would become Brazilian modernism. Oscar Niemeyer died in 2012, 10 days short of his 105th birthday, still overseeing ongoing projects from his hospital bed in Rio. “Architecture was my way of expressing my ideals: to be simple, to create a world equal to everyone, to look at people with optimism, that everyone has a gift.” (Oscar Niemeyer)


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.

“My architecture is easy to understand. And enjoy. I hope it also is hard to forget.” (Oscar Niemeyer)



  1. Sara;

    One of my favourite letters from you……. as I begin a new series of paintings I am searching for all of these elements in my work….. I will need to hang this one on my inspiration wall that I use to remind me of my day’s challenges …. thank you .


  2. I read this with such excitement! All I could think about were the incredible megalithic ancient structures I found when I was in Colorado recently. I published many photos of them in my last newsletter. As an artist I was blown away by the superb balance, symmetry and creative thought that went into these amazing works of art. Who knows when they were created. I know I stumbled on something very important, at least to me as an artist and nature lover. Color is so important in art. It is what drives me, but when I saw these huge manipulated rock formations that were shaped and placed somehow to showcase a mountain, even at a distance of many miles, I was blown away. Whoever these artists were, they must have used this place for the organization of these huge megalithic “rock formations” for a reason long forgotten, but with a knowledge of creative beauty to withstand eons of time. What an honor it was to see. Thank you Sara.

  3. A favorite letter about an awesome innovator and man of character! I LOVE his work. This letter feels like a gift. Thank you Sara!

  4. Sara,
    You were brilliant in how you used these examples of architectural genius to make powerful points that relate to all art. Thank you.

  5. As an engineer who, perhaps should have taken up architecture, and a recent visitor to Rio, I appreciated your link between architecture and art. As we have seen from the Romans, architecture often reflects the freedom with which a given political philosophy allows the architect to wander past cost objectives. In North America have an expression that is less lofty in most cases, because of an overarching concern with profit. Most of Oscar N.’s works were of course government funded and thus had that freedom. I have seen some of the older projects, and would say that concrete sometimes does not age well, when exposed to the elements. It needs maintenance, especially of painted surfaces. Graphic art and painting has the advantage of being indoors. Of course with my interest in architecture I also drifted to painting mostly watercolor.

  6. Thank you Sara! I too will be hanging this in my studio for inspiration. You also inspired me in a different way as well. I frequently attend events at the beautiful center for the performing arts in my area called The Egg in Albany NY. I have always loved the building which looks more like a sculpture and after reading your post I looked up its’ history and designer, Wallace Harrison. I have a greater appreciation for this stunning building because of your post. Thank you.

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joanne-hastie_workshop-1Join Vancouver artist Joanne Hastie to sketch the landscapes of Italy. Joanne will share her art process during this 7 day adventure.

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Featured Artist

I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.


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