The fine art of fooling around

Dear Artist, Some of us, mature and otherwise, beg daily for greater foolery. Others, beginners included, often feel that’s what we’re doing anyway. This letter is about the business of fooling around as a vital part of the creative process. With accumulated understanding, the hard-won building of technical skills and the knowledge that you can accomplish the same ends with a variety of approaches, you give yourself permission to just “do it.” Here are a few ideas: Artists tend to get used to doing things in a certain order. Reverse, or at least vary, your usual order. The starting order, particularly, can often be quite arbitrary. You may have a tendency to finish certain areas or subjects within the work. Try to leave some passages unfinished in the knowledge that you will return to them later. Many of us have a tendency to “conceive and execute.” The “foolery way” is to make it up as you go along. Leave your options open. We also have a tendency to over-involve and obsess about things. Back off, move around, look around, loosen up. We all have areas in our work that disappoint and tumble toward the substandard. Often, another time, another piece of music, will reboot the quality. If your work depresses you, and depresses you more as you go, you need to get happy. Count your blessings. Count your winnings. Take a few minutes to fly the flag of optimism. I don’t know about you, but I often feel I’m getting drunk on a painting. It’s better to be a happy drunk than a mean one. We also have the tendency to get too serious. Besides asking “What could be?” you need to ask “How can I play here?” “Play,” said Martin Buber, “is the exultation of the possible.” Take chances. Fooling around includes making boo-boos. In most media you can pretty well always cover up your boo-boos. In this way, ours is a unique sport. Creativity, invention and exploration all stem from the same root. Not every member of the community puts forth these shoots. The business of invention is the act of trying this and that. The making of art needs to be a dynamic, evolving event, of joyfully trying this and that. To keep both yourself and your viewers interested, it has to be. Best regards, Robert PS: “Whoever wants to understand much must play much.” (Gottfried Benn) Esoterica: As most people know, I paint the landscapes of my life — mountains, lakes and motifs of the West Coast of Canada. While I try lots of otherworldly things that turn my crank, I try to include the ideas mentioned above, whether on location or in the studio, from life or out of my head. The same principles apply no matter what you’re painting. On Monday, I chose the theme, “Emblems of the Coast.” This morning I framed and hung them in our hallway.   Emblems of the Coast

A floor start with scraper and roller


That’s Zoe helping me out with some red


Things start to make more sense on the easel


I chose frames with significant ‘attitude’


Forms and motifs begin to find themselves


“Emblems of the Coast 1”
acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 inches


“Emblems of the Coast 2”
acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 inches


“Emblems of the Coast 3”
acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 inches

            Favourite work comes from play by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada  

“Big Snow, Big Air”
original painting
by Linda Muttitt

What I’ve discovered for myself to help me loosen around the edges, from the blurry to the sharp ones, is to play. I grab watercolour crayons, the ones that feel in hand like the wax crayons I loved to colour with as a kid, stick my finger in water and smear them around, cut the pages of my journal and find ways to express something without planning it out. It’s like a playbook for adults. Another thing that works for me is waking up, grabbing some water to slurp, head into the studio and grab any inspiration along the way and begin to move my brush — no drawing, no pre-sketching, just allowing myself to hardly wake up while I splash the watercolour around. Some of my favourite work has come with this play. It brightens and loosens my spirit, and I carry that joy into my larger paintings. The world feels new, so my paintings are looser and fresher. There are 2 comments for Favourite work comes from play by Linda Muttitt
From: Loretta West — Aug 31, 2010

And you carry that joy very well, as evident in this great painting.

From: Sarah — Sep 01, 2010

Second that.

  Switched to giant paintings by Jeri Lynn Ing, Red Deer, AB, Canada  

original painting, 72 x 48 inches
by Jeri Lynn Ing

After painting a One-A-Day painting for a year I realized that I had learned a great deal about perspective, color, brushwork and discipline. What I needed to relearn was the “fun of painting.” I decided to experiment with large, 6 x 4 feet canvas and pour, dip, throw, roll and drip the paint. I used the paintings from my previous year as the inspirational thumbnails and let the paintings carry me to their own conclusions. The results delighted me. I was both amazed and excited by the process. I did 17 of these large paintings and decided to show them as a group. I will always be thankful for this experience and I will forever carry this process with me to each of my paintings — while having a great amount of fun.   Break out with graffiti by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“Both sides now”
acrylic painting, 40 x 26 inches
by John Ferrie

This letter arrives at an unusual time. I have a few embers in the fire, some projects for the fall and a commission or two may happen but I’m twiddling my thumbs and trying to recapture my youth. Art supply stores are always a great inspiration to me, then again, so is a paying client. The other day I was intrigued by some graffiti supplies I found called “KRINK.” These are used by the young, hip-hop crowd for tagging and marking their territory. There are cool pens, squirt bottles, spray paints and all sporting different nibs and nozzles. The colours are supersonic and inspire images that pop with colour and drips. I am now looking at street tagging in a whole new way and rethinking my approach to canvas. So, I have my ball cap turned around backwards, I am wearing HUGE pants with my boxer shorts exposed and I have dusted off my Chuck Taylor’s. Ok, ok, I’m almost 50, I don’t look it, but I am fighting it every step of the way. There is 1 comment for Break out with graffiti by John Ferrie
From: Mary Bullock — Aug 31, 2010

Don’t fight it, John, Embrace it!

  Early bad advice by Vivian Chamberlin  

“Cliff Gilker Park”
original painting
by Vivian Chamberlin

In my early days of painting, a well-known artist in our town said, “Vivian, you should find your way to paint, stick with it and you’ll do well.” But I decided that was really boring. Although I have done representative paintings at times, sometimes I just “fool around.” What fun! I remember one painting I did in a class, a still life, colourful but “blah” so I put a dark coat over it and started wiping it with paper towel. Suddenly it was a city scene at night!     Let the dreamer come through by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA  

“I’m Listening”
original painting, 20 x 30 inches
by Angela Treat Lyon

In my 100-paintings project I started a couple months ago , I started out tight as a drum. I was so careful to get the details look just so, copying coast lines, boats, plants and people. After a couple of weeks of being so painstaking, my back hurt and I was bored. I had to loosen up and let the Dreamer come through. Today I had a breakthrough and scribbled my painting-of-the day #38, I Missed You. What fun! I don’t claim to be a great painter by any means, but I sure love it when I get to turn myself loose, fool around, have fun and paint something I like! There is 1 comment for Let the dreamer come through by Angela Treat Lyon
From: Alan Soffer — Aug 31, 2010

How great to try new things and discover who we are at the same time. I enjoyed your remarks on Robert Genn’s Clickback, as well as, the painting. Alan Soffer

  Easily bored by Shirley Fachilla, TN, USA  

“Advice from Cecilia Beaux”
oil painting 24 x 20 inches
by Shirley Fachilla

I’ve been fooling around with very static poses for about three years in an open portrait studio. There’s my problem. I want it to be a figurative life painting opportunity. I’ve tried several different avenues to make it more how I would like to play. I’ve painted the seated person from the back. I’ve incorporated two views of the same model on the same canvas. I’ve taken it home and put in a famous painting as a part of the composition. This is a lot of fooling around. I mostly love the open studio, I do fully love the people I paint with, the studio I paint in, painting people from life and the built-in play aspect, making a painting when you don’t know the model until you get there. But I am once again bored, bored, bored with the pose. And yes, I’ve tried for more posing variety but the studio owners won’t go along. Do you have a way for me to get more play into this open studio? (RG note) Thanks, Shirley. “Everything perishes, everything passes, everything palls,” says the old French proverb. While there’s truth in this for much of life, there need not be for us. You need to be on a mission. You, the artist, have been put in charge of not letting this happen. That’s why we’re so highly paid by those others who tend to get bored.   Blown away with music by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA  

“Bluegrass Jam 1”
watercolour painting
by Brenda Behr

In 2003, I moved from a large northern U.S. city to a small rural Southern town. That September the local arts council invited me over to do some plein air painting at Swinefest, a barbecue picnic fundraiser. “You make us look so real,” the executive director uttered. “What to paint, what to paint,” I asked myself upon arriving. “Aha! Those bluegrass musicians aren’t going to walk off that flatbed truck on which they’re performing.” In not too long a period, I did about eight of these paintings, some with three colors, the others with two. All but two of them sold that day. The remaining two paintings met with much success and opened a few doors for me. And all because I went a different direction that day, painting as fast as I can and in time to the music. If we can dance to music, certainly we can paint to it. In fact, I’d rather paint to music than dance to it. How ’bout we all start a show called “Painting with the Stars”? RG can take the lead. There is 1 comment for Blown away with music by Brenda Behr
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Aug 31, 2010

I love your musicians! And, I always paint to music — when in the studio — and rather loud music. But I will admit I do sing along too! I think it helps me to stay playful.

  Fooling around out and about by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA  

“Bull Filter”
by Alex Nodopaka

I’m a week away from going to Arles to act out Spartacus in the infamous coliseum. Then I’ll whisk myself and my Muse to Venice. I hear the floating detritus in the canals is picturesque. Of course I’ll try to counterweigh Pizza Tower… oops I mean Pisa. But the best time I reserve is for Mougins, France. I want to weewee where the famous & infamous have evacuated before me. And yes I’ll dance en rond on the Pont d’Avignon avec les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I hope Pablo won’t mind me picking one or all and turn a trick on each upon returning home by constructing my own erotic monumental sculpture.       Boo-boos and ‘maker’s marks’ by Jim Lorriman, Shelburne, ON, Canada  

“Maturing Nicely”
wood sculpture
by Jim Lorriman

As a woodworker who, somewhat successfully, messes around with wood I am constantly looking for different ways of doing things. Sometimes a new way ends up being a mistake. The public does not get to see these — the fireplace does. However, our “boo-boos” are a little harder to cover up than a painter’s might be so we call them “maker’s marks.” We are human after all although at times we feel like gods!       The wisdom of fun by BJ Bjork, Foxborough, MA, USA  

watercolour painting
by BJ Bjork

This week I found out that a painting I entered in a show at a very respectable venue had been rejected. This is a place where I am respected and have had many successes. My reaction at first was shock, then anger, and disappointment, until it hit me! This particular Juror wouldn’t know expression of joy and fun if a pie hit him in the face! I’ve been painting for over fifty years and have all the credentials, including the most important, the joy of discovery! This particular painting was done thoughtfully but very fast and in “the zone.” I studied it for weeks and found there was nothing more or less to be done to it without ruining the great value of freshness and expression. I have found in my years of painting and teaching that: 1. More rules, less fun. 2. More knowledge and experience, allows more fun. 3. Create, don’t copy! Some people just can’t have a good time. I see fun as a very integral part of wisdom. Watch the kids play. They win, they lose, but if they’re having fun it’s always a good game. “You wouldn’t worry what people thought of you, if you knew how seldom they did.” (Mark Twain) There is 1 comment for The wisdom of fun by BJ Bjork  
From: Brenda Behr — Aug 31, 2010


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The fine art of fooling around

From: Susan Holland — Aug 26, 2010

Get a three or four year old to play with your paints with you. It is a surefire way to learn new things…I mean YOU will learn new things from the child! Really! Other effective play-modes that work for me are: limited palette of usually unchosen colors, paint with something other than a paintbrush, make a rule for this one painting…i.e., all horizontal portions will be dotted and all vertical portions will be red!… , drop paint from various heights on a canvas lying on the floor, paint only negative space, use a wild color as a ground, use raw pigments with shellac or sandy varnish, paint impasto and then cover with plastic and walk on it. Try resist — watercolor and oil — wax and gouache — glue and washes–stains only — grainy,non-stains and lift-off to “find” the subject. Such fun, really. :) And you will find your head full of new ideas that will invigorate your future work.

From: John Ferrie — Aug 26, 2010

Dear robert, This letter arrives at an unusual time. I am between shows and just finished two very cool paintings, one was sent of to San Francisco and the other was sent to Sydney Australia. There are a few embers in the fire with some projects for the fall and a commission of two may happen. but I am twiddling my thumbs and trying to recapture my youth. I am on the eve of turning 49 next month and everyone I know is telling me Ill be 50 next year! I don’t think I will ever be old and still think i am 35. Art supply stores are always a great inspiration to me, then again, so is a paying client. The other day I was intrigued by some graffiti supplies i found called “KRINK”. These are used by the young, hip-hop crowd for tagging and marking their territory. There are cool pens, squirt bottles, spray paints and all sporting different nibs and nozzles. The colours are super sonic and inspire images that pop with colour and drips. I am now looking at street tagging in a whole new way and rethinking my approach to canvas. so, I have my ball cap turned around backwards, i am wearing HUGE pants with my boxer shorts exposed and i have dusted off my Chuck Taylor’s. ok, ok, Im almost 50, i don’t look it, but i am fighting it every step of the way. That is me today, John

From: Doug Mays — Aug 27, 2010

While conducting an ‘en plein air’ workshop in Charlevoix Quebec in 2008, I handed out signs to be placed in the student’s car windows to identify that their cars (off to the side of the road) we’re not disabled but rather there for a specific purpose. The signs would ordinarily read – Artistes au Travail (Artists Working), instead I made up signs that read Artists an Jeu (Artists Playing). it helped to set the tone.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Aug 27, 2010

The trick is to be aware of that balance of “conceive and execute” and the “foolery way”. They are both essential in the creative process, and the ratio is constantly changing. Too much in either direction, and the result is not interesting. The words of an older painter friend pop up occasionally to free me up: “Go ahead…waste some paint!”

From: Dianne — Aug 27, 2010

Even though these 3 new images are purely abstract, I can still see: your unique paint applications eg ‘Genn grays’, and other typical blends in small hits; objects, scenery that have appeared in your landscape paintings. And how unique to have Zoe’s touch.

From: Susan Harris — Aug 27, 2010

Thanks for your latest news letter on the fine art of fooling around. I found it very encouraging because that is what I do most of the time. I wrote about it on my blog.

From: Gregg H — Aug 27, 2010

I fool around in the composition portion of a painting. I get a little technical in the middle of the process, and in the end I get to fooling around again with the finishing touches. Once you have a painting drawn and painted, the real fun begins in the end, when you can be expressive with color. ( cheap plug, recent work )

From: Linda Slasberg — Aug 30, 2010

This came at a good time for me when I was really stuck on a painting and really not getting anywhere. I threw away the reference photo that I had been working from (that wasn’t working) and just threw a load more paint on my canvas, changed a few things and now it looks a lot better.

From: Lisa Schaus — Aug 30, 2010

I love the three pieces! Your letter and photos revived me. I delight in these recent works! I feel that a time may come again for me to able to become enveloped in my first love and longest affair of my heart. If a magic art witch could get me there, I will be forever grateful to rejoin my Soul.

From: Scharolette Chappell — Aug 30, 2010

I have been fooling around and came up with these shoes, now they are part of my “Beguiled, Beautiful yet Dangerous” series. They speak to womens’ issues or not, the pain we go through, self made or not. Blue hues of paint drip like blood down the heel they could be done in ruby red slippers, too. I re-purposed a bottle of Blue Saffire gin and I’ve been using wine bottles left over from art openings. Check out my new web at click on the galleries to see some of my new work. Your opinion is always appreciated!

From: Lee (Rusty) Mothes — Aug 30, 2010

I’m having a great time fooling around with 11 watercolor paintings I started on a visit to the Northern California coast this month. Though I’m physically back in Wisconsin, I’m still out there on those beaches while I tweak the details out of the dunes, rocks and surf I enjoyed so much.

From: Judith Lenzin — Aug 30, 2010

Thanks so much for this missive! I kind of wish I had read this, say, 30 years ago. Where I appreciate the accumulation of skill in what I do, quilt making, I do wish I had “fooled around” more along the way. I was way too bound up in following a methodical way of making my quilts. Now that I’ve gotten to be an age that people view as a more serious stage in life and work, I find myself far more playful in what I’m doing. And even with a somewhat “serious” subject like angel icons, I find there is so much satisfaction in playful expression and surprise. Sometimes lovely things come out of just going with the spirit of “what-the-hell”.

From: Paula Timpson — Aug 30, 2010

*Play Much Creating dreams, delivers us from ourselves; art brings in the good, refuses to accept the bad emotions rise we find true light igniting our pain to all humanity, bringing lasting ,real joy and hope! amen

From: Ben Nuttall-Smith — Aug 30, 2010

What a chair! I had one like that in one of my classrooms when I first began teaching well more than half a century ago. No wonder I never had backaches back then.

From: Hannah Pazderka — Aug 30, 2010

Wow… Now that’s an ugly chair.

From: Sheila Minifie — Aug 31, 2010

I think that’s a beautiful chair! It’s GORGEOUS….

From: Dianne — Aug 31, 2010

Ah -ha! It is the perfect chair, allowing for freedom of movement, positioning of the body – and I love those foot rests (:

From: Laurel R — Aug 31, 2010

I have a similar heavy duty gray-metal chair. The seat wobbles and the back-spring squeaks a bit. The embossed logo on the back has wings and says ‘Curtis’ in the middle. The seat and back are slightly curved and thinly padded against the metal. Regular swiveling wheels by BaSSicK. It’s much more comfy than my lighter smaller studio chair. Looks like 40’s or 50’s styling. I use it at my computer, but hadn’t thought of spinning to the other direction and using it at my easel! Thanks for the idea!

From: Joan — Aug 31, 2010

I love that chair! I have a guestion. I just finished with a juried art show and recieved a “merit award” due to the framing. The painting was a small oil of three pears. It was rather elegant looking and I framed it in a gold elegant frame. Can you refer me to new articles regarding this subject? Thanks.

From: Ginny — Aug 31, 2010

I have that chair! I’m gonna dust it off and give it a try. I just need to figure out how to make it higher and how to stop one caster from falling out. Thanks so much.

From: Rachel Meany — Sep 01, 2010

The soft chair is a function of our current obsession with comfort. This wasn’t so in the twenties when the flappers were thin and minds were alert. Vive the twenties chair.

From: M. V. Lyssenko — Sep 01, 2010

If you don’t make errors, you’re not making progress. The obsession with perfection is more to the point. That’s why so many need therapy. Let go, make boo-boos.

From: Alan Pither — Sep 01, 2010

Here’s to Gottfried Benn and Robert Genn

     Featured Workshop: Dee Beard Dean
083110_robert-genn2 Dee Beard Dean’s Plein Air workshop   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

La Esquina

oil painting by Tom Dickson

  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 Win Dinn of Creston, BC, Canada, of the Painter Turtle Gallery who wrote, “Of course we want to ‘fool around’ — that’s the joy of being an artist. When I abandon playfulness, I feel I’ve lost a vital part of what makes painting enjoyable. The creative process, for me, is essentially taking my inner child out to the playroom in the back of the gallery, throwing her a boxful of paints, mediums and collage fodder, and letting her play for a couple of hours. Yippee! Yahoo! Hooray!” And also Mel Malinowski who wrote, “One of my regular maxims to my students is, ‘If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.’ ” And also Don Cavin of Sutton, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Guilty of being overly serious a lot of the time and frequently in my workshops, I must give the impression that ‘it HAS to be done that way’ or the world will come to an end. We must all try to loosen up when needed.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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