Full immersion


Dear Artist,

The distinctive creak of a bicycle coming to a stop behind me gave an unexpected jerk to my brush. Sandals shuffled on the flinty stones — then a pause. It was a long silence, even for a place where everybody has the time. His was a gravelly voice — perhaps the recent memory of smoke. “It’s all about imagination, skill and discovery,” he said.

My observer was a ring-eared, grey-bearded ponytail — his gnarly foot cocked on the pedal of an incredibly rusty bike. “I’ve been a truck driver, electrician, boat captain, caretaker and a film editor so I know all about art,” he added. I detected New York.

“It’s not meant to look like what it is,” I said.

“No need to apologize, fella,” he put in, lighting up a half-toke from a leather pouch. Then he shouted something in Spanish and creaked off in the direction of the Corona sign. “You need to work at it,” he called over his shoulder, “Like Cezanne. Now there was a dude.”

I started thinking about the dude: “He unfolds, as a painter,” said Cezanne, “that which has not yet been said; he translates it into absolute terms of painting — something other than reality.”

I was pretty soon back into it. Stuff dries like crazy in the Mexican sun. You can glaze and tone down almost immediately. Shade helps, and I had a big blurry spot of it from a grackle-noisy palm. There’s a tendency to be lax and easy. It’s all about freedom and concentration.

There were a couple of bangs, like gunshots, but it could have been firecrackers. Across the square several policemen appeared to be arresting someone. A mariachi band stepped out of a cantina and didn’t seem to care. Tourists and locals sat around, eating things, staring at each other. A two-litre bottle of Fresca came by with a four-year-old girl attached. The pelicans were diving into the sea. The kids were diving into the pool.

The toke-guy was right. You have to work at it. In our game nothing much happens until you have immersion.

Best regards,


PS: “There is an occupation known as painting, which calls for imagination, and skill of hand, in order to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.” (Cennino Cennini 1370-1440)

Esoterica: It’s not ideal, but it works. I’m using ordinary chunks of canvas, formatted to 11″ x 14″ and gesso-toned in warmish grey. Right now I’m taping the canvas to tables or walls. I like the whole kit to be minimal. Not too much trouble. I’ll stretch the decent ones when I get home. I think I’ll go get a Corona.


It is what it is
by Cy Hundley, Longmont, Colorado


“Garden Star”
pastel painting by Cy Hundley

“It is not meant to look like what it is.” I was surprised to hear this quantifying remark from such a veteran Mr. Genn, but thank you for allowing me to remember a lesson I learned from my pastel instructor at Western Washington University circa 1984. One day, early in the semester during a painting session, I approached this gentleman’s easel, and looking on, watching him work I innocently asked, “What is that?” He literally threw his pastel stick against the wall, gathered the class and explained, “In reality a piece of art is not a depiction of something else, it stands alone as a new creation. What is it? It is what it is, a painting judged without the need for comparison.”

I will explain that I am a realist, in many cases a photo realist working in acrylic. I do paint images which are supposed to “look like something,” however a painting should never be judged on this criteria, except, possibly, when commissioned for portraiture or illustration. The beauty of a painting, sculpture, a song or even a dance, all of art really, is that… It is what it is.


Perfectionist versus spontaneous
by James Lane, Markham, ON, Canada


original painting
by James Lane

My painting habits have been spotty. Stop-and-go. On-off. You get the picture. I have admired those artist friends that paint every day. I haven’t been able to do that and have wondered why. After seeing an interview by Charlie Rose on PBS interview Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, I have realized that my perfectionist attitude is conflicting with my spontaneous abstract painting style. It has been impossible to immerse myself with these two things offending one another. But, I am beginning to realize that if I build a checklist of chronological techniques of building a painting, my perfectionist tilt is appeased by the order that a checklist establishes. My Canadian upbringing with the English/French tensions that produce compromise seems to be benefiting me.


Possible new beginning
by Teri Peterson

Immersion has long escaped me. Years ago my “Becoming an artist” event was marked by a huge mental decision to allow it to happen. From there I built a fair reputation and daresay, a growing career as a watercolorist. Then “life” happened and the negative experiences swept me far away — both literally and physically — I moved across the nation to escape. After traveling the last 6 years through a complicated maze of life events, there’s been a recent discovery of how far I’ve traveled away from my art passion and aghast at the humbling realization of having to again give myself permission to be an artist. Now, I’m contemplating the thrill of immersion and excited of how the past will influence a new beginning.

(RG note) Thanks, Teri. While you didn’t ask for particular advice, your situation is universal. The person who wishes to return to a former passion needs to rekindle through a controlled and obstinate attention to process. You can monitor your IWU (Immersive Work Units) through the respect for and measurement of time, or you can monitor your progress by works accomplished. Some people are cut out for this sort of self-managing activity, others are not.

There is 1 comment for Possible new beginning by Teri Peterson

From: Anonymous — Feb 09, 2010

I am begining my life of immersion again my “life” happened and I left my art, now I begin again and I feel like I have been reborn and have found my passion again. It’s good to see I’m I haven’t been alone.


Painting with Purpose — Haitian Relief
by Ellie Harold, Norcross, GA, USA


“Sunny Vista, La Hueca”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Ellie Harold

A gentle rain falls, tapping out a rhythm on the banana leaves. The damp weather typical of the June-November hurricane season seems to have extended for a couple of more months.

A few hundred miles to the west, on another Caribbean island, I imagine the weather is not much different from here. Perhaps the roosters are crowing just as they are here. But the rest is so unimaginable, it seems too hard to even try. Living so close to Haiti, however, it’s not quite so difficult. It could’ve been my beloved little island that cracked open. It could’ve been me or my family crushed beneath a concrete roof.

I get to do what I love most of the time. I’m grateful for that. I don’t get paid for much of what I do, so the cash flow is not always what I’d like it to be. Nonetheless I am committed to my employment as an artist for the Universe and keep on painting. I’ve been struggling with what I can do to help my neighbors in Haiti. I checked to see if I could offer services as a former nurse and discovered that without disaster experience I’d be more trouble than help. I’ve gathered up a few clothes and shoes to donate. I’m sending a check to match what I spent on dinner last evening. But what else? I’ve also decided to put my paintings to work. I will donate 50% of all my painting sales (less framing, or shipping and handling charges) from now until Valentine’s Day. I’ve chosen Partners in Health, a medical aid organization that already has a structure in place in Haiti, as the destination for this gift. They have a good reputation for low administrative overhead, so the money goes to work with a high degree of effectiveness. If you’d like to support the relief effort in this way, please visit my website and make your choice. I can accept most major credit cards. I will provide you with a copy of the check I send to Partners in Health with proceeds from your purchase. I hope other artists will see their painting as having a purpose and consider using them to fundraise for this cause.

(RG note) Thanks, Ellie. Great idea. And thanks to others who wrote to ask if there was some way they might help out. My choice is to funnel cash to the foundation already put in place by Paul Haggis and others before the earthquake struck in Haiti. It’s called Artists for Peace and Justice. With minimum administration costs, they are directing relief in the most effective way to get help and supplies into Haiti. Other subscribers have written to say they are donating online through the Red Cross active in their own countries. In the case of Canadian donors, the Government of Canada is matching all donations. One of the world’s poorest nations, Haiti is home to 10 million folks who need our help.

There is 1 comment for Painting with Purpose — Haitian Relief by Ellie Harold

From: linda mallery — Jan 19, 2010

Just seeing the desperate need before the quake hit helps to understand the total devastation these people are experiencing now. This seems to be a very good place to funnel the donations. Thanks Robert for the guidance.


Travelling with canvas
by Katherine Harris, Bracciano, Italy

If you paint on a piece of canvas just taped to the wall, and then let it dry, roll it up or otherwise carry it home and only THEN stretch it, after it has (presumably) dried, why doesn’t it crack?

(RG note) Thanks, Katherine. I paint in acrylic and have used this system several times. As long as you don’t paint on the last day they are dry enough to stack flat along with your clothes in your suitcase. (I limit myself to smaller sizes) The greatest downside to me is the lack of spring that you would get with stretched canvas. But that will happen in the home studio for the final touches. Further, it’s a bit psychological, but a temporary frame under the light tends to heal prior discomforts and misdemeanors.

There are 4 comments for Travelling with canvas by Katherine Harris

From: Fay — Jan 19, 2010

I think the question was why doesn’t the dried paint crack when you stretch the canvas. I was/am very interested in knowing the answer to this question.

From: anon — Jan 19, 2010

Acrylic paint never cracks, it’s elastic.

From: caroline Jobe — Jan 19, 2010

i used to paint on unstretched canvas and when the paint was applied too thickly, it did crack when i rolled it up.

From: Julian Mulock — Jan 20, 2010

When rolling canvas, one should always do it with the paint on the outside. Should there be cracking, the cracks will close as the canvas is unrolled!


Taking the time to self-critique
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada

In anything we do we need to put our full attention and really concentrate to achieve our goal .We have to give it our best effort and look at every detail until we are satisfied that we did it to the best of our ability. I think this is especially true in painting. Every now and then move away a little distance from the piece and self-critique your work, check every angle, color and line and think of the message you would like your audience to see. Does it excite the emotion or does it convey a deeper meaning or does it challenge the imagination? Then keep working until you are happy and satisfied with your creation.


How to spot immersion
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA

As a painter, I have experienced immersion in many ways:


“From my Kayak”
acrylic painting
by Cathy Harville

— I am startled when someone walks into my studio unexpectedly;

— I often forget to eat lunch, or to eat at all;

— I make coffee, and forget to drink it;

— I constantly lose track of time, despite the very accurate “Whatever” clock I have beside me (all the numbers are falling off, so I really never know what time it is);

— I realize I was supposed to meet someone, and forgot;

— After a while, I realize I have been cleaning my brush in my coffee;

— My phone rings, and I am immediately annoyed;

— and, I put off bathroom breaks until the very last minute! (Just let me finish this one area!) Come on, I know you have done that, too!

There are 3 comments for How to spot immersion by Cathy Harville

From: Marie Louise Tesch — Jan 19, 2010

Yes! I once removed the whistling teakettle from the stove, poured the hot water into my tea carafe….then put the kettle on the counter and settled the (plastic) carafe onto the stove! My attention the entire time was on my canvas. A few minutes later a strange smell broke my trance and I realized that I had ruined the carafe (not to mention the burner).

Your list was entertaining, amusing — and true.


From: Anonymous — Jan 22, 2010

Washing ones brush in the coffee is probably better than slurping turp.

From: Zalina Barrington — Feb 09, 2010

Wonderful! So nice to know I’m not alone! I havent quite yet done the coffe one yet… nearly tho! And I learnt long ago it doesnt pay to put off bathroom breaks for too long! :)


The concentration of Jane Austin
by Walter Wembley, London, UK

Writers enjoy a peculiar and specific type of immersion. Can you imagine Jane Austin “living in” Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility and keeping track of all those characters and their distinct differences? With visualization comes the ability to a kind of literary empathy for each character that determines what he or she will say or do next. Further, making a novel is not something that an author can leave alone or neglect for long periods of time. Living within the bounds of her close-knit and probably somewhat boring family environment was key to her escape-motivated imagination. Not much is known about Jane Austin, who died at age 41, never married and was hardly recognized in her own time, but one thing is certain she could concentrate.

There is 1 comment for The concentration of Jane Austin by Walter Wembley

From: Gayle — Jan 26, 2010

Jane Austen


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Market day, Florence

oil painting
by Roger W. Carlson


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 Madeline Bishop of McMinnville, OR, USA, who wrote, “I am sitting in a cafe in rainy Seattle. A sixteen ounce latte came by with a 60 year old man attached. I kept typing.”

And also Jim Wilsterman who quoted Terry Allen:

“Some say it’s pathetic when you give up your aesthetic
For a blue collar job in the factory.
But all that exhibiting was just too damn inhibiting
For a beer drinking — regular guy… like me.”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Full immersion



From: Captain Watercolor — Jan 15, 2010

Beautifully written Robert. Its rare that we see art when reading about art.

From: Trina in snowy UK — Jan 15, 2010

I love this post Robert…I can almost feel the heat. Enjoy Mexico – and your painting! with best wishes, Trina

From: Carol Jessen — Jan 15, 2010

This is a beautiful piece of writing, Robert, a nice vignette of a painting moment. Painters have a heightened awareness which in this case came through in your insightful and poetic description of a brief encounter with a bystander. I’ve had these kinds of moments while painting and they are memorable. Thanks for reminding us to be observant of more than just what we are painting.

From: Dan Cooper — Jan 15, 2010

Your most poetic post.

From: Hernando Gonzalez Lopez — Jan 15, 2010

Mexico is as safe now as it ever was. But the economy here has been devastated, particularly the tourist industry. This recession started for the most part with the poorly run and monitored northern banks. At the same time Mexico needs to stop producing and conveying harmful drugs. More importantly, our northern neighbors need to stop using them. If you know someone who does, ask them to stop, because it is causing too many of us to remain poor. We need northerners to once again return to enjoy our natural beauty, wildlife and culture.


From: Cam Forrester — Jan 15, 2010

Great news!!! I have the book!!! Thank you so much for all you have done in making sure I got a copy, (and for the inclusion of the “painters Keys”). I look forward to reading the book, as I truly feel a connection to Robert’s twice weekly emails, he puts into words so many of the feelings I have about art. I couldn’t be happier! Very happy customer!

From: Terry Gay Puckett — Jan 15, 2010

Liked the immersion post. It is a complex situation. The artist must be immersed to produce. However, at some point, distance from the piece of art often allows new insights, and leads to a fresh approach and a better wrap-up.

From: Richard Smith — Jan 15, 2010

Now you see Robert, that’s what I was talking about when I said, people don’t want to know how you paint, they want to know what’s going on in your head when you paint. I’d rather read one posting like today’s than a hundred about how to paint mountains using house painting brushes. Today’s posting really put me there. Now s’kuse me but I’ve got to go find my tequila.

From: Ellen Gillis — Jan 15, 2010
From: Lorraine Khachatourians — Jan 17, 2010

The immersion experience is one that I particularly like to experience from time to time. To get away for a few days or if really fortunate, for a week or two, and just be the painter. It is so reinvigorating and enjoyable to just immerse – leave behind all the usual daily stuff for a bit. I am hoping that this year will bring one of those immersions – really feeling the need for one.

From: Geri Acosta — Jan 18, 2010

Your use of words is as discriptively creative as your brush strokes, bringing me into the subject with my full attention. The subject, immersion, was especially grabbing. Thank you for sharing you.

From: Ralph Langley — Jan 18, 2010

With so much buzz going on these days, the achievement of immersion has become a necessary science. I use a two or three minute yoga-like centering process before settling to my work. “Clutter,” in today’s world, is the major hazard and impediment.

From: Allan J. White — Jan 18, 2010

There is no substitute for the work itself as immerser. I used to spend some time–often days, anguishing over what to paint, etc. This route doesn’t work. You need to dig right in.

From: Jesus C Orendain — Jan 19, 2010

immersed in color blending and stroke gestures is where i used to be, now i see a mess of piles and lots of paint i cant seem to get to scheme well. once, when i created daily and found it spiritual release, i was able to drown myself in a painting, and now (4 years later) in school i dread my sketch pad homework assignment forcing me to duplicate a woman modeling fashion wear. ugh, i’m dilly dallying as i type this

From: Sara Beth Fair — Jan 19, 2010

For Full Immersion – Don’t See What You See – See what Your Heart and Your Mind See

Yesterday was a day really asking what are we supposed to be seeing…I awoke to the TV and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describing what he saw and what he dreamed others would see. He was not listing the details, the problems, the issues… in his I Have A Dream speech. And it was not a dream that involved his eyes, it was a dream of his heart. It was a vision where he saw the forest instead of the trees. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He wanted everyone to not see what you see but to see what you know. Not to see color, which is a detail, but to see character which is fundamental.

Zechariah did the opposite when the angel asked him what he saw in Chapter 4. He desribed details instead of seeing what the details represented. He did not know what he was describing.

Then I asked the angel, “What are these my lord and what do they mean?” Don’t you know ?” the angel asked. “No, my lord,” I replied. Zech 4:4-5 and 4:13

When asked to describe what he saw in Chapter 5:2 Zechariah said: “I see a flying scroll,” I replied. “It appears to be thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide.” The angel did not even bother to ask a third time if he knew what it meant when given minute details, he just went ahead and told him.

Granted the details are very important, but not in the first step. How many times do we paint a painting without understanding what it is we are trying to capture and what it represents in our heart and mind, completing a task without looking at the big picture, looking at a problem and only seeing the symptoms. This is like going through life without really living.

What do you see? Maybe we should ask what do you see with your heart? -Sara Beth

From: Dick Bellows — Jan 19, 2010

Where there is willingness and the potential for joy, the tools will be found, though some of the tools may be modest.

From: R. L. Hughes — Jan 19, 2010

Don’t underestimate the opinion of the rusty bike guy, eh. Some of the best painting advice I ever had was from bums, drunks and addicts. Their minds are uncluttered by education, only rankled with emotion and hard life experiences.

From: Cyndie Katz — Jan 19, 2010

As a ten year resident of Morelia, a colonial city in the state of Michoacan in central Mexico where two drug cartels are fighting for market share and often killing each other and authorities, I can only say that I’m not afraid for my safety. Ever. The drug business and its attendant violence happens in another dimension and does not involve the general public, least of all artist gringos, simply because it’s bad for business.

For artists, the benefits of working in Mexico far outweigh the risks. The weather, the colors, the architecture, the light and the ambiance make it an exceptional place to paint. There are Mexican brands of acrylics and oils readily available in all the cities and they’re relatively inexpensive as is the cost of living. (Beach resorts are a different story.)

You can travel to Mexico as a tourist and get a visa to stay for 180 days. There’s loads to explore. Someone nearby always speaks enough English to help you if you’re a non-Spanish speaker. There’s internet and cell service in the remotest of places. First class buses travel between all major destinations and there is public transportation available everywhere else. (We don’t own a car and travel plenty.) Medical care is excellent. (US citizens take note: a great vacation might combine painting with medical tourism. The major cities have loads of good doctors and dentists that you can afford.)

From: Rick Rotante — Jan 27, 2010

As of the day before Christmas I’ve been on a spree of painting new ideas and I believe this fits with what is being said. In the past I relied on “subject matter and specific images to paint including the model and landscapes.

Just before the holiday I decided to toss all this out the window and search my soul and try and paint my heart. Needless to say I have the experience as a painter to try and paint whatever comes to mind believably. So I put aside all my references and began thoughts on what I would like to paint. I enjoy paint the human form and started doing something I’ve not done in years – Draw. I started putting my ideas into drawings and after a very short time these ideas started to become the start of paintings. Not to make this letter too long and not to brag or show off I have, to date from Christmas, created some twenty one new works, in sizes ranging from 8×10 to 30×40 in a completely different style and genre than I’ve ever created and this period still continues. Ideas lead to new and different ideas. I even wake in the night with ideas where I have to get up, make a small sketch, then go back to sleep. This may happen several times a night. For the first time since I started painting nearly thirty years ago I feel a renewed sense of vigor and excitement and energy that I’ve not felt in years.

What is important here, for me, is I am painting what I want from my heart and my satisfaction level and sense of accomplishment is overwhelming. I am completely immersed in what I’m doing. I am seeing with new eyes a subject I’ve painted for years and loving every minute. It’s like exploring new unchartered territory. Some get done in one full day. Some take longer. At the suggestion of my wife I will increase the sizes to 30×40 and larger. She feels they would work in a larger format.

These new works are presently not up on my site but will be as I put aside the time to upload them later this month.

I wish everyone a better year than last and the happiest painting year ever.

From: Jane Morris Wyatt — Jan 29, 2010

I have been told that if you are bring your paintings home do not sign them due to customs.



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