The Holmesian artist

Dear Artist, Several years ago I was birding with Fen Lansdowne when we spotted some large predatory birds circling several miles in the distance. Just dots in the sky — even our binoculars didn’t pull them up very much. “Golden eagles,” I announced. “Nope, Turkey vultures,” said Fen, “Don’t you see the dihedral?” Even at that great distance Fen saw the slight v-shaped wing-angle that’s characteristic of vultures when soaring.

Bald Eagle, immature
original painting
by Fenwick Lansdowne

Deducing info from minor nuances, in the manner of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s perceptive Sherlock Holmes, is a prime skill for artists. “You see, but you do not observe,” says Holmes to his sidekick Dr. Watson. Looking at the work of many artists, I’m convinced that not a few are on Dr. Watson’s side of the office. Not that artists need to inflict every bit of accumulated visual info into their work, but they miss out on one of our top privileges: the art of really seeing. Here are three quick exercises that’ll heighten your powers: 1. Take a look at that tree over there. It’s spring and its foliage is new, feathery and wispy. There’s an eagerness in the greens and the soft edges seem to flirt with the sky. Now note the tree is hardly solid–even though you might be inclined to paint it so. Today it’s rather a flighty dream, and even though it’s full of holes and avoidances, you can feel its roundness. And in spite of all this wisp, how strong the trunk and branches are. 2. Now take a look at those rocks around that small islet. Each one is in the form of an independent brick or a ball, and yet they nestle and cuddle with one another for support. Each has an upper side that reflects the sky and a mysterious dark underside. These rocks have been partners on this islet for so long they have grown toward one another and are blended by their mutual mosses and lichens. 3. Now take a look at that strongly lit nose on that guy over there. Notice how the lit side nicely gradates down into the cheek beside it and forms a fine negative shape that determines the form of his particular nose. Notice the core shadow that runs its length with the colourful penumbra on either side of the shadow. Notice how the cast shadow overruns the details of the nostrils and inner eye. Notice how that nose reddens toward the end, and is topped off with a cool, moist shine. Methinks he may like his brandy. Best regards, Robert PS: “Holmes serves as an ideal model of how we can learn to see and think better.” (Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes) Esoterica: Poking your nose into other people’s business — in other words, staring — is an artist’s prerogative. You can also do it by studying photos but, funnily, they’re not quite as valuable. When you look at the real thing, tiny movements or body language of both the object and yourself make clearer the nuances you need to observe and understand. “Elementary, my dear Watson.”   The gift of urgency by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Bill Hibberd

When I paint from life, whether in studio or in open air, I am intensely aware of the passage of time. It may be a fleeting shadow or light pattern as it’s moving across an alpine meadow, or even the value of a model’s wage. An exception would likely be a still life arrangement but I have minimal experience with that genre. With the awareness of time another benefit, urgency, compels me to really observe, eyes wide open. When working from photos the element of urgency is absent and I find it more challenging to observe as effectively. Urgency is a gift. There are 2 comments for The gift of urgency by Bill Hibberd
From: Nancy Cantelon, Port McNeill, B.C. — May 02, 2013

Bill Hibberd, your painting captures the light and movement of the water and the ‘feel’ of being there, beautifully. Very well done!

From: Anonymous — May 03, 2013

good painting

  Capturing individual human characteristics from afar by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia  

“Sunspot – Goolwa Beach”
acrylic painting
by Mike Barr

Recently, I have been going through master watercolorist Joseph Zbukvic’s book, Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor: The Critical Ingredients That Turn Paintings Into Art and noted two of his paintings included small representations of fellow watercolor artists Hermen Pekel and Alvaro Castagnet. The figures were just part of the landscape and very small but their bodily profiles were spot on! We can all spot people we know from afar by their walk and profile without the need for facial detail. If only we could capture this natural skill when we paint! Of course it goes for all objects that are distant. The game is afoot! There are 3 comments for Capturing individual human characteristics from afar by Mike Barr
From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — May 03, 2013

I love your work, Mike. This painting makes me think of the miles of beach along the Antrim north coast, and it isn’t just because it’s cloudy! Visiting many years ago, before we came to live here, I recognised my cousin, whom I had not seen for twenty years, on the quayside, when the people waiting there for the ferry to come in were still so far away they were tiny stick figures. His stance was unmistakeable.

From: Anonymous — May 03, 2013

I agree, but I have noticed the affectation in generalizing human figure so much that they look like fashion manikins even in some works of really great painters. It’s not just about the position of the body or the proportions. Figures gain life when there is something particular about them – something slightly different or askew.

From: Mike Barr — May 04, 2013

Absolutely spot on by anonymous!

  Language of artists by Robert Abrahams, Perth, Australia  

original painting
by Robert Abrahams

Observation is of course important for artists, but I would like to suggest that the skill in turning these observations into the language of artists is also very important, e.g. tone, temperature, intensity, hue, shape, edges, texture and composition, etc.       There are 4 comments for Language of artists by Robert Abrahams
From: Anonymous — May 02, 2013

Yes… have to know the “rules” and then allow yourself to break the rules in order to say what you want in a painting. but there are some rules I won’t let my students break i.e putting a red barn smack in the middle of a painting….cutting a painting in half either vertical or horizontal with cold tones on one half and warm tones on second half…..drives me crazy….also, putting every single tube paint you own on a canvas!!!!

From: Another Anonymous — May 03, 2013

From: Ann — May 03, 2013

Every time a teacher tells me that something shall not be done, my immediate instinct is to do exactly that and to make it work…maybe it’s just me…

From: Joan Bowers, Seattle, USA — May 05, 2013

Robert, your colors are so dynamic and portray the heat of the the West coast afternoon sun. Magic! They remind me very pleasantly of the several months I spent in Perth. Thank you!

  Use of Haiku for inspiration by Magi Leland, Rye, NH, USA   I enjoy thinking of painting in poetic and musical terms. Your Holmesian artist piece is so poetically written and beautiful to read. Here are a few of my Haiku as my thank you: owls serenade the night communicating through verdant trees winter turns toward spring full moon bonfire white, cherry-orange red, black fire turned inside out rivers run; snows melt rain around in rosey swirl saturated earth There are 2 comments for Use of Haiku for inspiration by Magi Leland
From: Terry Rempel-Mroz — May 04, 2013

Beautiful painting with words – the images immediately swam before my eyes

From: Noel Marin — May 07, 2013

Lovely haikus!

  Immersion with subject matter by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“Seated Cheetah”
original sculpture
by Rosetta

This is one of the key points I make in my plein air classes. Yet, time and time again, I find myself “jumping in” and beginning my plein air work without really taking the time to observe and make key decisions about mood and what really strikes me with a scene. Rosetta is one of America’s (perhaps the world’s) top animal sculptors. I have had the pleasure of getting to know her. Her work is abstracted into a series of planes. One would imagine that she wouldn’t have to know animal mannerisms and anatomy as well as a more representational sculptor would need to. Yet, she told me once that she has gone to Africa so she can really study her subjects. The amazing thing about that is that on at least one occasion she did not even take photos of the animals she had gone to observe. She simply immersed herself with them. That keen observation comes across in her work! In some ways her abstracted works capture the essence of an animal better than sculptures that contain every little detail. There are 3 comments for Immersion with subject matter by Diane Overmyer
From: Kathleen Knight — May 02, 2013

From: Diane Overmyer — May 03, 2013

From: Gail — May 03, 2013

This is the essence of Cheetah and through elegance and restraint, bypasses consciousness to pierce the heart. She defines for me what art should be – taking me from where I am and transporting me to a new unimagined place. I love it!

  Observation vs. preconception by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Cypress Afternoon”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Just staring at stuff is easily 80% of my artistic life, if not more. It sounds ridiculous, because  the obvious goal is to create. But observation has so many rewards that get the art-making juices going. — excitement of exploration — absorption of new information — surprise of unexpected discoveries — naughty delight of seeing what was intended to be hidden — generating desire to contribute — playful making up stories — triggering small or groundbreaking ideas — witnessing small miracles — developing appreciation and love for the world around us The person who likes to observe never feels alone; it gets you out of your own head, which is not a small feat for some of us. Opposite from the Holmesian are preconceptions. Having a preconceived idea what a tree looks like, or a rock or a nose. So in this art all trees and all rocks and all noses look similar if not identical. This works in some genres; comic books, illustration, medieval art, and folk art. They typically communicate a clear message, but most people can admire them esthetically as well. The important point may be that good preconceived art still comes from thorough observation. The artist decides how to generalize or stylize it or even exaggerate the reality. It’s quite amazing how those deviations can be so appealing and powerful. There are 2 comments for Observation vs. preconception by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Rose — May 03, 2013

I love your work… Every painting is beautiful…Thank you for sharing.

From: Tatjana — May 03, 2013

Thank you Rose.

  Holmesian art detective by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada  

“Chantry – Sky of many clouds”
original painting
by Phil Chadwick

A good Holmesian artist, who truly observes and records the observations in pigment, leaves behind a rich environment for the Holmesian Art Detective — a rare beast of which there may only be one or possibly two still alive. Visualizing the clues in the finished scene can reveal the what, when, where and even why (motivation) of the creation. “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” I call this “Creative Scene Investigation” — CSI for short although some TV shows have taken this concept to the criminal extreme. Nobody dies in my research. CSI can be applied to the work of any artist. Being the inventor of this approach and probably its only practitioner is an advantage. I made it all up and as long as I can support my Holmesian Theories, then it is all good. It is not black magic but merely applying the laws of science and of course meteorology. I have applied it to the recent work of my plein air friends and they suspect that I had to be lurking in the bushes as they painted. It is really “elementary” my dear artist. The plein air work of the masterful Tom Thomson is where I started applying CSI in the 1980’s — long before the TV shows. Like in Bob’s story of the golden eagle and the turkey vulture, Tom’s “Thunderhead” was a May F2 tornado and not just a cumulonimbus. To a meteorologist it was pretty obvious and “the game was afoot.” This tornado passed one or two kilometers north of Tom’s location on an eastward path and left Tom to his July 1917 fate. Everyone wants to see a tornado before dying but not “just before” dying. Tom really loved the weather and I can prove it. He has provided lots of sleuthing opportunities for a meteorologist. I am in the process (and have been for 20 years) of writing the CSI concepts down in book form and using the art of Tom Thomson to illustrate the principles. “Education never ends (insert your name here), Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.” There are 2 comments for Holmesian art detective by Phil Chadwick
From: darrell baschak — May 03, 2013

Thank you Phil for your great painting and also for the mentioning of Tom Thomson, my favourite painter. One wonders what works he would have produced if he had lived longer. No doubt he was very aware of his surroundings.

From: Phil the Forecaster — May 04, 2013

Yes… imagine the masterpieces that he had yet to create. He is one of my favourite artists as well! Thank you Darrell!

  Robert Dublac by Carla Woodcock, West Hartford, CT, USA  

oil painting
by Robert Dublac

Back in 2011, my friend Robert Dublac wrote to your letter, which I had forwarded to him in the hopes of sharing with him a vehicle for hearing about other artists and their experiences in the art world. I never imagined he would write to you, let alone send to you such a personal lament. Robert was truly unaware of the consequences of his sincere outpouring of frustration. Robert passed away on August 15, 2012, of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He was brilliant, principled, sincere, arrogant, talented, annoying and lovable… sometimes, all at once. He loved nature and animals far above humans and, I think, he tolerated me simply because he adored my dog.

“Hadewijch Dream”
oil painting
by Robert Dublac

Landscapes were his passion. Above all, he was a colorist. He died far too young at age 74 and through the decades of his painting career, one can see an amazing evolution into the abstract. In his later years, he withdrew and became more isolated from the greater world around him. He was stuck and he knew it. Like all artists, he craved the energy derived from the observer.  

oil painting
by Robert Dublac

This letter is a thank you to all of your readers who responded to him at that time. As upsetting as the negative responses were, the positive encouragement was a blessing. His name lives on with all of you who cared to communicate with a discouraged and depressed fellow artist. On May 20, 2013, the first series of 12 of Bob’s oil paintings will be auctioned off through Winter Associates in Plainville, Connecticut. Photos of his paintings should be available online at (RG note) Thank you so much, Carla. One of the joys of this letter is the wider connectivity between artists. Daily we deal in new friendships, the remaking of old connections, mutual encouragement and advice, as well as sympathy and understanding. Robert Dublac was one who joined us late in life to find there are fellow travellers like himself. We are now, and will continue to be, a brotherhood and sisterhood of individualists, a club for the shy, the outgoing, the informed, the uninformed, the student, the pro, the pleasant and the obstreperous. Bob Dublac has gone, but his work is still with us and thus his beguiling spirit. There is 1 comment for Robert Dublac by Carla Woodcock
From: Mishcka — May 03, 2013


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The Holmesian artist

From: Dave C. — Apr 29, 2013

This had to be one of your finer posts Robert, especially the paragraphs about the tree and the rocks. The one about the tree reminded me of when I was a golf professional and would hear other golfers say, when aiming at the tree down the fairway, “it’s mostly air.” I would say, “anyone that thinks a tree is mostly air would make a lousy bird.” I do love this time of year though, with all the new growth and warm days. Wonderful days to spend in the garden, though most of our rose bushes have already put on their show and are heading for a summer of greenery. But, that’s what petunias and marigolds are for.

From: Marilyn Harding — Apr 30, 2013

Your post reminds me why art is so like poetry. You speak beautiful images too. Both evoke deeper associations in the hands of a master. I felt the breezes and heard the water lapping. Thanks, Robert.

From: ReneW — Apr 30, 2013

As you remind us, Robert…..seeing and looking are two different visual experiences. Yesterday I was with a group of birders as well. As a birder you look for the subtle nuances of the bird you are trying to identify. Size, shape, color, markings, vocal, etc play into the experience. As an artist and a birder I feel comfortable in either environment. With that said, a non-birder or non-artist miss the total experience of looking and feeling. To them a bird is just a bird or a painting is just a painting. They see but they don’t look.

From: Chad Bancroft — Apr 30, 2013

As an art collector, I realize that, in a way, we collectors pay artists to do some of our the seeing for us. Their vision and you might say reorganization of the world brings another dimension to our lives and we are the richer for it.

From: Matt Daman — Apr 30, 2013

Developing the ability to really see things, and see their potential as art, means that even banal and ordinary subjects can be made into high art.

From: Martin — Apr 30, 2013

Holmes was actually referring to most people, not just artists.

From: Edward Solomon — Apr 30, 2013

Each one of those three examples is a poetic microcosm of how an artist needs to see and think. Multiply those examples by fifty and the artist begins to see and understand why those on Dr. Watson’s side of the office are really missing out.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Apr 30, 2013

Pure, objective observation is the launching pad. I like to analyze stark reality. “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby”.

From: Edward Davidson — Apr 30, 2013

Very nice. Eavesdropping on snatches of nearby tablemate’s conversation can net similar results, and is a “pasa tiempo” unequaled by the engrossing (or not) novel one may appear to be reading; at least, to the unobservant fellow diner at yet another table. Thanks, you never fail to entertain.

From: Betty Covington — Apr 30, 2013

I think taking ones time to really look and see is sooo important when one is doing a painting,,weather its a still life portrait or plein-air painting. I’ve been learning this one the hard way.

From: Darlene White — Apr 30, 2013

I do so enjoy your letters. Your sense of humor makes the advice you share fun!

From: Jack and Kelly Oates — Apr 30, 2013

Great insight and advice! So well described,you’ve given some wonderful examples. Thank you!

From: Marjolaine Robert — Apr 30, 2013
From: Jana Russon — Apr 30, 2013

I especially enjoyed these comments. Thank you!

From: Judy Gilmer — Apr 30, 2013

Beautifully written, thanks!

From: Gloria Saxon [ — Apr 30, 2013

Love this one. One of the benefits of artists.

From: Janie Lockwood — Apr 30, 2013

Interesting in that it makes one remember, to really look.

From: Jackie Knott — Apr 30, 2013

How many of us have heard people use the phrase “hand eye coordination” when describing the particular skill of an artist? None of that …. it is purely and totally the ability to observe. Does anyone else do this? Do you mentally mix your palette to reproduce that green, or the reflected peach light on a cloud? I find myself blocking in color shapes and plucking an imaginary brush and applying darks to shadow. I visually play with an invented paintbrush to outline an elliptical shape. It is constant mental painting regardless of the scene in front of me, almost bordering on OCD. It’s rather fun actually.

From: Brenda Behr — May 01, 2013

If we’re to draw something accurately, we best go about it objectively, forgetting what it is we’re drawing, perhaps viewing and drawing it upside down; reducing it to mere shapes and values. On the other hand, if we are to paint something beautifully, we best become well acquainted with our subject, getting to know it on a more intimate level. Only with careful observation of our subject’s behavior and/or particular nuances can we show it the respect it deserves as the subject of a painting.

From: Emily L. — May 01, 2013

Love your letters. Always so informative, but this was just great, its like the old saying which comes first, the chicken or the egg. You must “see” to draw and you must draw to see.

From: Tiit Raid — May 01, 2013
From: Dirk DesRosiers — May 01, 2013

All the truly great bird artists were first great observers. That’s how they got to be great. Fen Lansdowne may be the greatest of them all.

From: Jerry Fuller — May 02, 2013

Ah, Robert! Even had I not known of your time living in Boston, I would know you had a love for our Red Sox by the name you chose for your birding companion: Fen Lansdowne! You even included the ‘e’ at the end! I trust I have poked my nose into (your) business and allowed the “… language of both the object and (my)self make clearer the nuances (I) need to observe and understand. “Elementary, my dear Watson.” “! I love your blogs and your wonderful sense of humor!

From: Christine vb — May 02, 2013

I live for the day, when I will truly be able to see the world with the eyes of a true artist. Your blogs are helping me along the way!

From: Ratindra Das — May 03, 2013
From: Jean — May 03, 2013

I have always tried to tell and teach budding artists to draw or paint what they SEE, not what they THINK they see. Something I’ve always tried to do, no matter what I’m observing.

    Featured Workshop: Sharon Rusch Shaver 050313_robert-genn Sharon Rusch Shaver workshops Held in Paris, France   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.      woa

Serge of Honour

oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches by Pat Deputat, Alberta, Canada

  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 Kelly Walker of White Rock, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Thru shades and tones of social care and guided films possess the air had acme’s wings once more take flight and straddle upward to the night. With casts and swings gave shadow fair on frosted night the cold deep air breaths the loss it seeks to find, breaths the breath of vultures vine. Stretch out I plead and writhe my eyes to see at last one more sunrise to warm this wretched thing I am this body in this mortal man.” And also Dimitri Kalicinsky who wrote, “‘Seeing’ should be a course offered for credits in Upper schools.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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