The horse’s mouth


Dear Artist,

Today we’re painting up high, windows all round, view up and down the channel, autumn gold on the distant island’s hills. Ron, Keith, Carole, Richard, Loraine, Donna, Judy, June, Jane, Bob, Ann and me. Subscribers. We’re having a high old time. Lots of laughs. Something you may have noticed in a situation like this is the remarkably different ways that different folks solve similar problems. In our business there’s no main oracle. Many roads to Rome. Everybody’s doing their own thing.

The watercolorists, with sponges, try to get it right and watery, then chuck and try again. The oilers butter it on and leave it sit. Acrylic painters, having more to hide than your usual artists, keep covering up their sins. Pastel people sit alone in their clouds. “Leave it — don’t touch it,” is heard, and “That part looks a bit like a cow,” and other forms of encouragement. Someone says, “Get Richard’s opinion; he’s the incoming president.” Overheard observations:

I’ll leave that part until tomorrow.

I’m considering moving that mountain.

I need to use larger brushes.

I’m dropping this one and starting another.

I’m going to stop fiddling around in there.

I’ve never really looked at a goose.

I’ll have to crop this after.

I need to tighten/loosen up.

It was quite good a few minutes ago.

Somebody asks, “What about glazing the whole thing blue?” I overhear this and offer: “What about using burnt sienna?” Someone pipes up: “The horse’s mouth.” Someone else quietly asks, “Are you sure it’s the horse’s mouth?”

Best regards,


PS: “Next morning, of course, the canvas looked a bit flat. As always after a party. But when I got back my picture eye, I saw that Adam’s new shape was right. Final. Eve was the trouble. She was a bit too clever, too artistic, too flat, more like a composition than a real piece of stuff. But I didn’t know why. Losing the essential woman in the paint. I’ll sleep on that one, I said. But I can do something with the foreground now, it’s as empty as a beer jug with the bottom knocked out. All those nicely fitted receding planes amount to damn all but an art school dodge. It struck me all at once — what I needed there was a pattern. Coming and going. Leaves, waves. Tufts of grass bending in the breeze. Flowers. I began the flowers but they felt wrong. I made a thing like a white Indian club. It’s not a flower. What could it be? A fish? And I felt a kick inside as if I was having a foal. It was a fish.” (Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary)

Esoterica: Everybody’s an apprentice.

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Don’t disparage acrylic painters
by Eva Kosinski, Louisville, CO, USA

I’ve followed your letters but really resent your recent comment about acrylic painters having more to hide than most. I’d hate to think about what you say about digital artists. Its all art, pal, and we’re all coming at it from our comfort zone. Just cause it’s not yours, you don’t get to judge.

(RG note) As an acrylic painter I’m constantly aware of the capacity of the medium to cover up and hide areas that don’t work too well. You get to lean on it. You get to be thankful for it. It’s one of the main beauties of it. No disparagement meant.


Painting together inspiring
by B. Bergen Dennis

How timely your letters always are. This week two artist friends and I hired a model for our monthly day of painting together. I work in oil, Ted in pastel and Roger is a watercolorist. Throughout the day I heard many of the same comments you related, about how our work was going — plus each of us exulting from time to time about the joy of working together on our individual creations. After the many hours alone in a studio, these shared painting sessions are a way of filling the creative well for me. Rich camaraderie with fellow artists and an inspiring model are what’s it’s all about.


“The Horse’s Mouth”
by William Pitfield, UK

The fun thing about Gully Jimson in the brilliant Joyce Cary novel is that he is a perfectly incompetent painter. He is also a failure at life — he is just out of jail, on the bum, on the make, drinking steadily and capable of stealing a sentimental photo off his ex-wife’s mantel for the silver frame which he takes to the pawn shop. He is socially difficult if not impossible, as well as masochistic. You can just tell by the descriptions of his art methods that his work is hopeless, and yet some local parsons, art snobs and other damned fools, think his work has merit.


Measures herself against Gulley
by Charlotte C. Abernathy


painting by Charlotte C. Abernathy

You quoted from one of my all-time favorite books, The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary. I still remember my visceral response to one of the first lines, about the sun on a misty fall day looking like an orange in a fried fish shop. Nor have I forgotten a mysterious sense of connection to that old reprobate, Gulley Jimson, who became a symbol for me of an artist who is truly compelled to paint. I think deep inside I continue to measure my own desire to create art against his. After that introduction to Cary’s work, I read almost everything he wrote, essays and other non-fiction as well as other marvelous novels.


The Horse’s Patootie

Art and the making of artwork is a field that differs from practically all other branches of human creativity — including science and invention. Values in art are arbitrary. Good, bad and indifferent are all in the eye of the beholder. That’s why concepts such as guidance, academic teaching and “groupthink” are of little value. The role of art criticism is even more laughable. Artists must stop joining clubs and taking lessons. They need to do what’s right for themselves and not think that anyone else is an oracle.


Needs workshops
by Bill Petrie, Pinantan Lake, BC, Canada

I have had a passionate love for painting and paintings since I was 18 and working part-time selling pianos and organs while finishing university. Next to the piano department was the art gallery, and I spent more time in there looking at the work of Tom Roberts, Hilton Hassel, Guttorn Otto and others than I did selling pianos. I have been permanently marked by this. At that time I painted my first landscape, and I believe I have looked at landscapes through an artist’s eye ever since. I feel that, in order to get some direction, I really need to attend some painting workshops. Is there a resource of this available? Or, even better, can you direct me towards an individual (or individuals) who provide tuition. Living at Pinantan Lake, the closest city is Kamloops, BC and I don’t think there is anything available there. Traveling is no problem. I need to start planning, and part of this will be attending workshops. From past experience as a pianist, I know that having a deep love for something + spending time at it + an all-consuming drive to do it, always produces wondrous results.

(RG note) Many of our community of artists give excellent workshops. I invite them to write to you and let you know what they might have to offer.


Nice surprise
by Bill McLaughlin, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Here in Ottawa a group of us have a life-drawing workshop every Friday morning 9:30 to 12:30. Last week we had a marvelous experience. One of our models arrived for her sitting with her three-month-old daughter. The poses were exceptional and the baby really cooperated. Of course the mother had instant snacks available at the breast and it made for some wonderfully poignant drawings.


Now pursuing first love
by Stephanie Theng


drawing by Stephanie Theng

From a young age, I have had a lot of interest in art, but little courage to pursue it. Partly because of my parent’s disapproval, and partly because 10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine that cartooning/animation/digital art would get so big. Mostly I say it is my fault for not being firm about my passion. I gave it up and switched from one major to another in college. I am job-hunting now and am dumbfounded with the current connection between art and technology. It seems, that I have made a wrong step. I keep thinking, “If only I had pursued my first love, if only I had been stronger!” But such is life that you will have regrets. Recently I took up web designing and graphics classes, and have also started sketching and water painting again. I remember, in painting classes in secondary school, those silent magical moments when time stood still. The connection to nature and what felt like supernatural forces, the flashes of insight, the impulses. It’s been so long, yet strangely — and fortunately — those moments still come to me bit by bit. So, I know, after these 10 years of ‘wandering’, that it may not be too late to try again.


Wants more information on illustrations
by Claudia Young, Sechelt, B.C., Canada

As a beginning artist, struggling to figure out the acrylic medium, I am open to ideas and suggestions. I have taken a couple of workshops and I read, read, read, and try to put into practice what I learn from books. Painters Keys was a gift a year or so ago, from there I found your website and subscribed to your letter. Your letters almost always inspire me, as well as giving me concrete ideas on how to go about this art stuff. The responses of others also add to both my learning and my pleasure. I also wanted to tell you that I enjoy the new feature that lets us get a closer look at the wonderful art that you post and that the subscribers send. Now, I would really like to know what medium is used in the various art that is shown. Is that possible? I know it shouldn’t matter, art is art, but it would help me to answer the question of “how did they do that”, and would be of interest to other artists, as well.

(RG note) Often we do not know the medium used because we are not told. However, we are going to try to do this when we can in the future. Others have asked as well. Thanks for encouraging our valued writers to include this information.


Gallery representation not easy
by Allison Compton, Richmond, Virginia, USA


painting by Allison Compton

I would like to respond to your letters regarding selling art and commissioning art. You make obtaining gallery representation sound easy. My father and I have been painting and exhibiting in alternative galleries, restaurants, charitable auctions and juried exhibitions at the local art center for the past 4 years. I have submitted a page of slides (20), a CV, artist statement and cover letter stating the intention and the direction of future work for both of us (separately) to galleries on the East Coast from Florida to Boston.


painting by Edward Compton

Typically, I follow up with the galleries a month afterwards and either the gallery owner does not return my telephone call or I receive the package back with a nice note stating that the gallery’s artist stable is full and they are not accepting new artists at this time. It is equally frustrating yet complimentary when the gallery owner writes that their artist stable is full but they have printed off images of our work from our website. I’ve even walked around Chelsea with slide packages and gallery owners decline looking at them, requesting that I mail the package to them. We both have sold art in the alternative galleries and charity auctions, but not enough to quit our “real jobs.”

PS: Physically, I am attractive, good complexion, wavy strawberry blond hair, blue-green eyes, thin, 5’7″. So I don’t scare people away with my looks.

(RG note) The twice-weekly letters and the responses are seen by professional and amateur artists as well as collectors, dealers, and others who are just interested. On many days there are more than 20,000 hits to these pages.







Penny Soto


“Lead sled”
by Penny Soto


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

This includes Pat Shepherd at who says, “I especially identified with all the comments as paintings progress, regress, stress and stress. Glad to know it’s like that for others — no matter what their experience.” And also Barbara Jean of Pleasanton, CA who says, “I am naive and don’t know how to go about getting an agent, what their responsibilities are to me and mine to them.”

And Ilah Hockin who writes, “I really enjoy your twice weekly letters but I was wondering if I could get them once a week?” (RG note) Surprisingly, this is a fairly difficult thing to ask our sending computer. In cases like this we ask subscribers, when you see me come into your inbox on say Tuesdays, would you mind helping us out by deleting me? Incidentally, if you haven’t done so before, you can look at an informative collection of remarks that subscribers have written about the letters. It’s at


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