Today is my and my twin brother James’ birthday and the second anniversary of the day we said goodbye to Dad. An old friend recently came to the door with an amazing gift. It was something my dad had given to his dad shortly after they met in Fuengirola, Spain in 1964. Bert, an Englishman, first noticed Dad standing at an easel near the beach. A hobbyist, Bert cruised up behind to take a look, and as he did, a little crowd grew around the painter. The story goes that after a long period of saying nothing, Bert suddenly exclaimed, “My, that’s a magnificent brush!”
Yesterday, Bert’s son David handed me a small, coiled notebook. Inside, in Dad’s handwriting, it read, “How To Be An Artist, by Robert Genn, for the private edification of Bert Wallis. Copyright 1965.” Dad was 29. Along with tips on perspective, diagrams, how to light an object, the difference between good and bad trees, tone, value and colour (the trickiest part,) the book explains the specifics of preparing a canvas for oil painting, toning a ground and the ins and outs of alla prima. It also covers glazing and mixing greys. Part personalized instruction manual for a friend and part first-draft of these letters, “How To Be An Artist” reads as the purest, greenest incarnation of what would emerge as a lifelong cathedral of themes. Here’s an excerpt:
“Paint in positive strokes, full brush, pressed right out, stroked, dragged or scumbled. (If you fiddle around too early we will have to let you go.)”
“Note: All of the activities of picture making (drawing, colouring, philosophizing) merge to make one whole solution in the end. Try to anticipate problems in your drawings. EG: Don’t stand a brown cow in a brown field. Make it a white horse.”
“Let your enthusiasms take you where they will. Conventions are to learn by, but don’t let them govern you. If you have a passion to paint on glass like Kennington, go to it. New things help you and sharpen your self-knowledge — you learn what you can and cannot do. Learning what you cannot do is just as important as learning what you can do.”
PS: “Because good paintings are ‘life enhancing’ (Berenson) — they should be positive, happy things. It follows that if the artist is unhappy, he gives it away with every little stroke of his brush. This is why they say, ‘Paint with gusto.’ Nobody likes niggly-fiddly persons, let alone paintings. So, put in the ‘work’ to give yourself the ‘courage’ to be ‘happy’ when you paint. A TALL ORDER.” (Robert Genn, from How To Be An Artist, 1965)
Esoterica: While both are gone now, the friendship of Bert and Bob lives on in the little book that Bob made for Bert, that Bert kept and passed on to David, who gave it to me at the end of May, 2016. “Addenda: There are no rules. Some axioms, conventions and methods that look like rules and sometimes pass for rules are of value. Because they save us the trouble of learning things the hard way (which often is the best way) they allow us sooner to be able to stand upon the shoulders of other men.” (Robert Genn, May 15, 1936 – May 27, 2014)
We plan to publish How To Be An Artist by Robert Genn in the very near future.
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“ ‘The poor reader is the seldom reader,’ ” said Franklin, I think. So it is with paintings: PAINT LOTS. The more you practice what you know, the more you know what to practice.” (Robert Genn)