If I were an artist


Dear Artist,

I’m at the corner of Hoohu and Pee Rd. in Poipu, Kauai. The trees here are Koa, Pandanus, Ohia-lehua and Fig. To the eyes of a guy from up north, some of these trees look like they were designed over the phone. If I were to paint the sea that colour, they wouldn’t believe me. That cardinal over there requires a red I’m not sure I can make.


“Red Sails” 1928
by Arman Manookian (1904-1931)

I’ve seen this woman before. This morning she was standing on the Keoneloa bluff waiting for the sunrise. She’s a big woman, with big features. She wears a floral mu’umu’u. Her skin is mahogany. She’s missing a few front teeth. “If I were an artist,” she says, “I’d record the sunsets we have here. And the sunrises. Did you ever see anything like them?” I agree with her that last evening was surreal. “And the birds are wonderful don’t you think? I would paint the birds,” she says. “These birds here are all different than the ones my grandmother knew. They’re better now. Not as rare, but more beautiful. They’re getting more beautiful all the time. And more of them. I’d do the birds if I were an artist.” I show her my bird book. “These are the wrong names,” she says, flipping through the illustrations. “That’s the Poo-uli; that’s the Iiwi; that’s the Akialoa.” I tell her it’s really great that she knows them by their authentic Hawaiian names. “You might not be able to do them if you didn’t know what they were,” she says. She looks at what I’m doing. I can see that she feels in her heart she would do it better. Then she calls out to some folks she knows and rushes off to talk to them.


“Polynesian Girl”
oil on board 30 x 24 inches
by Arman Manookian

This dazzling, midday light is difficult. It lends itself to the impressionist way. Or perhaps I should make it super-real. It’s all so super-real. And the water is dancing with abstract patterns. I feel like Gauguin. I think I’ll paint the sky red. Even though it’s blue. I only think I’m an artist. I wonder if I’m doing my job.

Best regards,


PS: “An artist is only an artist on condition that he neglects no aspect of his dual nature. This dualism is the power of being oneself and someone else at one and the same time.” (Charles Baudelaire)

Esoterica: “For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art, with all that has wounded or defeated us in daily life — not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfil it in its true potential — the imagination.” (Lawrence Durrell)

This letter was originally published as “If I were an artist” on January 11, 2002.


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“The represented forms are loaded with psychological feeling. It can’t ever just be painting.” (Richard Diebenkorn)



  1. Dual implies two. There are many more than two. It is all about inclusivity, welcoming the frustration and the mistakes as teachers, rejoicing in the successes and doing the mundane with joy. Life is full. Life is good.

  2. Eloquence with words is so much easier than painting. We have no dictionary or guidebook to shock our brains into recognition of what we are emotionally reacting to on a level of childlike wonder that can only be felt with tears of love. Our camera can capture a moment, but as artists, we can try to capture that love.

  3. The picture that you painted with words in this story connects with every mind that reads it. I could visualize this larger than life woman in conversation with you in a garden of Eden setting.

  4. Lovely, I so often feel this way. What I see is so exttraordinary, I wonder what I could possibly do to convey my sense of wonder and awe. a photograph never does it. One must capture the extraordinary. To do it one must convey that which one feels and not hat one necessarily sees. Red skies and purple seas all the way.

  5. Thank you, Robert & Sara! This is perfect timing – while painting recently, I asked what the heck am I doing here? I was frustrated:) the answer I got was, “you are being an artist” I liked the answer.
    Hearing how other artists walk through their processes is so appreciated. And, I loved hearing Robert say, if I painted that nobody would believe it. I too think that often, what a beautiful sky, but it might look cheesy painted, evening if handled well.
    All in fun, even the stormy bits.

  6. In life and in art (there’s dualism for you) I experience beauty in the ordinary, so unexpected it penetrates deep.

    Dew on junipers after a stormy yesterday, the sweet song of a mountain lark, air so clear to breathe is a miracle.

    Painting this year has become simplicity, infusing the ordinary with creative energy. Breathtaking.

  7. I woke up just as the sun was rising to read this email. As I started to read I thought they are at the corner. How can that be? How is it they personalized this writing to me? I live by Ho’ohu and Pe’e roads. I see Keoniloa bluff out my window. As I read on the message touches my soul. I struggle with my colors as all I see is bright and colorful. Who will believe my painting if I paint what I see or feel as I look out into my world of paradise. Sometimes I paint it in pastels so as to whisper. Sometimes it feels like my painting is shouting. Other times I try to grey my colors with a little of their compliments so that they can go into others’ worlds and not feel out of place. I send my paintings off around the world with hope that these little pieces of my heart will feel loved and welcomed in worlds where these colors don’t exist. Mahalo for sharing this special post with me. I wish I could of known your Dad. I would of shown him some of the most special and scared places to paint in the world. I will take him in my heart out to paint en plein air in my world this week. If you come I will show you. A hui hau.

    • Thank you, that was beautiful! I woke to another gray day in Wisconsin. Your comments along with Robert’s letter reminded me of how absolutely lovely and colorful Kauai is. Keep painting your shouts and whispers to share with all of us who don’t see such colors out of our windows each day.

      • Thank you Holly, my sentiments too! The sun was shining this morning, it is now our Colourful Season of Fall in Ontario Canada! As an artist to be able to capture this season of colour sounds like what it must be like when you are visiting Hawaii. Thanks to Robert & Sara for this website.

  8. My daughter and I are planning a vacation on Kauai next month and I will have to find that spot! I understand that the island is small but that there are a number of interesting and beautiful things to see. I will bring either my watercolors or pastels to hopefully paint some of the scenes. Just early yesterday morning, at my house, the fiery red and pink showing through the mist and tree branches made me want to capture that, though I know I would never be able to beat nature’s beauty.

  9. Ursula LeGuin talks about the magic of knowing the true name of a thing, a person, an animal. This entire post is magical. Loving and sharing.

    I can feel the colors in my mind, pulling at me.

  10. When living in South Africa we visited Zimbabwe and spent time in a houseboat on Kariba. The colours of the sunsets reflected in the water were unreal. A totally bright orange sky and water. Painting such a scene would have the viewer crying out in disbelieve but it was there all around us.
    Why do we only want to regcognise the blue or grey of the sky and sea, the green of foliage and a yellow sun when our world is, in many places, like a child’s crayon box of unreal colour.

  11. I find your post intriguing because I live very near the corner of Pe’e Rd and Ho’ohu Rd! Are you still here in s Poipu? Please reply to me so we can meet!

  12. I agree that the tropics can be exotic in color/shape/texture…and I have explored there, visually sipping the artistic nectar offered. I have gone full circle in work, savoring the reduced range of color of the boreal forest, leaping to the vibrant reds, yellows, golds, fuchsias, and succulent greens of Haleakola. But of late I have been hauled back to the whispers of the variations of hues in the bark of a fallen Poplar, “nothing is ever just grey”, is it? The artist’s eye…a blessing and a curse? Wouldn’t want to be anyone else.

  13. How amazing are our senses..All of them ..what a sublime gift to enjoy this world of ours, even in the limited time on earth that we have. perhaps this is just a window into Heaven. Who knows?

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