Dear Artist,

Innovation is a branch of invention that makes changes in existing systems. These changes need not be dramatic. They may not even be seen as improvements. In the art game they need only to be different.


watercolour on paper by
Charles John Collings (1848-1931)

Yesterday, while I was looking into the innards of a public gallery, the work of Charles John Collings (1848-1931) caught my attention. Collings was well trained in English watercolour methodology. Immigrating to Canada in 1910 at age 61, he spent his last twenty years honing a unique style. Collings soaked the sizing out of relatively smooth (hot-pressed) paper. This caused the pigment to “bloom” to varying degrees — something like the effect one would get with blotting paper. Further, with the use of spatulas and burnishing tools, some passages had colour intermittently obliterated, textured, or entirely removed. The result was a sugary softness of enriched greys and impressionistic sophistication. “Collings lays his prepared paper variously on a sheet of slate, glass or cork to preserve moisture,” wrote fellow watercolourist Walter J. Phillips. “He paints with pure pigments, mixing them only on the paper, and removes any superfluity, or reduces intensities, with a clean brush.”


“Home in Trees, Canada”
watercolour by Charles John Collings

Vigorous and active into his old age, he settled at beautiful Seymour Arm on Shuswap Lake in British Columbia. He needed to be far from the madding crowd. Several significant rumblings take place in the minds of this sort of creator. Taking little heed of conventional wisdom, they have an innate need to innovate. Further, the free-standing artist requires of himself the personal mastery of a personal innovation. Collings pressed his wisdom into the service of an already dignified spirit and evolved sensibility. Looking closely at his work, you discover order and rationality evident in every passage.

Innovation is its own satisfaction. The feeling that one’s efforts are unique and different from the rest is impetus enough to continue. In my experience, innovators tend to be stubborn — in the sense that Edison, Ford and Banting were stubborn. This somewhat dated attitude is easy to miss in today’s cookie-cutter society. Collings held his methodology close to his chest, sent his polished gems to a distant market in England, and listened to no one but himself.


“Bordering the Pacific near Victoria, BC”
watercolour on paper 7 3/4 x 15 inches
by Charles John Collings

Best regards,


PS: “His masses of floating colour, where they meet and combine, often create forms and hues of great beauty, fortuitous perhaps, but coherent.” (From an unpublished manuscript by Walter J. Phillips, 1928)

Esoterica: How to innovate? Look at your current work and ask how you might bring it more in synch with your vision. If you don’t have a vision, keep asking yourself for one. If you ask long enough, you will receive. Ask “What could be?” This is how taste is raised, uniqueness is achieved and style is born. Get stubborn. If you happen to be one of those artists driven by curiosity, you’re on your way. Innovators are lone wolves, rangy and independent. “What’s the point,” they ask, “in doing things like everyone else?”

This letter was originally published as “Innovation” on October 23, 2007.

charles-john-collings_a-symphonyDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse. (Winston Churchill)




  1. Thanks for re-publishing Robert Genn’s inspired piece on innovation. It has always been my middle name, from the kitchen to the studio and beyond. I love trying things on and taking things off, whether they be spices, paints, or articles of clothing. Everything can add to the soup, and things removed, surprisingly, can also add, as Charles John Collings discovered, developed, and perfected. The beauty of innovation is in seeing something that’s always been there, just seeing it differently.

  2. It appears to me that Charles John Collings was an oil painter – just not in oils! His pieces are beatifully impressionistic, his images softer and more elegantly rendered than is often seen in watercolours – in my estimation!

  3. Thanks so much for this always valuable post!! So inspired and inspiring, it has also introduced a wonderful new artist to me. Lovely and unique work. I have been asking myself these questions quite often lately, in front of my canvas and away from it, encouraging my own unique voice to emerge. Wonderful images and quotes as well. Thanks again.

  4. What an inspiring artist. I can feel this unique spirit of place he has captured . I always want to be a water colourist when I see such mastery in technique and soft , wistful colours…. will want to search out any books or places to actually see his work up close …. does anyone have a suggestion where I should search first?

  5. kathryn taylor on

    Thanks for the great letter by Robert! Artists have to be different, stubborn and have a vision! Really encouraging , wise words. And we have to remember to innovate, try things differently. Collings paintings are beautiful!

  6. I don’t get it ? Maybe the English teach Art differently than in America. As an art student in America , students are ENCOURAGED to try different techniques, such as type of drawing utensil, ……charcoal, , graphite, pen, pencil etc. Next choosing one of the utensils, the student is encourgaged to use and experiment drawing on different papers, such as charcoal paper, pastel paper, newsprint paper, vellum etc etc etc .
    Maybe the brits had a more stilted , rigid system to enable a student to create a certain style of watercolor , Egon Schiele ‘s watercolors would never make it through the English system nor would many German artists .

    In America , at a very famous Art School, the Art Students League, one teachers taught students to paint by the numbers. He created a system, where students were directed what numbered tubes of paint( he had a paint manufacturer number paint tubes, 1, 2 , 3 etc ) Students were directed and informed, that a number 3 color never went next to a number 24 color . Period. He was a very successful /popular teacher at the Art Students League, New York, City.

    American artist Andy Warhol, admired the drawings of American artist Ben Shahn, Warhol developed a technique of drawing on paper with ink, and then blotting the wet drawing ink, and lo and behold , a Ben Shahn style of drawing emerged !

  7. Now nice to see some interesting works in watercolour although the topic is ” Innovation”. Now that so much is available on our computers, it’s always been a wonder that some people can not only create, but innovate. Not emulate.

  8. Thanks for posting this!. I first came across C.J. Collings work while doing some historical research on the Shuswap area and saw one or two of his paintings on-line. I would love one day to see them in actuality. There seems to be very little mention of this wonderful artist.
    Robin, you might contact the University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries, or the Vancouver Art Gallery, for information on where to view his work.

  9. this styie is charming to me – it was popular in the 1920s and 30s and some of my childhood books in Mother’s library were illustrated in this style – a clever balance of sophistication and simplicity in both style and palette.



  10. Callings work is beautiful. Seeing what he achieved in his maturity and solitude lifts my spirit. Thank you for reprinting Robert’s letter of his discovery of Colling’s work. Looking up his name on Google, I can see that Robert’s discovery led to a minor rush of interest in Colling’s gentle watercolour innovations. The need to innovate runs wonderfully strong in Canadian art.

  11. I looked after the house that Collings built at Seymour Arm, in the summer of 1977, while I completed a mural commission for Calgary Airport, working in his carriage house. Collings built a small mansion, complete with billiard room, and had a magnificent setting in a far away mountain lake valley. He was essentially a Victorian who literally blazed his own trails. To Harry Weisbrud, consider what art training was available in mid 19th century England, vs. mid 20th century America.

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Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.


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