In search of spirit


Dear Artist,

Seventy-eight years ago — exactly to our current days — the Canadian painter J. E. H. MacDonald was staying next door in Cabin 3. Electric power and running water have been added to Lake O’Hara cabins since then — otherwise nothing much has changed. The glaciers have receded and there may be more yellow larches, but the towering mountains with their distinctive snow patterns and ragged edges are pretty much the same. MacDonald’s problems were our problems. With the help of some of his unpublished journals, Sara and I are finding spots where he painted — and getting a pretty good idea what was going through his head. Reading this stuff, we feel better about things.


“Cathedral Peak, Lake O’Hara”
oil painting
by J.E.H. MacDonald

“An uncomfortable day for sketching — the new hand not yet broken in.” “Up on the trail late in morning and tried a sketch but failed badly.” “Snow and reflections were beautiful but transient effects and other difficulties were beyond me.” “Troubled much with detail and changing light. Labored along from 11 to about 1:45.” “After lunch took on another trouble — rock patterns, ridges and fissures, small shrubbery, etc. I meant to express mountain architecture, but failed in the solidity which had first attracted me.” “If enlarging — try for brighter snow and more luminosity in shadows.” “After lunch, could not pull anything through. Bad colour to work on — too much light, etc.” “Made a sketch later on the cabin verandah, but it was impossible to keep up with the changes. Oh the difficulties of mountain art for too little genius.”


“Lake O’Hara, Rainy Weather”
oil painting
by J.E.H. MacDonald

These complaints are lifted from a host of detailed observations, and do not represent his total being. J. E. H. MacDonald (1873-1932) was a curious lover of life and an unrelenting poet of Nature. He had the intuitive desire to get it right and to put his own spin on what he knew was well-worn subject matter. MacDonald has turned out to be one of Canada’s most honoured painters.

We also return from a day’s hiking and painting and try to pull things through on the verandah. More and more we realize the value of observation, diligence, care and repetition in the struggle to find for ourselves the elusive spirit.


“Lake O’Hara, Rainy Weather”
oil painting
by J.E.H. MacDonald

Best regards,


PS: “Got up during the night to see the moonlight on Mt. Lefroy. Clear and fine. All detail simplified — few tones and a rare transparent effect, no strong contrast, three or four values, the lake only slightly darker than the shore.” (J. E. H. MacDonald)

Esoterica: Each day, one to the other, we produce what we can. There are good days and bad days. One can only do one’s best with what one has been given. Natural form, atmosphere and design arouses, entangles, and often defeats you. From time to time there are passages of creative joy that make it all worthwhile. And tomorrow is always another day.


Lake O’Hara, June 2007 from Creative archeology


Planning a trip
by Mandar Marathe, Pune, India


“Late Afternoon Shimmer”
acrylic on board, 18 x 24 inches
by Mandar Marathe

I am a regular reader of your letters and find them very informative and thought-provoking. I am not a full time artist (I have a day job in the software industry) but always dream of being one. I get thrilled when I think or hear about how full time artists spend most of their time in painting. Visiting any place for some days just to capture the spirit of that place in paintings must be a great experience.

I am planning to visit Goa for 3-4 days in early October to paint. I am hoping to paint at least a handful of paintings during this visit. I was born & brought up in Goa and came to city of Pune for the exposure painters get here as compared to Goa and also due to my day job. So, as a place, Goa is not new to me but would like to know from you how you prepare for such a trip. How do you set self-expectations and what are your do’s and don’ts in such a trip.


Capturing spirit and atmosphere from memory
by Mary Easaw Thomas, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


“Yellow moutainous landscape”
oil on canvas
by Mary Easaw Thomas

The spirit of the mountain was what I was in search of when I painted Mount Kinabalu, (Sabah, East Malaysia). I must confess, however, that I painted from reminiscing, as I live in Kuala Lumpur, West Malaysia. A family member asked for a painting that could be entitled ‘Darkness to Light’, as he wanted it for an Eye Hospital. After months of pondering, and two attempts with other subject matter, I felt that dawn creeping over the mountains would best depict the sentiment. Thus it was, that this painting was done. I praise God that it was well received.

Mount Kinabalu is unforgettable. But it was the spirit and atmosphere that I was trying to capture more than the likeness, as I couldn’t really remember details, except from photographs that we had taken.


In good company
by Vianna Szabo, Romeo, MI, USA


“Cole Bay Day”
oil on canvas, 6 x 8 inches
by Vianna Szabo

Nothing gives me more hope than reading about artists of the past and how they struggled. I once read a book of Monet’s letters where he complained constantly about his ability and how he often felt his talent fell short of what he wanted to achieve. Yet Monet continued to paint everyday, never giving up, always pushing himself to the next level. I recently read notes about John Singer Sargent and how he too felt frustrated that he could not capture in paint what he envisioned.

This is why your letter on J. E. H. MacDonald made me smile. When we look at the great works from these artists we think they look so easy. We do not see the work and worry that went into them. When I have a bad painting day or question myself, I can be comforted by knowing I am in good company.


Recreating childhood haunts
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada

I am very much interested in the works of the Group of Seven. Living in Toronto, we are near the McMichael Center where their works are displayed. Their works are very innovative and have some sort of mystical quality. I am not a professional painter but I have a dream of recreating in my memory the haunts of my childhood in my hometown of Vigan City, in the province of Ilocos Sur, Philippines. Vigan was once called “El Ciudad Fernandina.” It had characteristic Spanish architecture. It is now considered a heritage site by Unesco. But most of these homes have replaced with more modern buildings and very crowded. I specially try to remember the street where I used to live. Bonifacio St. There was a great big Tamarind tree in the middle of the ruins of an enclosure which looked like a hacienda at one time where smaller homes had been built. Before and after WW II the street was mainly composed of these typical Spanish type of houses. We used to live in an apartment-like section of one of these homes. Part of the home was in ruins with remnants of stable stalls and a huge well constructed with brick and concrete. I am having problems with perspective of showing the back part of the house where this structure is located, an open porch called “azotea” where potted plants would have been thriving in its glory days. I wonder if there are sources of information in this type of architecture. It is hard to describe it in words but it must have been majestic during the Spanish Era in the Philippines who occupied our country since the 1500s. All is now a memory of my childhood.


The other side of the fence
by Saundra Spangler, FL, USA

Living in Florida for many years, my thoughts are often filled with snow, mountains and colors such as yours and MacDonald’s. Like cows in a good pasture, I yearn to graze on the other side of the fence. Methinks this is the reason so many northerners (we call them snowbirds) paint old falling down barns remembered from their youth instead of the swamp land, cabbage palms and all the shades of Florida green.


Comfort in difficult terrain
by Sam Liberman, Sacramento, CA, USA


“Now You See It”
pastel on canvas, 24 x 32 inches
by Sam Liberman

I was fortunate to see some of J.E. H. MacDonald’s paintings while in Toronto last year, and read some of his words apparently written at the same area you are visiting. I have particularly benefited from his advice that the first thing to do when painting outdoors in difficult terrain is to find a comfortable place to sit. It is seldom easy, but if I situate myself in comfort with regard to where the light is going to be coming from, where I can reach my materials, and where I can be at ease physically, I have a much better chance of coming up with something worthwhile.

(RG note) Thanks, Sam. This time we were able to locate more of the exact places where MacDonald sat. They were often appropriate rocks of about the right height — some of them appeared to be actually moved. MacDonald added his folded Mackinaw for extra comfort.



Photo of sketch made in 1930 shows foreground rock motif, and, in our current photo, a much reduced glacier.


Sara Genn sits where MacDonald sat for the previous painting. It appears he built it up a bit for a better view and composition.


Sara Genn, Chuck Putnins, Stan Munn and Patty Cucman. Stan and Patty have done definitive detective work on these ‘seats.’








Lake McArthur, Yoho Park. The rocks in this one are identical. While slow growing, the trees have changed in 78 years.


Photocopy of a small panel painted in 1926. MacDonald, who suffered from ‘weak lungs,’ climbed to remote places daily.


Location of previous painting from a MacDonald seat. Larches and other forestation are more in evidence now.


Opabin Creek, above Lake O’Hara. MacDonald painted this one while sitting on a mound where a tree had fallen.







Cheered up
by Steve Ruiz, Joshua Tree, CA, USA


oil on canvas, 30 x 20 inches
by Steve Ruiz

I love these letters I receive, but this one was great! I have been feeling quite the same way for awhile now. This definitely cheers me up. One thing I have learned in many years of painting is that even one bad day of plein air is better than being at work. Thank you for letting us peek into the life J.E. H. MacDonald.

(RG note) Thanks, Steve. Sara and I discussed for some time whether I should copy out all those complaints and self-diminishments. But, you’re right, hearing about the struggles and frustrations of others does tend to perk up the soul and give us fresh power.


Lake O’Hara plein air painting
by Sharon Lynn Williams, BC, Canada


“Cascade Lakes, hike to Opabin Lake”
plein air oil, 12 x 9 inches
by Sharon Lynn Williams

I was there at O’Hara at the same time that you were Robert. In 5 days of painting/hiking we had 3 days of summer, 1 day of fall and 1 day of winter. What an incredible place! I did 8 plein air paintings and 1 sketch. You can see them if you like on my ‘almost daily’ painting blog. Cheers!

(RG note) Thanks, Sharon. We probably passed one another on the trail. It’s a sort of metaphor for our game, isn’t it? Alone in our solitudes we fight our own demons. Perhaps we will meet next time.


Maps and illustrations
by Verne Smythe, Kelowna, BC, Canada

Are you aware of Lisa Christensen’s books? She has one titled The Lake O’Hara Art of J.E.H. MacDonald and Hiker’s Guide that illustrates and maps where many of the different pictures were painted. (I think it was this book that had one location I disagreed with!) Anyway, her book is excellent for the kind of experience you are discussing today! She was at one time the Associate Curator at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

(RG note) Thanks, Verne. Yes, Lisa’s book is an excellent guide to many of the MacDonald locations. It also gives an understanding of the sensitive and inquisitive nature of the painter who was drawn to the mountains every year from 1924 to 1930. While he threw many of his disappointments out, there are more than 100 extant oil sketches from the Lake O’Hara area, slightly larger than 8 x 10 inches, some painted on both sides of a panel. And, yes, there are still a few locations yet to be properly proven.


Fleeting light calls for a plan
by Mark A. Brennan, Whitehill, NS, Canada


“Open Water, Dayspring Lake, Liscomb, Nova Scotia”
oil on board 9 x 11 inches
Mark Brennan painted on location

I really enjoyed reading about J.E.H. MacDonald’s trials and tribulations at Lake O’Hara, it was reassuring to know that a painter of such greatness also struggled. There seems to be an inherent drive for ‘better’ inside many progressive artists who just cannot settle for mediocrity. Is this the part of MacDonald’s personality that propelled him to become one of Canada’s great painters? I think that artistic growth can only come through struggle from within. If we felt comfortable with everything we produced our learning curve would be somewhat flat. MacDonald hits the nail on the head when he uses words like, failed, troubled or labored, it speaks of a man who is seeking perfection and anyone who paints outside knows that perfection is as fleeting as the light.

I experienced this during a late summer painting trip to Northern Newfoundland and Labrador where I had a film crew following me around. Early one morning I had settled in to paint on location at Cape Onion on Newfoundland’s most northerly tip. The light was there one minute, gone the next as fog banks appeared and disappeared every 15 minutes. I went with my first idea of what I initially saw, early morning light, endless ocean and no fog; I commenced to get the details down when everything changed as the fog rolled in. Now try doing this while you’re being filmed. I remember the camera man squinting at my work wondering what on earth I was doing.

I managed to pull off something I was happy with and I think the film crew was relieved all wasn’t lost. It is difficult to paint on location in such conditions, the fleeting light MacDonald talks about is surely a challenge but obviously something that can be somewhat overcome with a plan of some sort. On location painting is a labour of love, I will be honest, I never get it correct, nature always seems to get the upper hand and I find myself chasing her beauty all over the country where time and again she stifles me, keeps me humble and also striving for perfection. There are however fleeting moments of joy when you think you may have captured something that resembles what you wanted to say and it is this that also keeps me coming back with brush in hand, bowed head, humble as always.


Posted painting now in possession
by Delores Hamilton, Cary, NC, USA


“Raku Roses”
original art quilt
40.25 x 36.5 inches
by Delores Hamilton

Several letters ago, you posted a response from Laurel Knight. I don’t remember her response, but her painting Trumpet Man spoke to me. On enlarging it, I couldn’t believe the incredible detail in this 5-inch x 7-inch piece. I wrote to Laurel to express my admiration, and she responded, alerting me to the fact that she was preparing to auction it on eBay. I bid on it and won it! I’m so thrilled. I wouldn’t have known about it if you hadn’t posted this painting along with her letter.


artwork by Laurel Knight

“Easy is right. Begin right, and you will be easy. Continue easy and you are right… The right way to go easy is to forget the right way, and forget that the going is easy.” (Chuang Tzu)



Great art is great art
by Jim van Geet, Australia


“Distant Thoughts”
oil on canvas
by Jim van Geet

I’ve just finished reading Germaine Greer’s book The Obstacle Race – the fortunes of women painters and their work. It took her 10 years of research and was her first book published after The Female Eunuch and within it she considers the eternal question — “Why have there been so few women painters of the first rank with the stature of Leonardo, Rembrandt, or Titian etc.?”

She comes to no clear-cut solution after her exhaustive studies except to say, “You cannot make great artists out of damaged egos, with wills that are defective, with libidos that have been driven out of reach and energy diverted into certain neurotic channels.” She also goes on to say that women are as much to blame as men and asks the question, “Why is women’s work usually so small? In output, format and pretension. Women rarely paint life-size or larger and choose subject matter not conducive to great art. As with everything there are always exceptions but they are rare.”

Perhaps indicative are the ratios of prize winners of current major art awards (In Australia anything over $25K). A quick check over the last 10 years shows a general ratio of male winners to women of 5 to 1. The gender of the jurors was equally divided. Interestingly there are 2 awards where the signatures are obscured and the artist’s identity unknown to the jury, however the ratio increased to 7:1 which would tend to eliminate gender bias.

This subject tends to raise more questions than answers as Ms. Greer found but gender bias cannot be held solely responsible for the inequality. Great art is great art whoever created it.


Older work for new
by Krysteen Waszak, Albuquerque, NM, USA


“River flowing”
original painting
by Krysteen Waszak

What are your thoughts on a buyer who bought one of your paintings and wants to trade it up or just pay the difference of an older work to a newer work?

Briefly, I am an artist re-starting my career. I don’t belong to a gallery as yet because I, for now, only exhibit once a year in a community art studio tour and I have an online website. An acquaintance previewed my work before my Art Studio Tour this year and the painting she wanted was sold, so she hastily bought her 2nd choice. I held this painting back the whole show — I guess I could tell it wasn’t her favorite but she was in the frenzy… I sold over 20 paintings that show, many folks admired her painting but it was ‘sold’ — she was at my house recently and saw something new I had in the works and loved it — now she wants to give me her painting back and pay the difference for this one. I don’t have a venue until spring other than my website which I really don’t sell from. I told her in the spring we can re-hang hers in my show — someone will buy it but until then I want full price on my new work — which she can certainly purchase now — (though I did want to hold back until spring to show it plus I really like it and want a good price for it). Thoughts? Thank you so much for your resource, I always enjoy your letters and use it for a guide.

(RG note) Thanks, Krysteen. My policy in this sort of event is to try to give the customer what they want. She’s offering to pay the difference — take her up on it. She’ll see that as fair. You’ll still have the older one to sell in the next show at the new price. Fair play brings friendship, and friendship is the most highly valued commodity of all. Even working with dealers it’s nice to hear about them being nice to folks like this.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for In search of spirit



From: Helen Zapata — Sep 22, 2008

I just came in from the studio, after stopping by the kitchen sink to scrub the paint off my hands. I made a cup of mango tea and settled in front of the computer to read your latest letter, Robert. I clicked over here to look at the paintings by J.E.H. MacDonald, expecting to see the struggle of which he wrote. Instead I could only gaze at them with a silent “Wow!” and take another sip of my tea.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Sep 23, 2008

Your words, “We also return from a day’s hiking and painting and try to pull things through on the verandah. More and more we realize…”

Not meaning to be whining, but I wonder how different my efforts would be if I could say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.

From: Melinda — Sep 23, 2008

I smiled to see Dirk Hiel’s Joyous Self-Portrait. It truly is!

From: Peter Trent — Sep 23, 2008

WOW indeed !

I never fail to be amazed at what our Canadian predecessors accomplished without the resources that we, to-day, take for granted and under conditions most of us wouldn’t even venture out in !

From: Don Bryant — Sep 23, 2008

What about the ‘rule’ to never have a grinning portrait? Not my rule, but I read and think I agree that a grinning pix, day in and year out, wears thin ,especially in those inevitable times when sadness dominates.

From: Sheila Chapman — Sep 23, 2008

I understand MacDonalds comments having been raised in the Rockies near Banff Nation Park. Each time you look up the light has shifted and the cliffs take on another shadow-light play. What is most difficult to capture on canvas is the feeling of peace, the quiet, and that soft fresh mountain air!

From: Dirk Hiel — Sep 23, 2008

That was a nice surprise, Featured Artist!

My inspiration came from the over-abundance of serious introspective self-portraits. I wanted to do something that reflected my spirit. A self-portrait was also a good way to show I can paint likeness. I saw Joaquin Sorolla’s work for the first time at the Hispanic Society in NYC: painting sunlight and whites like he did inspired me even more now. I couldn’t wait to get home to try it!

From: Rhonda Bobinski — Sep 23, 2008

Yeesh! Booing and hissing at a grinning portrait? Complaining that Robert wrote “we” instead of “I” because the responder is alone? C’mon you guys! Stop complaining and enjoy what Robert is so generous to share with us! We are lucky to have someone that is interested in sharing his artistic endeavors with us. We are lucky to look at widely smiling faces in art and in life. Grasp the positive and leave staunchy “rules” out of the art world. Kudos, Robert and thank you!

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Sep 23, 2008

Rhonda, I stand corrected. Thank you.

And thank you Robert!

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Sep 24, 2008

I paint Plein Air with a group on Fridays. I struggle and groan over the work, as anyone does trying to capture the scene. Yet, a day later, it looks so much better, or maybe not nearly as bad. I’ve learned to not do any more work on these paintings.

And a painting from a photo cannot compare. Oh, you can please ‘The Public’ with extreme photo representation, but then there’s a great deal lost.

J.E.H. certainly had color mastered.

From: Linda Mallery — Sep 26, 2008

Robert, Is it possible for you to recommend a few books on water color? Thanks

From: Janet Toney — Sep 27, 2008

I suppose we all search for spirit. But, probably we all infuse our work with our spirit. Sometimes after viewing the work of those I admire, my work doesn’t look as good to me. I compare myself to those others, and decide theirs is better & has more spirit, and more interest. As I mature, a new revelation has come to me. There is spirit in my work. It’s just not as screaming as some. But, it’s still there. Most of the time I’m not easily ruffled or riled. My work definitely has my spirit. My realization about my work didn’t just come to me. In fact an artist friend, whose opinion I respect, made a comment to me that made me see my art with new eyes, his!

From: Justine Heisel — Sep 27, 2008

Thank you so much for your letters. I do so look forward to it for inspiration. You do a great service to struggling artists!

From: Martha In Sechelt B C. — Oct 04, 2008

good paintings—but am alittle puzzled by the Wind blown aspen — by Cindy revell—–look ore like evergreens 2 me???? M G.

From: Mary Ann — Oct 20, 2008

Hello Robert. I was taken with your short video of June 2007 at Lake O’Hara. I loved what you were doing with the painting and the music was beautiful. I’ve tried to find the music (Songs of Longing) but haven’t been able to find it anywhere. Would it be possible to pass on a bit more info on it for me?

Your book is wonderful and it has a prime location in my home where everyone can look at it!

Mary Ann






Joyous Self-Portrait

oil painting
by Dirk Hiel, Edmonton, AB, 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 Mario Kujawski who wrote, “Working from nature is a struggle, never easy; but what a joy to be in Mother Nature’s presence.

And also Gulnar Sacoor of Portugal who wrote, “I took up painting in 2000, as a decision of the Millennium in order to fulfill my childhood dream and to begin to enjoy my life with what pleases and makes me happy. Thus honoring my life!”




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