Levels of complexity


Dear Artist,

During the last week I’ve been back in the studio preparing for a solo show. I’m in here at about 6 in the morning and generally stick-handle through to about 10 in the evening. Sometimes there’s a short mid-afternoon snooze — almost always there’s a ramble with my dog.


“Saturday Morning”
oil on panel c.1920
by Lawren Harris (1885-1970)

But mostly it’s just easeling along, sorting out problems, taking half-finished works in and out of frames, painting steadily with a fair degree of simultaneity, trying to decide what to do next. As they say, “It’s a wonderful life.” I’m sure the “high” is similar to dope. I can convince myself that this is the most evolved way of being. Studio happiness seems to have something to do with the levels of complexity that engage and challenge. This complexity in turn leads to a type of concentration that keeps you on form, inside your processes and on the cusp of “the joy mode.” Also, small, self-imposed, mini-deadlines help to keep the power up. The revved machine can accomplish quite a bit.


“Summer Houses, Grimsby Park, Ontario”
1926 oil painting
by Lawren Harris

The revved machine also enhances multitasking. As in time-and-motion efficiency, reference materials come more readily to hand and creative expediencies materialize out of the studio clutter. A kind of “grab and do” excitement prevails as one painting leads to another. Concert pitch makes for a sweet kind of sweat. At the same time, each painting has to be thought out on its own. There’s a worn path between the working stool and the contemplation chair. It’s fun to feel this yin and yang. Phone calls are taken in the contemplation chair. Some of the better decisions are made by another part of the brain while talking on the phone.

Yesterday, a young friend brought in a bag of California raisins. “For energy,” he said. He was a bit depressed and wondering if he was an artist or not. His work is understated and what I like to call “pure.” I suggested that he try to notch up his complexity. I told him that it’s the complexity that keeps an artist interested and involved. Complexity wards off the blahs. Complexity leads you to find your style and voice. Complexity, when mastered, makes you feel good about yourself. Complexity in the studio keeps you off the streets. I also suggested that he might try to keep it simple. We forgot about the raisins.


“Grey Day in Town” by Lawren Harris
1923 oil, reworked in early 1930s

Best regards,


PS: “Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.” (Winston Churchill) “Paintings come out of themselves.” (Lawren Harris)

Esoterica: One of the joys of show preparation is the revisiting of the better experiences from over the past year or so. I generally call my shows “Recent Work” because I never know, in the fury of the last minute, where the work may lead. The potential of the end game should not be underestimated. I’ve also noticed that second generation motifs can be the richest. It’s no wonder that for many of us, “best in show” often goes up wet. “If it wasn’t for the last minute, a lot of things wouldn’t get done.” (Michael S. Taylor)

This letter was originally published as “Levels of complexity” on October 26, 2004.


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“I need to get to work and disregard all the silly vagaries of personal feelings. Always, somehow, if one keeps working, something comes through.” (Lawren Harris)



  1. My deep thanks for including the quote by Lawren Harris. I read them all and their deep sentiments moved me. What a brilliant way he expressed his feelings, his brushstrokes, and his soul nature.

  2. Pamela Richardson on

    Thank you for sharing yet another wonderful letter by Robert, full of inspiration and quiet wisdom. I also very much appreciate the quotations by Lawren Harris, and seeing more of his amazing paintings! I share many of your wonderful mini newsletters with friends. Thank you!

  3. So enjoyed how your comments affirm my art experience…I sometimes dare to identify with your experience… then it is your “visitors/others” who reflect my perceptions and the quotes almost always
    bring and additional ah-ha opportunity. Thanks for your post and reposts…TREASURES!

    • Robert’s letters continue to inspire me, even from the other side. I entered my studio this morning in a bit of a funk and then read Lawren Harris’s quotes. Now I’m out of the funk and back at the easel. Thanks Robert.

  4. Thank you for sharing these wonderful letters There isn’t anything else quite like them. I have been using oil paint for one year, seeking my unique expression in abstracts. The encouragement to work on complexity struck me in a powerful way.

  5. Diane Voyentzie on

    “Complexity wards off the blahs” yes, that is a fine bit of wisdom. I hope I feel complex sometime soon!

  6. Patricia Wafer on

    What a wonderful painting by Lawren Harris. I found it heartening that anyone who could paint like that sometimes had the need to remind himself to get to work and not be distracted from it. Great pep talk for the day!

  7. Paulette Worrall on

    This letter is so me …I love it…the worn path between the working chair and the contemplation chair…I do always take my calls and a lot of the time eat my meals in the contemplation chair…thanks for these gems I always look forward to reading them!

  8. Thank you for these inspiring letters. Been reading them for a while and appreciate your continuination of Bob’s letters.’

  9. So inspirational and just what I needed. Love the images and the quote is spot on!! Just wonderful. So grateful you keep sharing these gems with us. So valuable and helpful.

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