Dear Artist,

“With our calculated sensitivity we artists are able to see and to some degree reproduce nuances that others may know of but not be able to express. That’s why we’re so highly paid.” Every once in a while, in a workshop or a speech, I mention something like the above. Funnily, this line always gets a laugh. Artists roll their eyes and think, “Oh yeah — highly paid — who does he think he’s kidding.” I’ve never thought I was kidding.


Orange Glass Bowl
watercolour, 1995
by Mark Adams (1925 – 2006)

I’ve always thought of artists as professionals doing their jobs. A doctor, for example, is highly paid for knowing which organ to cut, which knife to use. The same goes for lawyers and accountants. A pilot knows the subtleties of taking off and landing. When the need arises a float-plane may have skis.

Shared by Canada and the USA, Lake of the Woods, at the western edge of the Canadian shield, covers 1485 square miles and has 65000 miles of shoreline. There are 14000 islands. Right now you can walk anywhere on this lake. It’s overloaded with nuance. It’s the third week of April and there’s still three feet of ice. The islets, like new-cut gemstones, rise up from a blanket of dazzling crystal. White and red pines, spruce and cedar reach into the sky and appear to be in worship. Up close, last fall’s birch-leaves — crinkled, sienna — survivors of winter’s stamp. Pussy-willows whisper. Pollen floats. Counter-light electrifies spring’s tiniest buds. Edge-lit birch-bark. The language of courting geese. Pileated woodpeckers drumming and hammering. Vole-routes underfoot, last year’s aspen-fall, a still-frozen beaver-lodge, bracket-fungus on old firewood, deer bones, the ashes of last summer’s crayfish. Early trilliums. First swallows. Bright lichens. Blue bubble-ups in green ice. Delicate gradations of reflected light. Shades within shadows. Nuances not seen until reminded. Nuances not seen until seen.


Glass of Water
watercolour, 1987
by Mark Adams

The straightforward, professional, riches-winning, two-word method of recognizing nuances, both in real life and in spirit: “Fly in.”

Best regards,


PS: “To be able to observe with a stranger’s eye — permits one to see with an artist’s eye.” (Jean Rostand) “Nature possesses more variation and invention than we do. For an artist, it’s a matter of seeing and choosing.” (Mark Adams)

Esoterica: Nuance (Fr. nuer — to shade) means shade of colour or meaning. “A delicate difference.” For a professional artist, “brown” is not quite good enough. “Raw umber” is better.

This letter was originally published as “Nuances” on April 22, 2003.

Two books on Mark Adams’ watercolours are available at Amazon:
Mark Adams” by Robert Flynn Johnson and “A Way with Color” by Lorna Price



  1. Subtle is good. Nuance can tell the story without all the fanfare and whiz-bang of the modern media. It takes time to see and understand subtle nuances – much longer than the .5 second video flash or sound bite. Let me live slower and appreciate more. Thanks Robert… and Sara…

  2. The work I see professionals produce hardly ever contains anything graphic that expresses something where a nuance is expressed. Usually, it is obvious the professional artist is looking for a sale and has chosen the subject and produced a composition designed to produceto produce just that, nothing more. To my knowledge, there are very few artists who produce work where nuances are relevant to the composition. It would have been interesting for you to provide contemporary examples and pointed out the nuance expressed.

  3. Beautifully written!
    An odd thing, I have many times, perhaps always, encountered in my profession as an artist, something the doctors and lawyers and accountants and pilots don’t encounter; that all around me everyone thinks they know art as well as anyone else, and freely speak their ignorance. One may ask the doctor a question, but the respect is there. Not so with art. In art everyone is a know-it-all in this culture; in my culture.

    • It may have been that way at one time, but my husband feels more like a waiter than a doctor now.
      People don’t come in for a professional opinion, they come in for what they want, and demand it.

      • Catherine McLay, Cochrane AB on

        At a party in Montreal man years ago, noted Canadian author Hugh MacLennan was
        chatting with famous brain surgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield. Penfield remarked: “When I retire, I’m going to be a novelist.” MacLennan replied “Oh how interesting! When I retire, I plan to become a brain surgeon!”

    • Here is another way to look at it. Medicine or Law, is not about beauty. Art, to me, is about beauty. I agree that producing art, like practicing medicine or law, takes skill. May I suggest we separate the production of art from the appreciating of it. My sincere wish is that we encourage everyone to appreciate…..even the amateurs. And if there are diverse views in the appreciating…..well, it is a diverse world we live in.
      Actually, as a teacher of beginners, I hold the view that we all have art within us somewhere, and if we can get past the fear of other’s opinions, we can enjoy producing art, and appreciate the diverse results, regardless of skill level..

  4. Nuance as a feeling is difficult to portray in itself. Nuance as a slight change in colour or shade may be easier to find in a painting. The most intriguing nuances are the ones that leave the viewer thinking or having a feeling about the work that connects in a way that is memorable for them. The artist in turn is merely creating the nuance to express another element to the work. On many occasions, I find the viewer will pick up their own set of nuances that they found in the work; therefore, the work is speaking for itself and ultimately, that is what the artists are looking to express.

    • Watching and listening for nuances or nature speaking, looking at the changes in the colors of the leaves, and looking at the birds and other animals as I walk makes me wonder why people would bother with ear phones while walking or jogging.

  5. Oh, what a dilemma!
    I love this newsletter and the insights that are shared, but I hate having to click and come to the website to read it. Is it not possible to receive the whole newsletter in my inbox?

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