The order of things


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, hanging over the shoulder of a friend, I watched him put in the sky, then the barn, then the grass in front. “That’s logical, isn’t it?” he asked, not requiring an answer. I agreed. He’s not the kind of guy to suffer fools. Thinking about my friend’s relatively simple subject, I realized that I give a lot of thought to the order that I’ll put in my various elements.

Now there are lots of superb artists who leave order more in the hands of the gods — and there is indeed a place for gods in the process — but here are a few protestations from the pulpit. I’ve noticed that artists who leave the foreground to the last tend to end up with weak or wonky foregrounds. Not always, but generally. Also, what’s down in front can have a powerful influence on the effectiveness of the middle and background. It’s a good idea to understand what’s happening in the foreground first. Don’t make it an afterthought. Secondly, I’ve always found it valuable to cruise my subject matter and my chaotic ideas to see where problems might be lurking. By looking ahead, compositional pitfalls can at least be anticipated. Also, it’s tempting to start with the easy part — only to find out later that you’re in the glue. Sometimes it’s a good idea to start with the hard part. Thirdly, to make truly effective work you often have to extract essences from relatively pedestrian subjects. This is why you have to put on the old thinking cap. Early thought awakens potential. Early thought opens up your options of order.

Cruising for order finds opportunities for the likes of gradation, patterning, aerial perspective, coming to light, eye-control, and all those personal and unique stylistic nuances that you need. Thinking ahead to techniques such as “overshoot and cut-in,” you can, for example, anticipate counterpoint. Calculating design-force or working out negative areas can bring on abstract qualities that may add visual magic. Order sorts itself out. You may not see the order in total, but a way will become clearer. The sky could very well come last. Paintings are not only painted, they’re woven.

“It needs a fencepost here, don’t you think?” my friend said. “Too late,” I said, “The horse has already left the barn.”

Best regards,


PS: “Painting is the passage from the chaos of the emotions to the order of the possible.” (Balthus)

Esoterica: By changing your regular order of doing things, or better still, re-thinking the order needed for each individual work, you shuffle the deck. As each work becomes a unique game, surprises happen, growth occurs, and the creative play is seldom dull or boring.


Royal Order of the Bath
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff


painting by Susan-Rose Slatkoff

One of the most important things to do in life is to become aware in each moment. For example, when you take a shower, what do you usually wash first, second, etc? Once you know your patterns, the yogis say, “Change them, shake things up, and observe your reactions.” Good idea to do with the painting process.




Concepts defined
by Vae Hamilton, Conover, NC, USA


painting by Vae Hamilton

Your letters always provoke new ideas and I enjoy them immensely. In today’s letter there are a couple things that I don’t understand: “Thinking ahead to techniques such as “overshoot and cut-in,” you can, for example, anticipate counterpoint.”

What is “overshoot and cut-in” and “counterpoint” in regards to art?

(RG note) “Overshoot and cut in” is one of the great concepts in painting. There are essentially two ways to approach a line — one is to paint over it, the other is to paint short of it. When you overshoot you paint the local colour beyond the edges indicated by your drawing or your imagination. Then you “cut in” the negative area surrounding.

Counterpoint, as in music, are those small grace notes that enliven the work and contrast with the general theme. Spots of colour, minor complexities, shapelets, gradations, calligraphies, liberties, holidays, that sort of thing. Counterpoint adds additional interest and activation that sets up the viewer’s eye to be “fascinated.”


Blah blah blah
Gail Griffiths

I’m reading your letter “The order of things” and even for the third time going through it this is what I experienced: “blah blah blah blah blah blah, horse has left the barn, ha ha, blah blah, cut in, blah blah blah.” With total respect for your creative mind, ability to write and stimulate thought I have to wonder, were you pulling at straws, is your pen to paper deeper than I could comprehend at that moment or is there a hidden trinket, a donut on the carousel to be had if one gets it?

(RG note) In some ways I’m like my dog Emily — sometimes when she is running on a sandbar she is a bit too exuberant and her rear legs get ahead of her front ones. Then again, my object is to try to make artists think. And sometimes to ask questions like Vae Hamilton’s, above, which gives me a chance to clarify. Funny thing I’ve realized, no matter what I write about there is someone who will write a letter like this ‘blah blah blah’ one. And for a time it will worry me a bit. Then there will be a note like this one from Chase Almond who wrote ten minutes later: “This was one of your most insightful letters to date — keep up the great work.” It all puts me in mind of the advice my mother gave me years ago: “You can’t please everybody — just be yourself.” It’s all so funny though, and every day we get great laughs in this studio. A few minutes later this one came in from Pam Bentley: “Roger, I would like to thank you for your last letter ‘The order of things.’ I have recently found myself in just such a situation, including the addition that you mentioned. Your comments have helped me to recognize my problem. Your letters are greatly appreciated.”

Today, Carol Anne and Andrew have been calling me “Roger,” and, while painting, I have been thinking what donuts I can next put on the carousel.

by Ankevmul

I loved the idea of “cruising” your subject — and I’m struck by the similarity (I think) to the valuable technique of free writing as a way to begin a piece of writing — a poem, for instance. To put down the phrases as they come, leading to the next, etc., gets you around to an idea, or around the sides of an idea you might have had in mind, but it opens up the whole process of discovery instead of cutting it off with too early preoccupation with “logic” or anything like a finished product. So — when you “cruise” your subject, do you sketch it from different angles, do you play with different perspectives — or do you think and imagine it all in your mind only?

(RG note) Cruising means letting your eye and your mind’s eye wander over subjects or ideas. Specifically with paintings, many artists find it worthwhile to look at the various reference elements with a critical and forward-looking eye — with the idea of anticipating the ways the transition to a further artistic expression might be accomplished. Keep in mind that one’s unconscious mind works on problems too, and the fruits of the unconscious are most valuable. For some reason these fruits often take a while to ripen. Let your cruising be filled with patience.


Puts sky in first
by Mervin First

I sketch out the whole scene, and paint from top (sky) to bottom, only to keep from dragging paint thru the yet unpainted parts of the scene. Doesn’t this have something to do with the order of things?


Created a monster
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakvile, Ontario, Canada


painting by Mary Jean Mailloux

I wish I had received this letter 2 weeks ago. Don’t know if it would have changed my modus operandi, but in any event it’s too late. I’ve been working out the specifications on a commissioned watercolour while trying to create a painting. When left to my own devices and not required to reproduce something to reflect the client directly, I am becoming less constrained in my approach. Worried more about content than balance and composition (I did consider these two), I created a monster of a painting, which I find heavy and overworked. I started with the easy part, then did a hard part and then an easy part. The result is some lovely watercolour techniques in a generally confusing painting. I’m going to do it over again and try to simplify and lighten. If only I had considered the foreground to a greater degree when I first blocked the colours.


Empty rack
by Sheila Grabarsky


painting by Sheila Grabarsky

I recently moved and chose to chuck my old old canvases. I literally slashed them with a mat knife and tossed the stretchers as well. I cut up about 20 two times a week for about 4 months. I was glad to do this; living at the shore made many moldy. More importantly — I was quite past the time in my life that those canvases had much meaning to me anymore. Oh, I saved one or two from distinct transitions and any that were too meaningful and were not moldy. It was a really good catharsis. I was able to look all the way back to the ’70s and literally see my growth emotionally and artistically. I had so much anger to work through and I did it through my paintings. I am not angry today. It was a great literal ending of the anger I used to feel. In my studio now I have the 20 or so that could be saved and I chose to make the move. I also have a large empty rack for future works!


Art for the Kelowna fire
by Betty Newcomer

I sent a copper scratchboard to Stewart Turcotte’s Gallery today, for either an auction, or a gift to someone. I do believe they [the recipients]would prefer the money if they lost everything, however, I do not know how those people feel about original art, but in this community, I know the money would take priority! I sent the drawing to him, as I imagine the response will be large, and I thought the Gallery could handle it better than a studio. The cost of shipping from Ohio is high, and had to ship through the Post Office, as neither UPS nor Federal Express would ship to Canada. I hope it is a success. They are good people [Isabelle, and Stewart] to do this !!!

(RG note) Thanks, Betty. Stew phoned today to say that the response has been gratifying. See the letters by Isabelle Prenat and Stewart Turcotte in the previous clickback. Thank you to all who are participating in this benefit.


Spreading the word
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA


painting by Julie Rodriguez Jones

The responses by Isabelle Prenat and Stewart Turcotte, to Fire Duty along with your offer of donated art, prompted me to write to them to also offer items of art to be donated to the fire victims and for the auction. I also wanted to do something more when I received a note back from Isabelle, asking to spread the word to other artists. I’ve decided to put up a notice on my home page ( and then have a link with your letter, their responses and contact information ( Perhaps others will do this too. I’d like permission to post Elk Bath as this photo dramatically illustrates the devastating nature of the fire.


Tears of goodness
Mickie Acierno

I sit here with tears in my eyes and wonder at the goodness in people. Thank you Stew for knowing what was important in the Kelowna fire, and thank you Robert for sharing this story.


Gerri McCullough aka olika

I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your letters. They always give me a new perspective. I also wondered if you have ever visited the WetCanvas! site. I am in there at least once a day and it has had a great and positive effect on my learning to be an artist. It is made up of a lot of members and is free or you can pay for the subscription. That is totally up to the person. If you get a chance and if you are interested have a look. I know that a number of members subscribe to you as they often mention you in the postings.

(RG note) WetCanvas! is an excellent artists’ site and we recommend it every day. It’s loaded with info, valuable commercial connections and open forums. Many of the RG twice-weekly letters are republished on WetCanvas! at a feature called “Behind the Easel.” The wide-ranging forums are at


Retouch varnish
Tricia Migdoll, Byron Bay, Australia

I am about to start on a BIG painting — over 1 metre x 2 metres. There are 13 figures in the painting — (the setting is of them traveling on a boat). This is an oil painting and I planned to “paint in the scene” before I painted in the figures. Because this is such a big painting, with 13 figures in it, it will take me some time. My question is about retouching varnish. The way I paint is very slow. I can imagine doing the sky, the sea, and the boat first — then starting on each figure and taking it to a near finished point — and then going back and continuing to work on each figure.

One teacher told me that it is a golden rule to always use a retouching varnish after a two week break on a painting. Another teacher told me he never uses it. But I had an experience with one painting I did where a spider shat on the painting — so I touched the little spot up without retouching varnish and spoiled it. My concern is that when I return to each figure, at least two weeks will have passed and I won’t be able to retouch the whole painting as parts will still be wet. Any ideas how I should work this — pace myself etc, to avoid this problem?

(RG note) I recommend that you think this one out first and perhaps reverse your order by looking after the people and the boat first. As you have suggested, pace yourself so that you are working outward wet-into-wet from the central characters. Wet-into-wet is almost always preferable in oil. I would not become dependent on retouch varnish to solve “sinking in” or blemishes such as spider poo. If something like this happens, scrape off the area. Put a loose shroud over the work every night and give it a proper varnishing when it is thoroughly dry at the end.







Szerzoi jogvedelem alatt!

3D Illustration by
Fendrik Peter, Hungary


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, 2003.

That includes Russell McCrackin of Corvallis, OR., USA who wrote, “Sometimes the sky is first, sometimes last, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes the biggest decision is about the smallest thing. Does that tree need just one more leaf?”

Also, we often get letters from professionals who are complaining about the job of being an artist. We don’t publish these unless they have some unique insight or educational value. We try generally to be positive. Sorry. As an antidote, how’s about these two photos sent by Tamara Taggart under the title “Don’t complain about your job.”


Photos contributed by Tamara Taggart


Contributed by Tamara Taggart


Contributed by Tamara Taggart










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