The Parachute Principle

Dear Artist, Yesterday, photographer and digital artist Nikolay Semyonov of Rostov-na-Donu, South Russia wrote, “There are times my eye virtually stops seeing things that might make me press the shutter. This usually happens when I stay too long in the same place or at the end of a long session. My mind seems to get stuck. A period may last quite a long time. Whenever I feel it coming on, I try concentrating on details like webs, spots, stains, twigs, cracks, sunlight patterns, textures, etc. This primes my imagination. With patience, my mind gets activated by human figures, landscapes and other bright things. Do you or your readers know of any other systems?” Thanks, Nikolay. I’m sure the Brotherhood and Sisterhood will be forthcoming with further systems. I’m in tune with yours — what I call “macro-looking” to refresh the eye when among overly-familiar or tired subject matter. Here’s another similar subterfuge I call “The Parachute Principle.” I figured it out a few years ago when arriving for the first time in Brittany. I had flown Vancouver/London, London /Paris and Paris/Brest. After sixteen hours mostly buried in my laptop, I “parachuted” into an unfamiliar environment. Like a kid on his first visit to Disneyland, the taxi ride to the hotel was a revelation. Apart from the landscape and architecture, the passing humanity, their curious dress-code, their wide-set eyes and physical dispositions, even the way they looked at me was unusual. The cars — Citroens, Renaults, Peugeots — moving quietly on the pristine lanes were from another planet. In those days I was still smoking, and the airport-bought cigar strangely puffed French smoke toward the oddly-shaped head of my Breton driver. I lit and relit that cigar with alien matches. Why, I wondered, could I not always have this same visual innocence? I discovered “visual innocence” to be a learnable art. One needs to secretly and privately cultivate the self-delusion of surprise and even dismay. Natural to some, many simply lose it along the way. To renew and refresh, you need to focus on the payoff and regularly give yourself a small mental reboot. With self-management and repetition, even the painting you struggled with on Thursday is simply and effectively brand new on Friday. Best regards, Robert PS: “No inspiration comes from nowhere. No invention is based on nothing. You always need to be tuned up and be ready to start receiving the energy you look for.”(Nikolay Semyonov) Esoterica: The Parachute Principle is made palpable on our heli-painting drops. Arriving at high altitudes, we painters exit the craft and huddle together, shielding our eyes against the swirling detritus under the whirling blades. The craft lifts off and away and in 30 seconds is neither seen nor heard. We open our eyes to a silent miracle, a magical diorama not previously seen. The rocks, tarns, patches of snow, the very peaks at our feet and far away are somehow ours and we possess for the first time their beguiling designs. Hastily setting up our easels as if to devour this newness and novelty, we find ourselves asking why all of life cannot be simply and forever like this?   Nikolay Semyonov

Country road
digital painting


“Variations of school wall”
photo manipulation


“No man’s town”
digital painting


“Crows as usual”


“Music class”
digital painting


“Barb song”
photo manipulation

          Mental recuperation by Fiona Frisby, Ireland  

original painting
by Fiona Frisby

Whenever I grow tired from looking, and when everyday surroundings no longer appeal or excite, I take a rest from it all! I think it is a natural thing to have ebbs and flows in this way. Our physical selves often need recuperation, and so it is mentally. I am against too much forcing of the imagination. Switching off for a while and accepting the need for rest is the best tonic.     Painting refreshes the eye by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

oil painting
by Rick Rotante

There is nothing like your first kiss or first day of school. Remember when your mom was the prettiest girl you knew and when water balloons were the ultimate weapon. When race issues meant who among your friends was the fastest runner. There is a tremendous loss with the coming of age, but art helps to keep us young. I have always believed artists see with new eyes every time they paint. I try and do this with the only difference being I know how to solve the problem and get the work done.     There are 2 comments for Painting refreshes the eye by Rick Rotante
From: John F. Johnson — May 01, 2012

I realize this is the “Painter’s Keys,” but suspect that Robert has a large following of artists who are not painters. Having said that, I would like to suggest a small modification to your comment, i.e., that artists see with new eyes every time they “create.”

From: Rick Rotante — May 03, 2012

Fair enough John.

  ‘Clean eyes’ by redirected gaze by Pam Schader, CA, USA  

original painting
by Pam Schader

Monet once said he wished he had been born blind and suddenly gained eyesight. Dimensions, perspective, objects would all be fresh to him in that moment, without names, without relationships — field to ground. Imagine it! The old adage, “Clean eyes,” is the state achieved by simply directing your gaze elsewhere. At my studio, students like to hike down to the mail box and stare at it for a few minute, returning with clean eyes! Take a nap, take a walk or do nothing: our mental computer is ‘scanning for fit’ while we sleep; Eureka — there is the answer in the morning.   Mindfulness forsakes planning by Fiona Bruce, UK  

“Mamma’s angel”
oil painting
by Fiona Bruce

This joyful seeing anew is what can be experienced through what the Buddhists call ‘Mindfulness.’ As I understand it — and how it works for me — it is about being consciously present to each moment so that each moment is new. And we do not see things from the perspective of memory or expectation or projection. We simply see from a place of openness to what is before us — as if we had never seen it before, because, if this moment, and everything in it, is new and unique, then we have never seen it before! The other thing I would say is when I take photos, I do not plan the shots I am going to take. Rather, I wait for the image to ‘present itself to me.’ Again, it is about being conscious and open to what I encounter, not imposing a preconceived idea of a ‘good picture’ onto what I see. Instead of me projecting what I want to achieve, I wait for it to offer something up to me. I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s a particular mind-state that allows me to take good pictures. Then it is an intuitive, spontaneous act. It requires trust and patience. And practice. And it can’t be done by thinking about it! Of course, painting may require something different. But the ‘being in the moment’ awareness can be relevant to all creativity I feel… indeed, to all Life.   Fresh clarity after turning away by Keith Thirgood, Markham, ON, Canada  

“Arizona Mission”
original painting
by Keith Thirgood

When I worked as a professional photographer, one of the tricks we used to get people to look fresh and spontaneous was to have our subjects turn their faces away from the camera, close their eyes, blow out through closed lips to loosen the face, and then our command, “Look up wide-eyed at the camera.” It worked every time. They always looked fresh and alive. Then, as graphic artists, when we were working on a project, we always reached a point where we had looked at the work one time too many. It seemed stale. So we would walk some distance from the work, turn our backs on it, close our eyes and imagine the location where our work would be seen and then turn around and open our eyes and look at the work again. It always returned our minds to a state of fresh clarity. As painters, when we return to a familiar subject, we close our eyes and remind ourselves just how exciting and fulfilling painting can be, then open our eyes ready to gulp down the scene before us. Now, when we’re teaching a workshop or leading an art retreat, we use a similar tactic on the participants, if they’re having a hard time finding anything to paint. (It’s amazing that we can bring students to the same locations that inspired the Group of Seven, and someone will be lost and admit they can’t find anything to paint.)   Seeing out of the heart by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA  

“I’m Happy to Be Me”
oamaru stone
by Angela Treat Lyon

One of the biggest things I fight is the thought, “I know that.” The truth is I really don’t, because each new piece I do is a new territory completely. So I pretend I’m from another planet, and that I have no clue what a tree is, what air is, what the ocean is — and suddenly my eyes do a back flip and feel like they’ve quickened, and lines, shapes and colors pop out that were hidden before just a minute ago. I especially did that after moving from Hawaii to a backwoods area in New Mexico years ago. When I first looked, the land looked all blah tan. As soon as I became an alien — as indeed, I really was! — I could see the subtlety of the colors: beautiful greys, browns, ochres, rusts, soft lavenders… and little nuances shouting out like little fireworks in spring blossoms and cactus flowers. Another thing I do is pretend I’m going to die tomorrow, and ask myself what color I’d like to paint my last day in, and what shapes. I practically close my eyes as I paint, because it’s all feel. It’s almost like having eyes in, and seeing out of my heart. If I’m carving, I use both hands, because Leftie has a very different feel, logic and language from Rightie’s.   Always something more to be seen by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA  

“Fall creek pond”
acrylic painting
by Tiit Raid

Regarding Nikolay’s dilemma… the only out that I know of is what he is already basically doing — waking yourself up after noticing that you have fallen visually asleep — which tends to happen any time you spend a lot of time with something. It’s like with anything you are familiar with… once you think you have seen it the tendency is to go back on ‘automatic pilot.’ The ‘trick’ is to be aware that you have lapsed and then refocus. During my teaching days I drove through some beautiful Wisconsin countryside to and from school. I would look carefully what was around me, that being a primary part of an artist’s job, and I was asking my students to do the same. But I’d often have to ‘wake-up’ to actually looking to see what was out there. Sometimes I’d pretend that it was my first look at it even though I had observed it most everyday over a 30 year period in every kind of weather and season and lighting condition. I’m retired from teaching but not from art, and painting helps keep me from falling asleep to the appearance of the everyday visual world around me. A long look at the appearance of things is a constant reminder that there is always something more to be noticed and seen.   Let the brain breathe by Paul Fayard, Clinton, MS, USA  

“Sarah’s roots”
original painting
by Paul Fayard

Nikolay’s letter really struck several chords. As a painter who works a full-time job, I’m not able to paint on location nearly as much as I would like and often take reference photos to work from. I don’t show these photos and so don’t consider myself a photographer but I always have a camera with me to shoot from the hip. It drives my girlfriend crazy! We love to take walks and I’m always stopping. When you’re “tuned up” and “receiving energy” as Nikolay Semyonov says, the world is seen through the eyes of a child. In her defense, Sarah has come to be very patient with me. She understands my childlike condition. Sometimes we’ll come upon a painting waiting to happen and she’ll ask me why I don’t take a photo and I’ll have to simply admit that I’m done. I can’t see things the same because my mind’s eye is overloaded. It’s important to let the brain breathe. It’s been said that the medium is the message. Nikolay’s medium is always receptive and sees very differently than the human eye. To demonstrate, I have attached images of two paintings. The landscape was done on a drop as Robert described and the still-life was done from a reference photo. Some might think that they were done by two different painters. Maybe they were. As my friend Wyatt says, being there makes all the difference. The trick for me is to remember the feelings experienced while taking the photo. Maybe Van Gogh said it best: “Exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague.” Sarah and I have been watching the Seattle Insight Meditation Series videos by Rodney Smith. Through his training as a Buddhist monk, he teaches how to allow the mind to be calm and receptive. I imagine that being dropped on top of a mountain is like a highly concentrated dose of the Buddhist concept of attentiveness being injected into one’s heart and mind. As Wayne White says, “Being an artist is a lifestyle.” And as Robert’s words so eloquently elaborate, we are always striving to devour the beguiling novel designs of the magical dioramas that we are parachuted into simply and forever. Would that we could. It is pretty to think so. I for one don’t think I could receive that much energy unrelentingly. My brain’s gotta catch its breath.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The Parachute Principle

From: Sudhakar Karayi — Apr 26, 2012

He is a guide to all my paintings. I have improved a lot and started selling my work, thanks to Robert Genn. I follow his advice a lot.

From: Benita VanWinkle — Apr 27, 2012

Thanks Nikolay for the inspiring images, and for sharing your work! Inspiration comes from what you take into your heart, not just your eyes. I try to remember that every day when I am shooting, to just let myself take in the color, light, texture, rhythmn and balance of what is in front of me. Sometimes I just close my eyes so I can hear what I need to look at. I enjoyed the article!

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Apr 27, 2012

Good term; “Visual innocence”, I did not know I could be in control of it! I am glad when it is there, when I am traveling or in a new place or unusual weather, but when it is not there – so depressing.

All my usual subjects can look ordinary and tired. The same thing happens when working on a painting for several days and it begins to look pretty bad and loses its charm. However, with the painting, if I put it away for awhile, when I return to it a few days later, usually, I can see it with fresh eyes. I haven’t learned how to freshen my eyes yet when I am in a landscape or with a subject I usually like to paint and want to be inspired.
From: Ron Unruh — Apr 27, 2012

Thanks Robert. The term “visual innocence” intrigues me. I peer at the world through the eyes of an almost “70” year old person, so there are some physical limitations now. Yet, I know that your term describes the way that I want to see things now. I want to be charmed by the familiar and the known so that in these years everything delights me. I retired 4 yrs ago from a busy career so I now paint, write and grandfather. One of my grandsons happily lost his two front teeth this week. I see so many features of life in fresh glimpses of fascination and delight. I have moved from a large and beautiful home into a smaller livable carriage home with many new neighbours. I have a garden plot in a community garden and I see my seedling radishes emerging, and I haven’t looked for such things for a long time. I now intend to more plein air painting and I can hardly wait to see what I will see. Thanks again Robert.

From: LNunn — Apr 27, 2012
From: Nikolay Semyonov — Apr 27, 2012

Dear Robert,

I am really grateful to you for letting me have the floor in the discussion and even showing some of my works. Dear Benita, thank you for supporting my line: I strongly believe no camera, no lens, no digital graphic software may help unless your heart is silent. “Visual innocence” is quite a handy term to describe the link between the heart and the mind. Unfortunately, lots of us llose it with age in favor of the mind.
From: Arnold Bell — Apr 27, 2012

I think we are most likely all born with visual innocence and most all lose it as we mature. Others hold onto it for dear life, for they know what a treasure it is, still others feel the need so badly they are able to reactivate it.

From: Cindy Mawle — Apr 27, 2012

There is nothing like a day outdoors with my 3 year old granddaughter to freshen my view of the world around me……

From: Elle Fagan — Apr 28, 2012

Sometimes the problem stems from the physical…artists like to think we are immortal. Not true. And there are often fears of loss or injury to our physical mechanism for processing the creative input. But if we calm ourselves and realize it may not be some overwhelming esoterica but a tick in the back causing the problem, then it is easier:

– straighten up and breathe and stretch, looking away from the work – exercise the eyes, including a massage at the temples – apply a cloth of cool or warm water to the eyes and include the temples in this as well. – hydrate – water or tea or whatever may be all you really need – put the head down and let the blood flow to it for a moment – run around the house three times
From: Petra Spiesberger — Apr 28, 2012

Heartfelt thanks for this delightful read! Wonderful reminder to just stop and look and see the ‘silent miracles’ (LOVED that expression!) which are right next to us wherever we go. I often remember how ‘wonder-full’ it felt when I intensely looked at things when I was a child. You inspired me.

From: Kaye Guerin — Apr 28, 2012

I love to do experimental pieces, along with my more traditional painting and sculpture…stretching my imagination keeps my mind fresh and open to new possibilities, so art is always exciting!

From: Marshall Vanhelsland — Apr 28, 2012

As I read the newsletter I realized that your definition differs from the one I learned in the US Army Parachute School in 1966. The definition I learned was, “If your parachute is open don’t mess with it!!!” However, thinking about my definition it does apply to art as well. How often do artists try to fix some very minor detail and mess up the entire piece of work. I make furniture and I learned to apply this to my work as well.

From: Gillian Hanington — Apr 28, 2012

I move all the furniture and paintings in the house around. It gives me a whole new perception in my immediate sphere, but it carries over into the rest of my life, too. AND I’ve had a good physical workout as a bonus! I go to bed pooped that night, but with a view of my world refreshed as if its been through a spring rain and the next morning. Fabulous!

From: Sharon Cory — Apr 28, 2012

The trick I use to rekindle my interest in a subject, or sometimes in painting in general, is to imagine that the street (or building or person) I’m looking at is in a foreign city. Somewhere I haven’t been….like Tunisia. I’ve just landed, I’m walking around trying to get my bearings and everything looks fresh and exciting. I have new eyes! Suddenly I see an angle, a colour, two people standing and the painting is on.

From: Diane Overmyer — Apr 28, 2012

As visual artists we need to be mindful of visual overload. I remember feeling totally spent after spending a morning or afternoon studying works of art at major museums. I could have continued for days prior to really taking in everything a museum had to offer. I would feel guilty for leaving without even ventured into some of the exhibits. I now have realized that I need to afford my mind some down time. I grant myself this same mind shift when it comes to my own art work. If I am uninspired or feeling like I am running on auto pilot, I try to shift gears altogether. I cook, clean, nap, travel, get together with friends and family…do whatever it takes to get my mind engaged with something else totally different than painting. When I return to the easel, it is akin to that first glance out the window in the morning when the light and shadows seem brighter and more varied than any other moment of the day.

From: Veronica Funk — Apr 28, 2012

Last weekend I taught a group of middle school children the value of blind contour drawing, an exercise I had almost forgotten from college. As I was showing them the process of focusing on the subject rather than on your paper, I realized how important this exercise is in remembering to see the beauty in the most minute details. I think this is a practice I will have to carry forward – to connect the hand and mind, to really see what I am looking at, and to see with fresh eyes.

From: Mary Helen Garvin — Apr 28, 2012

I recall when we first went to live in East Asia many years ago, being wisely advised to take lots of photos during the first weeks there while we “still had our Canadian eyes”!

From: Brenda Behr — Apr 28, 2012

Nikolay Semyonov’s work is outstanding. If he’s lacking anything, it isn’t showing up in the work you shared with us. Perhaps he should consider trading places with one of us situated elsewhere on the globe. Wouldn’t an Artist Exchange Program be a grand idea? Sign me up if you know of one or want to start one.

Years ago a friend of mine would come back from Europe with the most incredible photos. This was before digital photography. She never took photos other than the ones she took when she traveled. Upon my US Air Force dad’s return from Libya in 1968, he claimed to see the green of the grass greener than he’d ever seen it. His eyes had been robbed of anything but the color of sand, sky and water for eight months. Nine years ago I returned to North Carolina after a thirty-seven year absence. Since then, I’ve tried my best to hold onto the visual impact of the salt marshes on the coast, the tall long-leaf pines and the red dirt that so distinguish this southern state. We draw best that which we are most familiar, we see best that which is new to us.
From: Marian Kemp — Apr 28, 2012

I find it very useful to keep the wonder of a child always in the forefront of my mind. I also “ground” myself in the reality of nature — its awe-inspiring beauty and balm to the spirit.

In this secular age, and with the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens trumpeting that there is no God, one hesitates, sometimes, to say anything about wonderment at “what God hath wrought”, but that does it for me, too. The Maker has, indeed, wrought a wonderful world. I think all artists (and artisans) need that wonderment at this beautiful world, and also to keep the awe and wonderment of a little child. I certainly never want to lose it. The man who raised me taught that the best men always keep a bit of the little boy in them. I can do no less as a woman. It applies to us gals in equal measure that it does to men.
From: Joann Slead — Apr 28, 2012

Nine months ago I was diagnosed with macular degeneration, what a depressing day, however, I now see things with a refreshed view everyday, praying it won’t be the last. With the new technology in treating eyes, I get an injection in the eye every 4 weeks, it is not a cure, but it helps me see for another 4 weeks of painting and seeing with a refreshed view.

From: Bela Fidel — Apr 28, 2012

Do self management and repetition make us a child again? Seems to me that this is what the Parachute Principle might be. Perhaps we can occasionally be childish but can we ever be a child again? While visiting new countries, seeing different people and their varied attires, I enjoy the novelty but do I see them with a child’s eyes? Nah!

From: Nancy McGrath — Apr 28, 2012

I liken your “parachute principle” to what happens to me (and probably everyone) when I come back home after having been away for some time. My mind has become used to looking at new things and seeing everything freshly and when I come home the same thing continues – I look at the world as if I was seeing it for the first time. It makes coming home almost as exciting as going was.

From: Gilda Pontbriand — Apr 29, 2012

Although I am a painter I have been taking photographs for years and it has been a wonderful pleasure ever since. I try not to use my mind when I am taking pictures or painting. I go out for walks with my camera hanging on my shoulder simply to enjoy the surroundings. That is it. After a few minutes of peaceful meditation I seem to become part of the landscape and then I appreciate all the little details that otherwise my eye would not capture. I become one with the universe, with the magnificent, with nature.

I keep on walking and it seems like the objects are asking me for attention. The beautiful cracks in every tree, their texture, their rich colors, their interesting shapes give me a kaleidoscope of beauty. Everything seems to come together. I had been out for hours taking photographs and I had never felt stuck. Every step I take seems to bring new and magnificent shots. So my advice would be that instead of concentrating on the external world, try to go deep inside yourself and stop thinking. Believe me!! It works like magic. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
From: tatjana — Apr 30, 2012

I have always been content to be left by myself anywhere, in a street, nature or in my house. I can sit quietly for a very long time and look at objects around me and just contemplate their form or effects of light. This sometimes surprises people (even family), but visual joy has always been very important to me. I suppose that many visual artists are like that, as long as we can find the time in this busy world to enjoy those quiet moments.

From: Catherine Johnson — May 01, 2012

Embody your ideas before beginning your artistic endeavour.

From: holly — May 01, 2012

Golly gosh Robert, i just love your insightful and skilled balance of tips and philosophy. I call that a whole brain-whole person centered approach. Not to mention your wonderful sense of humor and vigilance about not taking yourself to darn seriously. Wow, thank you brother.

From: Naomi McLean — May 01, 2012

At a workshop once our instructor made us draw the corner of a room, the light fixture, a plant pot on a stool, a doorway. Very boring. Then when we did have a more interesting still life it was a revelation, so was the open clothes closet. We made some super pictures.

From: Janet Blair — May 02, 2012

Thankyou Robert,it is wise advise.

From: Patti Collins — Jun 07, 2012

Just returned from a six week European holiday which included southern Spain, northern Germany and southern Denmark. I soaked up the beauty of the ‘new to my eyes’ landscape. When I returned home, to the Fraser Valley, I was awakened by it’s beauty. How wonderful that we can see through ‘new eyes’. Loved reading all of the comments regarding ‘looking as if you have never seen befoe.

     Featured Workshop: Evelyn Dunphy
050112_robert-genn Evelyn Dunphy workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Crawford Rock

oil painting, 16 x 20 inches by Sarah Gayle Carter, Richmond, VA, USA

  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 Nan Zimdars of Madison, WI, USA, who wrote, “I have two tricks I use. Focus on the patterns of shadows instead of looking at the objects. (Reflections also work.) Try to see only the negative spaces and look at everything that “isn’t.” Then when you go back to just looking at things, they look very different.” And also Rebecca Stebbins of Santa Barbara, CA, USA, who wrote, “In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept called “beginner’s mind,” which describes a way of approaching everything the way a beginner would: with freshness, openness, new eyes. There is a quote by Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.