The persistence of vision


Dear Artist,

One of the more surprising of Robert Henri’s classroom ploys was to have a model posing in one room and the students painting in another. Even with folks bumping into one another in the doorway, the system was a developer of quality.


oil painting
by Robert Henri

Fact is, with subject matter close at hand we can turn into lazy observers or over-dependent ones. The disadvantages of camera dependency have long been known — you can get all kinds of instantaneous reference without having to look thoroughly at the wonder. When subject matter is a little more remote and hard won, we contemplate and absorb more and yet tend to bend design elements to suit both ourselves and the needs of the work.

Currently there’s a world of pros who have computer screens beside their easels–ready reference at the touch of a mouse. It’s an obvious efficiency. Try moving the terminal to some place where you have to get up and go look at it. You’ll find yourself taking more time to cruise the material and noting the nuance of colours, patterns, tones and feelings that don’t always appear so readily when the stuff is in your face. With the walk-away system you can “burn in” the big picture. Heightening your abilities of observation, it makes you a sharper designer, a greater lover of our visual gifts and more self-directed and willful in your creativity.

Here’s an exercise with two parts: Look at something that interests you, even a photograph of something that interests you. Let your eyes lovingly move over it, noting particularly its formal values such as gradations, patterns and linear connections. Then, focusing on some central spot, let your eyes go slightly out of focus and allow the whole image to sit on your retina for a few seconds or even a minute. Like a camera, you’ll burn in an image that you can refer to as you need it.

For those who may be trying to wean themselves of photo dependency, here’s a compromise: Forget the slick reference. Print yourself a small black and white image or two and hang them beside your easel. Without the tyranny of colour, you’ll be aided in the understanding of relative tone values. More than anything, your own imagination will be released from a stifling confinement to fly free.


Robert Henri

Best regards,


PS: “It is easier to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it. A good picture is the fruit of all your good living.” (Robert Henri, 1865-1929)

Esoterica: It’s generally a good idea to try for “tone-truth.” This means more or less correct tone values and believable light and shade in at least one part of your picture. For most of us, obtaining tone-truth is more difficult than drawing and composition put together. That’s one of the reasons why many artists decide not to go there. Tone-truth requires patient trial and error until things finally look right. Surprisingly, photos can often give you a bum steer. You kind of have to drag those zinger relationships up on your own.


Value of contemplation
by Dave Graham, Estelline, SD, USA


“Good year Arizona”
original painting
by Dave Graham

Your letter brings sharply to mind the caution of Alphonse Bertillon: “One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind.”It reminds the artist — as well as any other whose life depends upon observation and seeing — that unhurried, thoughtful, probing observation transcends the ability of the quick, all-inclusive glance to permit expansion of the mind’s receptivity to retinal impulses to the optic cortex… and ultimately to the centers of visual memory and correlation.



Freedom from reality
by Carolyn Newberger, MA, USA


original painting
by Carolyn Newberger

This summer I bought a brilliant bouquet of zinnias at the local farmers market and just had to paint them. I dashed off a watercolor, trying to capture the brilliance of the pinks, oranges and reds. The painting was awful. Last month, I decided to try again, but this time, all I had for reference was the lousy painting with its garish splotches of color, and my memory of how the flowers had knocked my socks off. Freed from reality, but with the memory vivid from the messy painting in front of me, I crafted a new painting. I added and removed paint with abandon, invented a cut glass bowl to make sense of the blowsey bouquet, and striped wallpaper to keep the whole thing from flying off the paper, and worked to capture the inner excitement rather than the literal flowers themselves. The result was a painting that delights and excites me. Imagine!

There is 1 comment for Freedom from reality by Carolyn Newberger

From: Win Dinn, Painted Turtle Gallery — Dec 26, 2009

You nailed it! Gorgeous painting…


Putting the reference away
by Julie Eastman, Chapel Hill, NC, USA


“Red House and Lavendar Sky”
acrylic painting
by Julie Eastman

One of my favorite exercises is to ask my students to prepare a small sketch of a photo reference, then to put the photo away (not to be looked at again) and use only the small sketch to develop a much larger painting. This helps the students learn how to switch their loyalties from the photo to the painting, and they start thinking about how to make the painting work in and of itself. During the process, they often learn that they missed capturing something important in their sketch, which helps them to observe better the next time.


Technology of a caricaturist
by Kerry Waghorn, North Vancouver, BC, Canada


George Bush illustration
by Kerry Waghorn

I have found that in doing caricature or portraiture or whatever, that what you have said is a real aid. Scan the photo reference, run it through Photoshop, do automatic levels and contrasts in adjustments (not like the old days where you had to do it manually) then set curves, do one B&W on light to get the shady areas detailed in line and then one on darker to get the tones that are more subtle. With these two (usually 5 – 6.5 inches high at 72 – 200 dpi) you have good reference away from color and easy to print. From there you go. To me this is all legit. You still have to do the work, it just makes the prelims easier.


There are 2 comments for Technology of a caricaturist by Kerry Waghorn

From: Kelly Miller — Dec 27, 2009

Doesn’t much look like George to me, but that’s your prerogative. You’re the artist! Photoshop is terrific.

From: Joyce — Feb 22, 2010

It’s a caricature, Kelly, that captures character rather than likeness!


The fine art of noticing
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA


“For the children”
mixed media
by Kittie Beletic

While driving around yesterday doing last minute Christmas errands, my daughter and I played a game that involved noticing our surroundings. We would ask each other questions like “What was the color of our waitress’s blouse?” or “What did that billboard say?”; “What did the building next to the billboard look like?”; “How many people were standing at that bus stop?” We were surprised at what we did and did not notice!

In the evening, as I was sketching a bit and then working with textiles, I was recalling a specific scene – of course I have a picture of it somewhere but can’t find it – and in my mind’s eye it was detailed and specific. What came out in my artwork was blocked, abstract and full of color. I like how this piece is turning out far better than the original real life picture and it occurs to me that the translation, when allowed, can often be not only a reflection of the artist within, but of the human being within, as well. My artist self is whimsical and colorful. My human being self reaches out to touch the hearts of others.

There are 2 comments for The fine art of noticing by Kittie Beletic

From: Anonymous — Dec 26, 2009

Wonderful fun!

From: Dottie Dracos — Dec 28, 2009

I love, love, love your work! Thanks for sharing it.


The dumb eye
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“July day”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

It is the artist who makes the camera image a master and not a helper. By adopting a different view of the photo image, you can take away much of the dependence. I see it as a handy tool like a Phillips head screwdriver. No one gets too attached to a screwdriver! I did plein air painting for twenty years and find this experience a huge help in the studio. Looking at the photo, I know the values are wrong and the color as well. What I do get from the photo are ideas about composition, patterns and light and some great reference for details. When I take photos, I don’t take them as a professional photographer would. I take them as if I were panning around looking for images, much like I did in plein air. I’ve learned that my camera likes the color blue and makes the skies way too blue and dark in value, it darkens shadows and removes color from them, eliminates many middle tones, bleaches out lights turning light middle values into near whites. I suppose I could manipulate these flaws with Photoshop by why bother. In my paintings I strive for the same goals I did in plein air. I search for a sense of light, exaggerate color to create interest, look for shapes and patterns. Hopefully a certain mystery comes through. My studio paintings look very different from the photo reference and hopefully more akin to plein air. A patron at an art show once remarked to me that a camera ‘captures reality.’ I believe many in our culture have internalized this view. With this view, the camera image sets the standard for ‘realism.’ In reality the camera lens is just a different sort of eye than our own and what it records is just as much an abstraction. It’s a dumb eye that beautifully records details but does not emphasize, synthesize and edit like our wonderful human eye. By removing the godlike worship of photography, the artist robs it of its addictive power and remains free…. free to be imperfect and to be human.

There is 1 comment for The dumb eye by Paul deMarrais

From: Bill Hibberd — Dec 25, 2009

Good point Paul, I’ve observed in my own clumsy efforts and the works of other painters a more credible version of reality than what I see in photography. I will say black and white photography seems to capture the sense of a place or person pretty effectively,in my opinion.


Wonderful possibilities of digital detail
by David W Zuck, Midlothian, VA, USA


“Summer lumen”
original painting
by David W Zuck

I appreciate the thrust of what you are saying about easel side digital imagery, but I have to disagree with you on the issue of subtle nuances. I’ve been using the method that you are criticizing for many years, starting before the general trend that has taken off. I definitely have to break off from looking at both painting in progress and photo reference and get way back to see how things are going. However the more I look at my digital screen the more I see incredible and delightful nuances of value and color. It is hard to find a stopping place because there is so much there. It is necessary to work from the very best photos that one can produce and this is an art in itself, certainly made much easier with the great advances in digital photography. I also belong to a plein air group and appreciate the dynamics of this approach. I have found that just winging it after starting a painting with digital photo reference usually doesn’t yield a satisfying result to me. As with plein air, observed detail is best for rendering a lively and truthful work. It makes me way less self conscious in my paint application. Philosophically it is difficult to reconcile the photo reference method with the whole purpose of making art pieces, because if you already have a great photo why is it necessary to repeat it with a painting? My only recourse is to paint as though it were plein air, with as much free brushing as possible.


Transferring sketches to the computer
by Michael Fuerst, Urbana, IL, USA


“Steph and Kate”
original drawing
by Michael Fuerst

I often take an in-between approach by sketching “somewhat stationary” persons who are either watching or performing music, or chatting in a coffee shop or pub. The subjects rarely know they are being sketched. I usually end up with a convincing, dynamic, non-portrait likeness. The sketches typically take 10-30 minutes.

If caught in the act by the victim, and the victim likes the sketch, I usually give away the original or an emailed copy. I rarely keep my sketches of children because I have to bribe children to remain relatively stationary by promising them the sketch.

Since I often work in dimly lit places and a scribbly style (somewhat reminiscent of Giacometti’s sketches) and erase a lot, my favorite medium is a Derwent water soluble 4B pencil. If I am working in good light, watercolor or water soluble pencils might sneak in. Sometimes sketches end prematurely when the subject leaves. I transfer the sketches to the computer via photographs, and use a photo editing program to either adjust the contrast, manipulate the background, and/or do very minimal touch-ups.


Switching to black and white
by Doug MacBean, Hamilton, ON, Canada


“Double shift”
oil painting
by Doug MacBean

I work almost exclusively from my own photos, this time I said (to myself) “switch the composite into black and white, and concentrate on tonal values.” This has forced me to re-examine the colour importance against solid modeling of my forms. The tonal aspects are more important to my preferences, and colour is taking a back seat, for a change. This is a good thing. Now I am looking at simple cools against warms, with emphasis on more tactile elements. I often forget the image I am working from, and continuously ask myself if this is something of my own vision, or just a copy of a photo.

There is 1 comment for Switching to black and white by Doug MacBean

From: Reggie Sabiston — Dec 25, 2009

First of all, I love your painting. Secondly I think I will try this in order to concentrate on the tonal values (which is a very good lesson). I have done this once before and with good results. Thank you for reminding me.


The limits of efficiency
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands


“Zebra, Antwerp Zoo”
pencil sketch
by Robin Shillcock

Memory training produces the best results for an illusionistic painter. Having sketched wild animals in the field for many years, I never realized that I had a really “muscled brain” where memory was involved until I started model drawing with colleagues. In three-minute poses I got in the whole model, pose, facial features and chiaroscuro, while my artist friends were still struggling with basics, as in stick-figures. I’m not saying my sketches were masterpieces but precise in a very simplified way. They were about understanding what I was seeing, about perceiving. The problem with the Kodachrome Generation and the Microsoft Generation follow-up is that many do not learn to perceive. They don’t have to; the image, right down to the nitty-gritty detail, is there all the time on a screen, and the pc can regurgitate it at a moment’s whim. All they need to do is look. They don’t need to understand.

Illusionsitic or representational painting is in most cases re-creation, especially where the subject is the living thing like say a polar bear breaking through the pack ice to get at a young harp seal or, closer to home in Holland, a moorhen scuttling across a frozen canal: before the pencil touches paper it’s gone! So you have to draw from the image in your mind’s eye, sometimes trying to replicate the movement of a bear with your own muscles. The great Swiss wildlife artist Robert Hainard (1904-99) spoke to me of “muscle memory,” using your own muscles as an aide-mémoire in drawing. Without saying it he was talking of understanding what you see. It’s not what you get when copying photos. It’s what you get when you’re out there, and if you have an inquisitive mind; if you cut into an elk’s body, if you sketch during anatomy classes for surgeons or out in the field, looking at shape, at tonal values and how the light can change everything.

Now don’t give me the If there were computers in Rembrandt’s time he’d use one baloney; if anyone, Rembrandt’s work is about understanding light and texture, volumes in space and yes, anatomy, as his two fine “anatomical classes” testify. But his art came not only from observing but also from imagining and dreaming about his subjects until the story he wanted to tell became an image in his head; sure he used models, sure he made studies, but there’s no proof he used any of the short-cuts available at the time (camera obscura, hollow mirror), not like Johannes Vermeer or Carel Fabritius.

No doubt I’m biased, but my experience of artists of the North American “school” is that they are interested in being “efficient”: Why, they say, spend all that time in the field if you can shoot 50 photos in the time it takes me to do five sketches? Then they go home to sit in a comfy chair and paint from a screen, with suave music in the earphones and a good latte by the turps jar…

In art school we were advised to develop ideas from crappy newspaper photos, forcing us to fill in from memory the fuzzy bits like flat black shadows and overexposed bits. It was an instructive exercise, but looking at the work I did then, I see the overriding influence of photography: dynamic attitudes, smiling faces! Understanding tonal values requires drawing and painting from nature, from observation. It takes time and effort and truly, there are very few shortcuts!


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Spanish Elan

oil painting
by Sally Martin


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 Corrine Hull of Indianapolis, IN, USA, who wrote, “I’ve lately been trying to capture those fleeting glances of landscapes you see when driving.”

And also Jarwal of Travancore, India, who wrote, “Art is like sport. Practice counts. There are no shortcuts to becoming good in tennis. Only repeated training in deviousness.”

And also the poetess Paula Timpson, who almost always responds to these letters with a short poem.

The Will

José Feliciano, born blind
His guitar fingers,
move hearts
to trust… pure Spirit!
The imagination is more valuable than knowledge, yes…
as the will takes one far
beyond now, into the real truth
that is
fearlessness to fly free.



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The persistence of vision



From: Raynald Murphy — Dec 21, 2009

Today I received your book in the mail. I carried it preciously up to my studio and unwrapped it as if it were a precious stone.

Yet I knew the contents as I have read most all of your letters. But there is nothing like a book–to be read, re-read, pondered on, even underlined–and sometimes just held as if a “friend.” Thank you for being a friend to millions of people through your great generosity.

From: Stacy Caldwell — Dec 22, 2009

My painting professor/mentor employed a similar exercise… Drive around and find a landscape scene that interests you. Sit quietly and look at it, observe it, for 20 minutes, no sketching. Go back to your studio and paint it. It was an amazing experience!

From: Melody Cleary — Dec 22, 2009

The exercise of printing a black and white version of the photo is a good one. I’ve been doing that recently and ended up with my best piece of work this year. One can also experiment with colors on several b&w copies using aqua sticks or acrylics. Blurring the b&w image also takes out the details that distract from the overall design. Just seeing values has helped me a great deal and I get more creative.

From: Jamie Lavin — Dec 24, 2009

We must be masters at handling all the other conversations that inevitably come to be around painting production. Anything outside of “…look out BELOW!” or “get out of the way!”, or, as in the TV show, CSI Miami- “GUN” We artists are expected to hold all kinds of conversations, great and small, while creating the next big thing on our easels. Everything from how our daughters’ shoes are too tight, “the blood test results are in, Mr Lavin”, to “the dog goes to the groomer tomorrow, before 09:00”…

Besides, if we suddenly decided to only take calls or conversations in person with other artists while we were in the creation mode, we’d have no- one to talk to!

Well, other than the “inner child”, and all he wants to do is listen for the popsicle man or play more catch with a baseball & glove. At this time of year, there’s no time for either.

Gardner, Kansas USA

From: Sophie Richards — Dec 24, 2009

I received “ The Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Letters “ book yesterday. Congratulations ! What a fabulous book ! I purchased two books as well for gifts. One was for my sister who is a subscriber and was thrilled to have a copy of your book and the other was for a friend – Sue Dubois- who has now subscribed. She was very pleased to receive your book and calls it “a treasure of inspiration”. Thank you Robert for three wonderful Christmas Gifts.

From: Elizabeth Macdonald — Dec 24, 2009

The one thing I remember from Robert Henri’s book is to see only the colour…that has helped simplify the process of seeing through and into a painterly painting. With reference to Henri’s ploy of a model in one room and painters in another…I remember Jack Shadbolt advising a similar strategy of painting/drawing a setting first before bringing in the model …one reason being that the object is subject to its environment , which one can forget being object orientated. Another thought about camera/computer dependencies is that as tools.. (all creative pursuits are potentially endangered species…) we are given wonderful opportunities to change our process conditions and perceptions.

From: Leslie Tejada — Dec 24, 2009

Many people today spend more time looking at photographs than they do nature. So when they look at a painting which has been more or less copied from a photo, they think it is “real.” But cameras are uni-ocular, and photographic images have a flatness which lacks the field depth of our binocular human vision. Paintings done from nature, in nature, despite any stylistic variations imposed by the artist, have a more “real” feeling than those done from photographs. These real paintings feed my spirit, and connect me with my deeper vision, whereas those done from photographs invariably create a kind of inner disconnect, no matter how beautiful or technically sound they are.

Corvallis, Oregon

From: June Tucarella — Dec 24, 2009

Your letters have been a beacon of light to my world of art. The insight and sharing of the many aspects of the artists’ vision of ones self , knowing we are not alone in our quest to be the best we can be.

From: Natalie Fleming — Dec 24, 2009

Another big advantage of not looking at your reference material, either on a computer screen or when painting plein air or looking at a still life set up, is that you eliminate unnecessary details and remember only those things that are important to you–great for eliminating clutter and focusing on good composition.

From: Donna Arnold — Dec 24, 2009

Thanks, Robert, for your Esoterica comments about the trial and error it takes to achieve the tonal value that seems right in a painting. It was a reward for my own trial and error methods to get the painting where I want it, often a real trick when working with watercolor. But, the rewards are worth it.

From: Susan Vaughn — Dec 24, 2009

We’ve become lazy artists as we have become more and more dependent on our tools of reference rather than our brains. I believe that we no longer trust our own instincts and vision. Maybe we should take your exercise seriously and see if over the course of – let’s say – a week, we can improve our visual reconnection with the brain.

From: john ferrie — Dec 24, 2009

Dear Robert,

When I was in art school, back when the earth was cooling, I did a lot of drawing classes.

They kept me sharp and at the end of the day, putting pencil to paper was somewhat soothing.

Some of the exercises working with a model was stupid, like doing 100’s of 10 second gesture drawings.

But others were incredible, like the day we had a 300 pound, 82 year old black woman named Mary who held a single pose for 3 solid hours.

I was having trouble drawing hands for the longest time, I always made them too small.

My instructor told me to look at the hands and study the shapes between the fingers and then draw them twice the size I think they should be and surprisingly, they came out right.

One of the key things we learned and it was something that has stayed with me till now, was “stocking the internal dialog”.

This was where you actually looked at a subject and burned an image into your memory where you could redraw it later without having to look back at it.

These days we are bombarded with images. Movies have become so computer generated with explosions and spectacles that being a good actor is no longer a requisite for a hit movie.

Just take a moment in front of a piece of art and rather than ‘seeing it” just look at it. There doesn’t have to be a test or a paper written on it. But making it something you can recall, love it or hate it, is what the essence of experiencing art is all about.

John Ferrie

From: Esther J. Williams — Dec 27, 2009

In these modern times where everyone can ‘have it all’ regarding the latest hi-tech devices, I still prefer going back to the drawing board in black and white or painting en plein air. It’s okay to use photo references or Photoshop to supplement as long as you understand it as a tool and not a crutch. I am not ashamed to admit I use almost everything except the projector. The projector totally defeats our training of our eyes to judge distance, perspective, proportion and feeling. Our eyes are magnificent recorders of delicate nuances of light, colors, directional lines, shapes, textures and values. Our hearts capture the feeling tones. The eyes worked perfectly within the former masters of art to produce unaided masterpieces. Instinctively, we can trust ours to do the same today. The camera captures a single moment in time, we can borrow from the image taken to produce a work of art. But, I truly prefer to go out on location, paint several workstudies of the scene and then use those workstudies and photos to make a studio piece. Or I just paint a larger size canvas within 2 days on the same spot. Even the workstudy is not an end in itself. Our own inner creativity takes on new direction and so the next painting changes with our spur of the moment reflections. I was on photography hike last week and we all were trying to snap away at the incredible sunset. I heard gasps of frustration and I looked around to see another photographer say, “My camera just won’t capture those colors.” I admitted I was having a hard time too. Then I saw the whole row of us on this high mountain ridge lower our cameras to our sides and we just stared at the uniqueness of the sky as the orange, crimson and violet spread across in constantly changing shapes. We soaked that up and I could tell we all got a little high from it. The camera couldn’t do that for us, only we could as humans in a special moment in time united with nature in her glory.

From: Anon — Dec 28, 2009

How does all this great information translate to portraiture? I would love to be freed from photo references, but clients want an exact likeness.

From: Raynald Murphy — Dec 28, 2009

Here’s another one to really hone drawing the figure skills – figures in motion, such as skaters. If you observe and draw skaters often enough you get to understand the repeated motions or postures and capture the feeling of motion. It takes time and persistence. I have found doing these skater sketches easier to do in permanent media such as watercolor and felt markers. I have nearly always never been as satisfied drawing skaters in pencil or changeable media maybe because of the temptation to erase or to feel that I can modify later – probably I don’t “try as hard”. I think working in ink or watercolor sends a message to the brain that the mark or “flow stroke” made is down for good and so the concentration is intensified and more accurate.

From: John DeCuir — Dec 28, 2009

My father was an accomplished artist-illustrator. On the way home from the hospital and celebrating my first born, he swerved to the side of the road parked and stated emphatically “OMG I forgot to take a picture of the baby. Your mother is going to kill me” (she, an invalid not able to visit the hospital).

He immediately reached into the back of the car and pulled out pencil and sketchpad and began to sketch my son in swaddling like clothing.

Later when compared to photographs of the same week, it was a near perfect likeness. I always joked he had a photographic memory, but no…just an uncanny “persistence of vision”. My mother cherished that sketch far more than any of the hundreds and hundreds of photos that followed.





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