Photo habit


Dear Artist,

While travelling in my twenties before the camera phone, I’d carry a Canon SLR with a 300 millimetre lens — a graduation gift from my parents. The thing weighed 7 lbs — a practically extinct albatross by today’s standards. I accepted the neck ache in exchange for the special reminder to look and compose.


“According to What” 1964
oil on canvas with objects (six panels)
by Jasper Johns (b.1930)

These days, our camera phones and their features take high-res snaps that can be tricked out for saturation and white balance, cropping and sharpening. Instagram and other online sharing platforms allow for immediate connection with other like-minded image junkies. The storing app iphoto and provenance tracker artmoi have made cataloguing a digital cinch.



“Passage” 1957
oil painting by Jasper Johns

For many artists, the photo habit is as natural as looking at our world. Taking photos can inform almost every stage of the creative process: material gathering, composing, documenting works in progress, cataloguing and sharing. “When you work, you learn something about what you are doing and you develop habits and procedures out of what you’re doing,” said Jasper Johns. The photo habit connects each stage with the thread of looking.

If you’re not in the habit, why not give it a go? Before squeezing out, scrutinize your subject with a closer look or a wider angle. Snap it from 360 degrees to possibly capture a better view. Flip it into greyscale on your screen and check the values. If you’re a chronic telephoto painter, pull out to see the big picture. The same goes if you suffer from trying to get it all in — zoom out — and leave out.

At the end, hang your work pre-varnish and unframed in a room filled with ambient, natural light or outdoors in indirect sun. At this stage, it’s easier to get the colours right than during any post-production fiddling. “I am just trying to find a way to make pictures.” (Jasper Johns)


“Savarin in grey” 1982
oil painting by Jasper Johns



PS: “If creativity is a habit, then the best creativity is the result of good work habits. They are the nuts and bolts of dreaming.” (Twyla Tharp)

Esoterica: When I do stop mid-work to take a progress snap, I later find much to be learned from these hasty little digital thumbnails. Strokes left alone, initial compositions, strong design that was later weakened with fussing, and shots taken at funny angles in the studio have led me to a deeper exploration and sometimes in a new direction. A Millennial friend once urged me to try Instagram. “A photo a day, Sara. And don’t be afraid to show process and the odd personal thing.” It took me awhile to form a new habit — I still struggle with hot and cold feelings — but, overall, for those of us who trade in images, who live for the visual and intuitively pull towards the poetry of pictures, places like Instagram can serve as a controlled and disciplined extension of the studio. “What can be shown, cannot be said.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

Let’s connect on Instagram @saragenn


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn’t matter – that would be my life.” (Jasper Johns)




  1. Beautifully put. Yes to the hot an cold— revealing process can be hair raising and is an exercise in public vulnerability. I find that just the practice of posting images on Instagram and viewing them for the first split second onscreen gives me helpful perspective. Compositional and values flaws show up in small scale acutely. I often delete immediately after I post and go back to work to make things better.

  2. Once, while working on a large painting, I was taking a break at my drawing table and snapped a photo with my phone from this odd angle before getting up to take a few more from the front before going inside the house for the night. Later, it was this odd-angle photo that revealed that one of the clouds was an unnaturally perfect square. From the front, I thought the clouds were pretty much okay, but once I saw it, I could see it clear as day. If I hadn’t assessed the photos to see what I wanted to do refine, I would have just moved on to other areas. And it would have bugged me every time I looked at it once it was finished and hanging up.

  3. Before signing and varnishing, a few months ago I was in a rush and took a photo of my painting upside down. Didn’t realize it until I emailed it to my coach; I didn’t even recognize it!! Wow! It was so much more exciting and interesting “upside down!” A terrific lesson for me. I should mention that it was an abstract.

  4. Great post, Sara… I have to admit that since embracing Instagram for my work, I have been consistently inspired and supported by so many other artists and their work. For better or worse, it has become a very important tool and part of my art practice. Now I can follow you, too!! Thank you ..!

  5. I got my first SLR in 67 and it was soon followed by longer lenses, battery packs, flashes, gadget bags , a second SLR, lots of film and back ache. The DSLR is so much lighter and with the right lens easier to get around. The camera phone is just a bonus. The camera phone is good because it captures a scene and some of the aspects of it that got your attention and to which you can add or subtract in the studio. Details are less important and can be developed in the imagination to taste.

    I am totally addicted to Instagram however it should be known that it is owned by Facebook and that copyright has to be carefully protected. Currently when attempting to add a photo from your smartphone you are asked for access to your photo library. I am not sure of the impact however i am concerned about everything that I have that is not marked with copyright protection becoming part of the public domain. Caveat artifex.

  6. When I write a letter or something interesting and insightful (to me anyhow, LOL!) I tend to print it out- I always catch further “mistakes” and typos- same with my paintings- “something” always jumps out , after taking a photo …turning things upside down and/or looking in a mirror is also a thing I do ;) have done, will continue to do. Thanks for this post!…I feel even more connected :)

  7. Ronaldo Norden on

    Drawing Habit
    Dear Sara
    Thank for your insightful issues regarding the making of beauty with visual art.
    Back in 1966 l had a wonderful NIKON F s.l.r. camera and was on my first artistic journey, to visit Italy.
    Promptly in Naples l had everything stolen except what l was wearing. Getting over the loss took some time afterwards, but to this day l am grateful because in the absence of the camera l was able to then develop my drawing skills. The reasons are too numerous for me to offer as to why being able to draw a composition first hand is way superior than taking a snapshot of it.

  8. “What can be shown, cannot be said.” My dealer is always wanting to know the stories behind my paintings. I sent him this quote from Wittgenstein. Seems like only artists know what he meant.

  9. Boxes and boxes of amazing photos in closets and under beds were the basis for years of my studio paintings. But, when plein-air painting calls to me, and I yield to it’s exciting allure, (as it always does several times a year), I forget all about those boxes of photos. From the moment of set-up to the moment of completion, it is like nothing else in an artists life. Once the composition is locked down, you can dance your way through joy-filled moments of capturing in your own way that fleeting moment of light, color and inspiration. I enjoy seeing what my students intuitively create in my workshops doing plein-air I encourage all artists to give it a go. It is thrilling to be in a unique and inspirational location and paint what you see. Join us! The Sacred Valley, Peru in June 2018

  10. after reading these replies I feel I have turned a corner.

    a sense of – nothing is forever
    recollections of my SLR hand held ,en route from image to image


  11. I paint from photos, and also take photos of the paintings in progress, and compare the two. It helps me stay on track, but in one funny instance, I thought I had covered all the bases and posted the final photo of a blue Iris online. I got a comment from someone who didn’t see the Iris, but did see a blue dog with floppy ears. Sure enough, when I looked back at it again, I couldn’t unsee the dog, and decided to pull the photo from the net.

  12. When the weather is good, many times I go out with a portable easel along with my cell-phone and a small 35 mm camera. After doing a couple painting studies, I take a few photos for references. I take all of references and create a couple of drawings. Them I transfer my ideas onto a stretch canvas. When I paint, that is when I create my style into my painting.

  13. Oh my… taking pictures has never been my “thing” and my aversion to cell phones does not improve the mix. The portraits I do are from the client’s photos and my other paintings are from a combination of sketches and imagination….sigh…I believe Vincent’s paintings have stood the test of time without the help of a camera or instagram.

  14. I saw some small photos framed and in a local gallery near here. They were labeled as “Cellphoneography,” for medium.

    I had not realized this was the case. would never have expected such nice photos from a cell phone.
    I thought this was clever and they were actually good, as good as many large photos I have seen of landscapes.


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Featured Workshop

Travel Sketching with Watercolours in Italy
April 7, 2018 to April 14, 2018

joanne-hastie_workshop-1Join Vancouver artist Joanne Hastie to sketch the landscapes of Italy. Joanne will share her art process during this 7 day adventure.

Highlights: See all 6 Mosaic’d churches in Ravenna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Visit & sketch the places where Michelangelo sketched in the late 1490’s in Bologna; Wander the house where Renaissance artist Rafael’s grew up; Tour the castle that inspired a chapter in Dante’s Divine Comedy; Paint while watching the sunset over a cliff-top castle; Ride a bicycle along the beach to a Roman Bridge built in 10AD that is still in use today!; Sketch alongside Canadian artist Joanne Hastie & experience how the Italian countryside inspires her art.
Included:  7 nights accommodations, 7 gourmet breakfasts, 7 gourmet dinners (wine included) at Hotel Belvedere in Riccione;  transportation to and from Riccione to each location; watercolor sketchbook, plein-air starter kit (watercolor), ink pen, eraser

$3325 CAD per person
Click here to learn more. Through
oil 12 x 16 inches

Featured Artist

Capturing the beauty of nature and expressing those impressions in oil paint is a joy. Every hour of the day presents new possibilities and keeps even the same landscape location, same composition, an ongoing and beckoning challenge. For this reason, I love painting series: it is exploration made visual.


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