The serendipitous brush


Dear Artist,

Seasoned painters may think I’m reinventing the wheel here, but this idea is one that many — even many abstractionists — need to know about: The normal and obvious process is to mix a colour to match the local colour of the subject matter and then apply it in its proper place in the painting. For a change, try this: Mix a colour — any colour — then look around and try to find a place to put it. For many artists this is awkward, reverse thinking. I’m here to tell you — it’s dynamite.

There’s another spin to the process: You have your brush loaded with that arbitrary colour, and you’re looking around for somewhere to put it. Say this: “Form up.” You’re telling yourself to find and shape one of the painting’s forms that are in need of further resolution. Of course, there are some artists that are actively avoiding forms. That’s okay too. Like you do when you go to the shoe store — you’re “trying on.” It’s the old story of commit and correct. Your imagination can only tell you so much about what will happen when you put a certain colour in a certain place. To truly see how things will work out — you have to commit.

There’s yet another spin to the process: You don’t have to put your stroke of colour in an exact place. You might just try putting it “nearby.” You do this somewhat automatically by simply standing back a bit, half closing your eyes, and seeing — that’s it — seeing — approximately where that colour is needed. It’s Charles Reid’s idea of letting the painting tell you what it needs. This “nearby” idea may not always make sense — it may appear unnatural, even sloppy. But it’s an exercise that can give energy and vitality to the work.

The real beauty of using these sister processes is that your work of art develops holistically. By going here and there with a serendipitous brush, elements overall gradually come into focus. Like a ship emerging from a fog, your creation builds itself and is more likely to have a look of unity.

Best regards,


PS: “Painting calls for skill of hand in order to discover things not seen, that hide themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.” (Leonardo da Vinci) “Painting means gaining control without impeding the creative process.” (Don Farrell)

Esoterica: Paintings are effective when they contain form and formlessness, gradations and flats, recessions and protrusions, losts and founds, opacities and transparencies, fecundity and paucity, and leave the viewer to put in some of the flourishes. “I shut my eyes in order to see.” (Paul Gauguin)

The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


“Colour dowsing” method
by Kitty Wallis

Listening to the painting is as important as telling it. I’ve been doing and teaching my version of color listening for years. I call it ‘color dowsing.’ When I feel an imbalance in the color of the emotional color balance is off, I ask myself: “what color is missing” Usually the answer is a primary color, such as yellow. It’s left to me to discover what kind of warm color will work. I do this by picking up a color that would balance the whole, with no regard for ‘local color’ or ‘right color’ and ‘dowsing’ with it. I move the color over the painting, touching down lightly in likely spots. When I find the right place, my hand knows it. I make strong confident marks when I’m happy with the placement. I’ve learned a lot this way, expanding my color sense in unexpected ways; discovering colors that work better than the colors I see.


No fallback color mixes
by J. Baldini


painting by J. Baldini

You just described my recent painting holiday and workshop on Monhegan Island. I bought a wish list of colors-series 4-5-6 on ebay and I had a whole week to “play” before my workshop participants arrived. By the middle of the second week I did a piece that I knew was a breakthrough. Find a place for that cobalt violet or carmine. My new favourite color is cobalt turquoise (my gourmet cerulean). The process is on the idea of exercises with upside down images in Betty Edwards Drawing on The Right Side of The Brain. I didn’t have the old “fallback” color mixes and it was very right brain!


Mood determined by first colour
by Alfred Muma

I take the first colour that feels right to start a painting with no thought of where it’s being applied. That first colour sets the mood for the rest of the painting. Sometimes I take my “finished” painting and turn it on its side, or upside-down to see what other painting I’ve painted. I had a very pleasant surprise once when I turned a landscape of a winter lake on its side and a beautiful non-objective painting was hiding there.


Merlin Enabnit
by June Hart

In a recent clickback you mentioned Merlin Enabnit. I have two paintings done by him that were given to me by a cousin. They are both portraits of my late Grandmother and I must say they are fabulous. The colors are so rich and beautiful.

(RG note) Merlin Enabnit (1903 – 1979) was noted for a superb sense of colour and colour mixing. He coined the concept of “mother colour” being the predominant colour in a painting. Enabnit’s colours vibrate with opposites on the colour wheel—often with complementaries such as yellow and purple mixed and laid down with one stroke of the brush or palette knife. Enabnit’s shadow tones glow with reflected light. At one time Enabnit was distracted into painting pin-up girls for calendars, etc., and for a while rivalled the American pin-up master George Petty. Postcards, magazine covers and a campaign for White Owl cigars made him a well known artist. While he was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts of England, he was not British. He was born near Des Moines, Iowa, in 1903, and worked out of Chicago. He is best known for his portraits of United Nations luminaries. The artist was also known for the “Merlin Enabnit No. 1 Palette Knife” which was marketed nationally. Many will remember that he authored how-to books for Walter T. Foster on painting with a palette knife, portraiture, and use of colour.

Our look into the use of complementary colours can be found at


The right place to put the “wrong” colour
by Eleanor Blair, Gainsville, Florida, USA

I use your ‘find a place to put a color’ technique all the time, in a slightly different way. Back in my early years, to avoid waste, when I mixed too much of a specific color, or got it wrong, rather than wipe my brush and start over trying to mix the color I was going for, I’d scan the whole painting for places where I might use my ‘wrong’ color. I did this unconsciously for years, until I saw a video of myself, painting. It looked like my brush was just bouncing randomly from one area of the painting to another, and I suddenly understood why students were frequently mystified by my demonstrations. I realized that what looked like random brush strokes all over the place was just me trying to find a use for colors that weren’t quite what I’d been aiming for in a particular area of the painting. I paint very quickly, not because I’m rushing over details, but because I don’t waste a lot of time washing my brush and remixing colors. My ‘use what I’ve got on my brush’ technique has led to some wonderful serendipitous color harmonies, too.


Approaches to painting
by Barbara Kerr, Inverness, FL, USA

I think your idea of starting with the color first, then finding a subject to match it, is just wonderful. I am going to develop one of my lessons around that concept. My series of lessons this time around is entitled “Approaches” and this certainly will fit in.


Wegman helps people
by Susan Burns

People began creating art at the same time we started creating religions. We have a need to get deep into our spirit, or soul, whether that spirit is “good” or “bad.” Looking at Wegman’s work makes me laugh and I feel that he has helped many people reach a silly place. How many adults forget that such a place exists in our psyche? It’s there for a reason. Art is anything you respond to… negative or positive… it is life. By the sounds of the intense negativity of the responses to Wegman’s work, I would say he has done some powerful work.
by Gerhilde Stulken


painting by Gerhilde Stulken

Every week I get an e-mail from It all sounds very interesting, however a lot of things are not clear and are a bit nebulous. I typed your name into their site last night and your name came up. Are you signed up with them? If you are would you let me know please! If you are not and have some more information, I also would very much appreciate your opinion.

(RG note) I’m not registered with them. This site puts up artist’s auction prices automatically by tracking published results from many markets — a useful service. Their auction results and other features are the “content” that brings traffic to their site. With regard to the effectiveness that an artist might have by registering as one of their featured artists — in the various surveys we have done I’m not aware that this one has been mentioned either favorably or unfavorably. That could change if users of this site have anything to report.

Previous surveys on selling and marketing art online are at
Internet Art Review
Online Galleries
Survey results — selling art on the web







Michael Chesley Johnson

michael-johnson-cutler bay-fog-maine

Cutler Bay Fog, Maine


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