Signature move


Dear Artist,

Patty Oates from California wrote, “Could you comment on the red dots your father used in so many of his paintings? I’ve never seen a word about this practice, which is so effective.”


“Bright Pattern, Chatterbox Falls, Princess Louisa Inlet”
acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Thanks, Patty. You’re referring to the personal technique of Dad’s called “counterpoint and colour surprise.” Think of it as a “signature move” — one that bumps up vibrations so the work dazzles and identifies it as uniquely his. While the dots are especially Dad’s, you can find your own signature move by first understanding the mechanics of his.

John Rahn, music theorist, composer, bassoonist, and Professor of Music at the University of Washington School of Music, Seattle, wrote, “It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is… ‘counterpoint.’”


“On a Tributary of the MacKenzie near Ft Providence”
acrylic on canvas, 10 x 12 inches
by Robert Genn

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between melodic voices, which are connected harmonically but remain independent in rhythm and contour. When layered, they’re called “polyphony.” For example, if one melody is reaching upwards and with complexity, a simultaneous counterpoint may be a related voice that meanders spaciously underneath or in between. You need only listen to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations to know what I’m talking about.

At your easel, identify the painting’s “mother colour” and create a colour surprise with a complementary. Now find an unexpected way of adding it — with a new texture or brush, perhaps. I once knew an artist who used a spray bottle full of runny metallics. Let your counterpoint dance in the spaces calling for it. In the case of Dad’s dots, he favoured a Number 5 Round Sable — a delicate response to established passages, like gradated skies for example, that call for a large Fan brush, a Flat or Bright. Technically, counterpoint and colour surprise add character, pattern and bounce to composition. They direct the eye and signal mystery peeking from the shadows.


“Just a Touch on a Sombre Day, Lake of the Woods”
acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches
by Robert Genn



PS: “In colour composition red is the most reliable colour surprise. Red is charged with emotion and promise. Red speaks for heroism and bravery, honesty and patriotism. Red is also the red badge of courage, redcoats, the thin red line, red sails in the sunset, and a jolly red nose…. Red means anger, fire, storms of the heart, love and war. Even women can be scarlet. More than any other colour, red is loaded for action.” (Robert Genn)



“Counterpoint Compliment”
acrylic on canvas, 30 x 34 inches
by Robert Genn

Esoterica: I’ve often noticed gallery-goers cruising Dad’s paintings for those “little red dots” — as if searching for a signal of his presence. Once found, there’s a moment of recognition and delight — as if Dad were there personally, in code. I’ve come to understand these dots as a “handle” with which one might hold onto deeper cues about connection and the universal values of nature — her energy, emotion, promise, beauty. The dots, in their excitement, entice all of us to play in the polyphony.





  1. Dear Sara:
    I’d first like to express my wish that all good things surround you and loved ones in the New Year and looking forward.
    I myself, am delighted as I discover the subtle, yet vibrant touches which define these great works created by your Dad.
    His lessons resonate loud and true, as surely I can tell from the rest of us who are so Blessed to have known him- or simply his great genius as a prolific creator of wondrous Visual magic.
    You know, in the last painting example, “Counterpoint Compliment,” I noticed his signature surprise forms what I see is a heart shape! It’s a beautiful thing to realize he was a person of good and generous supply where heart is concerned.
    Regarding you: I’m proud to know you have that “esoterica” that which we all came to enjoy from your Dad. Your closing statement in Esoterica clearly adds meaning, as well as, delights.
    Thanks once again for bringing us together as a group of admirers of the Arts- and intellect!

    • Lynne Dannenhold on

      Dear Sara,
      I always love your beautiful, thoughtful writing made even more special today as you explained your dad’s little red touches and included examples of his wonderful paintings…
      Thank you so much!

  2. The “dots” are now jumping out! A room too, should always have a spot of red. Thank you very much for all the letters, happy new year.

  3. Beautifully written Sara. I enjoy all “The Letters”, but some really speak to my soul and imprint themselves there for future encouragement and inspiration. This, is one of those Letters. Thanks!

  4. J. B Taylor, my studio painting professor at the U of A in the late 60’s would also suggest using little “surprise” hits of a brighter “local colour” in a work (“Spread it around”, he’d say. “Engage the whole of the composition”….sometimes red, sometimes blue or green. It never failed to “spark” up a composition. Funny, I hadn’t thought of that in decades until your wonderful post.

  5. I am never happy until I add some red, purple or yellow to a painting or drawing I create. Makes me feel happy and complete when I do that.

  6. Thank you so much for this letter Sara. May your 2016 be overbrimming with gems for you as you share so generously with others. May it also be filled with red dots… the other kind!

  7. Joel Knapp, an amazing artist from Tennessee, (look him up) calls those little counterpoint color dots “eye candy”.

  8. I like that the enlargements with this article showed larger than other times. Bigger is better in looking at paintings online. Thanks.

  9. When an artist’s signature effect becomes recognized as a successful move, it’s likely to be imitated or appropriated. Perhaps that’s how new art movements get started, but I can’t count the number of canvases I’ve seen with deliberately drippy images from solvent sprayed or poured on an inclined surface.

  10. Happy New Year to you Sara – I love your writings and your flare. Thank you for the explanation of the ‘dots’. Very interesting and when you think of it many artists do a similar statement. I wish I did.

  11. Thanks Sara,
    In my part of the world where such important helpful insights are hard to come by, I am most grateful to you.
    Stay blessed and thank you once again.

  12. Red dots have a long history. They are sometimes found in the corners of medieval stained glass panels. They tend to draw the observer’s eye and define the boundary of the piece.

  13. Beautifully expressed, inspiring, and a joy to see those wonderful paintings and red spots of your Father’s. Wishing you and yours a creative, inspired, prosperous, healthy love~filled New Year. I am so appreciative of these helpful insights that take us all to a deeper place. Thank you thank you

  14. Signature marks, style, consistency are areas I have struggled with throughout my 25 years of painting. Albeit, lines seem to flow in and around my work, so I’ve decided to claim it for now. I wonder, Sara, would your Dad always have the red dot signature or did he develop this ideal after many years of practise? Just curious…..thx for all the influence you give us artists each week. Cheers for a creative new year!

  15. Mary Gayle Selfridge on

    Dear SaraI know your Dad would be so pleased with the way you have carried on his letters and guts.Thank you for sharing these precious ideas and letters, blessings,Mary Gayle

  16. watch “MR TURNER” ( the movie)

    Really- watch it. If you’re interested in art watch it, but Mr Turner believed in red also – there is a scene where you will say “ah ha” out loud about red…..

    but only if you think William Turner could paint

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