Dear Artist,

“Staffage” is a historical term for placing people and animals into landscapes. Like many time-worn conventions, there’s more to it than meets the eye.


“First Light on Moose Lake”
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Robert Genn

The population of pictures — mainly views, architectural subjects, natural wonders and other general scenes — was once more widespread than it is now. In the 17th century, some Dutch painters actually employed other artists to put people in. Staffage was used as an aid to composition, a device to show scale, and an opportunity to enliven scenes. Figures were strategically placed, often holding a stick, cane, spear or gun, sometimes together with a lesser person, or a dog or other beast, or even pointing toward the picture’s centre of interest. Sometimes a jacket or coat brought colour surprise to a sombre landscape. The Impressionists gave themselves a choice — some went for it, others didn’t. These days some photographers dine out on girls in red shorts on foreground rocks. In current landscape painting, Nature is more likely to be unpopulated. This, of course, will change.

Some landscape painters, dead and alive, don’t do convincing figures. People are a tough order. But there’s more to it than that. With the rise of rugged individualism and the concept of “me first,” it is often the viewer who feels the need to supply the figure. Living in someone else’s world is not our style anymore. It’s not the wealthy lord in the big hat who gazes at the Sphinx, it’s us. The wonders of Egypt are now theoretically available to all. The idea of other people enjoying the architecture in Piazza San Marcos in Venice is more the business of illustration. Pennies drop silently in the minds of onlookers. Due to the widespread suspicion of sentiment, anecdote itself has become distrusted and suppressed.

Next time you think about putting in a figure or figures, think about what’s pulling you around. Early this morning I painted a tranquil lake in the Western Canadian foothills. I couldn’t prevent myself from putting a couple of guys and a dog out there in a yellow rowboat. The devil made me do it. I’ll never know whether I made the painting better or worse. Despite the modern plastic boat, this morning’s painting looks curiously old fashioned.

Best regards,


PS: “I’m done with girls on rocks.” (Maxfield Parrish, 1950)

Esoterica: I know it’s a bit to ask of many artists, but I’m a believer in understanding your “genre.” Genre means your kind or art, your style, your times. At first, the human body was the only subject matter worthy of paint. When the grand landscape showed up, figures, clothed and not, were reduced to accessories. Then the figure burst back to prominence and became the main subject again. These days, a lot of honour is being paid to the spirit of Nature herself, bereft of mankind and even the hand of man. Some sort of longing or wish, I’m thinking. Niagara Falls is her own subject again. A few more years and once more it’ll be the little guy going over her in a barrel.


Personal staffage
by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA


“Morning in Paradise”
original painting
by Diane Voyentzie

Your letter was curiously timely. I am a muralist, and am finishing up a pastoral dining room mural. Today I painted the client couple in a canoe on a river on one wall of the mural, on the other wall I painted their two dogs and their children — the girl catching butterflies, and the little boy catching a fish. They were thrilled by the personal “staffage”! It is interesting that sheep, cows, even swans can give life to murals that otherwise are rather uninteresting, even if well painted. I have not added people to my canvas murals, but I think your people in the canoe are fabulous!


Humour in the details
by Petra Voegtle, Denmark


original painting
by Petra Voegtle

First of all — I like it. It adds a narrative element to the serenity of the landscape. Landscapes are often overwhelming in their beauty, to add people like these in a boat makes it more “humane,” showing that you can enjoy the beauty of an early morning without feeling that you are so inferior in the universe. You can take part without feeling guilty. The landscape is there to really see and enjoy. Carpe Diem would be my motto of a day such as this. Landscapes without people often emanate that feeling of being “untouchable” and “un-real.” People in a painting can take this down to earth again.


“Haleakala” – detail
original painting
by Petra Voegtle

In one of my landscape paintings I added people to a magnificent landscape in order to make people step near and look at the details. It was supposed to add a little humorous element to the grandiosity of the scene. I painted the tiny couple of hikers with a magnifying glass and it was a lot of fun doing this. You would only recognize this couple if you stepped very near to the painting.



Unpopulated painting
by Trish Booth, Cordova, NM, USA


“Painted Desert”
oil painting
by Trish Booth

I painted for years suffering comments such as, “but there are no PEOPLE in your paintings.” Of course not, my paintings are not about people but what we’ve imagined, what we’ve left, what we’ve created.

My paintings do not require people; I think that is too easy. My paintings are about what people have built or what they revere or what they may yet spoil. Lots more there, I think, than body language — available, so understood, so analyzed, and very, very tired. I prefer something a bit more cerebral and, hopefully, open to interpretation and even a bit mysterious.


A sense of humanity
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France


Jeffrey Hessing painting
in his Shanghai studio

Twenty five years ago when people looked at my landscapes they very often commented, “Why don’t you put a figure in it, or a house?” It happened so often that I began to think people were disturbed by pure landscape. It is a little too abstract for a figurative painting. A figure, animal or even a house or cottage give more than focus and a sense of scale. They give a sense of humanity, of belonging. Though I greatly admire Corot’s ability to paint a man in a landscape with a few simple strokes, I have continued, with a few exceptions, to paint people-less landscapes.

Ironically in the last couple days I have had the urge. I am painting in a series of gardens on a lake in China which are peopled with gardeners in blue shirts and round pointed straw hats. Two days ago I included a wooden boat rowed by a man with one big oar standing up in the traditional manner. I couldn’t resist.


A reflection of self
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA


by Jack Dickerson

Why people? I started painting with people. Crazy, I know. It just happened. I had to do a lot of sketches to work out the forms. They are incredibly difficult. The articulation of elbows, knees, arms and especially hands can be incredible. I am now quite sure that they represented a very difficult stage in my life, when I was going through a huge transition — from running a successful business to becoming an artist. These portraits were raw, unadorned, full of emotion, powerful, proud, with a lot of dignity — and pain. For me, my people have always shown emotion. They are an expression of emotion. My own. It took me a while to see this, and to see what was going in my life when I did them.


Connecting with the viewer
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“Cherry Tree, Stanley Park”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Now that you made me think about it, I have used figures in landscapes as a tool to provide the scale and relationship between the humans and the nature. Our emotional reaction to the scene can be altered by introducing a human presence. I see that this tool isn’t used very often but I wouldn’t call it old fashioned. Perhaps less explored. As a viewer, I feel that I take more ownership and responsibility for the landscape that contains people. I ask myself more questions rather than just analyze the scene. When I think back I find that it is easier for me to recall paintings by other artists if they contained a human figure. This is probably just a personal preference.


Undoing the staffage
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA


Photoshopped “First Light on Moose Lake”
original by Robert Genn

I couldn’t resist putting an image of your painting into Photoshop and removing the boat with its passengers. I then opened both the original and the altered image. As I clicked from one to another, it became very evident to me that by adding the yellow boat, you not only changed the composition, you changed the focal point. When I looked at the unpopulated landscape, the painting was all about the place: the time of day, the location of the scene, the peacefulness of the moment. In contrast, your original version made me think much more about the figures in the boat — were they heading out, or perhaps back into shore. If they were fishing, their dog must be trained well to keep quiet. What was the relationship between the two people — friends, grandparent and child? I don’t think it is a matter of wrong or right, it is more a matter of what was the artist’s intent.

One thing that one of my art professors once told me was that no matter how small a person is in a painting, or how simplified, they had better be done without flaw, because any figure instantly becomes the focal point. I feel my little experiment just reinforced that theory.


Literary staffage
by Tom Disch, New York, NY, USA

Writers often have the same problem in reverse. They’ve got a lot of characters in situations they don’t want to be bothered depicting this is because they lack “landscape” skills. One thing Hemingway did really well (and Hardy too) was to create scenery for his characters that was neither too generic (table, window) nor too distracting (kitchen sink and all the dishes in it). Every detail should have some reason for being noticed. Often the necessity for this will lead not just to a better-furnished fiction but to a truer larger vision of the world. Might not staffage serve the same purpose?


People not timeless?
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA


“Community Pool”
oil painting
by Nancy Bea Miller

I have a friend who shows at a well-known gallery in a major city. Her gallery director actively discourages her from including people in her landscape paintings. He tells her he believes the work is more “universal” without the human presence. I suspect he believes that it is more saleable! I have heard corporate art consultants lay it out as well: if they can’t get large-scale abstract paintings in attractive colors, then they want large-scale landscapes devoid of people. This way they say that they can avoid offending people who may not like seeing other people of a certain race, or age, or dress style (which also dates over time of course!) This seems a little short-sighted, safety-conscious and sad to me. Art as corporate wallpaper. An example to ponder: how would we like Brueghal’s paintings without the people he includes? Yeah, their clothes certainly date them to a certain time period, but they are also as universal as all get-out.


Sentiment or fear?
by Jada Rowland, UK


“Homeward bound”
by Jada Rowland

Fear (which seems to be a dominating emotion these days) may, indeed, be at the bottom of this lack of people (‘staffage’ sounds too non-participatory for how I view people) in paintings of nature. One fear is that of humankind’s effect on nature. It seems that we are not, as was once thought by the Europeans who came to ‘conquer’ America, the keepers of the dominion but, rather, the destroyers. So there is a valid fear of the loss of the environment (and perhaps our survival as a species) and the desire to show what little still exists. Is this a desire to awake ‘feeling’ in ourselves or others about what we may lose? Or to make us feel ‘sentiment’ toward trees?


Painterly critique
by Karen Cohen


original painting
by Karen Cohen

The figures you added to the painting are small and non-specific. As a result, they are easily identified with if you’re the kind of person who is likely to be found in that boat, or someone who would might wish they could be. It would also appeal to those who yearn for the natural landscape but don’t expect or feel the need to have it all to themselves.

As to the technical merits of the painting, you trusted your instincts which I think were spot on. The little yellow boat and the orange reflection are contrapuntal to the blue patch of hills between the trees, and perfectly balances your color composition. However, as good as it is, your figures are not wearing yellow or orange shirts, so the reflection in the water is a mystery. The rest of the painting doesn’t tell me that magic or mysticism or spiritualism was your intent, so the orange reflections look out of synch.


Staffage needs proper placement
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA


“The lake”
original painting
by Janet Vanderhoof

I love the boat with the dog and people, placed in your painting. It gives it mystery. The angle of the boat and the dog on the end leads you into the painting. Also, I ask myself, where are they going? It gives the painting personality and it reminds me of the famous Winslow Homer’s Adirondack series.

I had a situation, when doing a commission for my brother-in-law. He wanted a painting for his wife of the place in Tahoe they loved to go to every summer. I did paint the painting with her husband in the boat on the water, not a large image, but a suggestion. When I was about to put the children on the shore, the painting could not handle it. It was too much and the painting became something else. I tried many times and finally I had to scrape it off. It was too much for the painting. It wasn’t about the children. If I put them in, it would become an illustration and tell a story. Painting is not about telling stories. It is about emotion and feeling. His wife wanted me to add the children in it. I told her I would paint her a different painting, but this one could not handle it. Not being an artist, I think she still didn’t understand.


Most popular image with figure
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland


original painting
by Caroline Simmill

One of my most popular paintings which became produced as a print had a figure walking along the beach. It wasn’t my favourite painting and I have always been surprised that it was liked so much and the print sold more than any of my other images. I did notice in your painting First light on Moose Lake that the figures in the boat became the centre piece of interest. What I did find interesting was the use of a strong yellow colour for the boat – the result being that one could not help but notice the boat. I do wonder that if you used a more subtle green or brown coloured boat the painting would have taken on a very different look. There will be many who will love this painting, it is full of life and colour and the imagery is that of a happy boating trip. I would say there are many who could identify with this activity of setting out across the great lake in a boat with their dog. I would also say there are many of us who would simply love to gaze at such a painting and wish that we were there!


Staffage steals spotlight
by Frank

I learned that people, animals, and man-made objects, especially those of curious nature such as antiques, in that order, can certainly add a lot to a painting. In fact so much they will steal the spotlight from the center of interest. That being because they are so much more interesting and compelling than the myriad trees, rocks, and other common elements in a landscape. That said, I try to remember to keep these features within the center of interest and make them a part of it. If an old barn was my perceived center of interest, and I place a person walking down the road to the barn, I had better not place her away from the line of sight of the barn. Otherwise the viewer’s eyes might be darting left and right and cause enough discomfort to avoid further viewing.

As for your rowboat, are you testing us? Apart from placing the horizon line dead center, the left side of the painting is dark, overpopulated, and weighty. You were careful to place the figures in the line of sight of the most interesting portion of the painting, but the right side appears empty and out of balance. Since I am a watercolorist, when that happens, I take it to the paper cutter and remove a few inches from the right — fixes it right up! I’m certain you did it on purpose to see if we were paying attention. If not, my sincerest apologies as I am a long standing admirer.


Staffage is exclamation point!
by Carolyn Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA


original painting
by Carolyn Edlund

First Light on Moose Lake is lovely, made more so by the exclamation point of staffage (meaning that the people, dog, boat, add interest, a little punch of color, and make the scene wonderful in its own right, that bit more exciting and dynamic). As for appearing old fashioned, your style, to my eye, in execution and palette, is modern realist, so although there is tradition in the inclusion of two men in a boat with retriever, the overall look is current. Kudos!

I enjoy both artist- and viewer-populated (imagination) landscapes and from time to time, people my landscape paintings. From a sales perspective, the practice has both helped and hindered.


Staffage gives meaning to landscape
by Jacquie Manning


“Canal Gazing – Venice”
watercolour painting
by Jacquie Manning

I think of Varley who, pretty much the only one of the Group of Seven, painted lots of figures into his landscapes. What I particularly like about these was the way he integrated his figures into the landscape so they seemed to be part of that particular landscape. I think of him painting his wife Maud on the rocks of the shore; totally at one with the landscape she was standing in. Varley mirrored the colours and shapes of the surrounding landscape in the figure of Maud. To my mind, these paintings make the landscape much more dynamic. Winslow Homer placed grizzled men in rowboats in his amazing watercolours of the forest. To me, having figures in landscapes, cityscapes, whatever, gives meaning to the landscape itself. It says, “What exactly does this landscape say to me? What does this landscape have to do with me?” Homer’s dead deer draped over the bow of a boat may not particularly appeal to me but it does put into perspective the time and places Homer painted in and elicits a response from me, the viewer.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Staffage



From: David Lobenberg — May 22, 2008

The people in the boat in Robert’s painting look just fine and are as natural to the scene as is the lake, beach, rocks, and trees. Hmmm…people, boat, beautiful alpine lake… don’t they all go together?!

From: Kari Brinck — May 22, 2008

I was instantly drawn into the painting wanting to look closer at the people in the boat feeling a part of the ride in the fresh dewy morning air, just like my childhood memories from the Norwegian fjord I spent my summers at. I loved the people and the boat, yes, a bit old fashioned but so what?

From: Jo Allan — May 22, 2008

Love the yellow rowboat! Brings life to the painting!!!!

From: Collette Lacey — May 22, 2008

Dear Robert,
I covered the figures and the scene went static and ordinary. Adding the figures again and the sunshine of an early morning just leapt out. It gained a lot of atmosphere, as though the cool freshness of an early morning was immediately part of your work. I’ve been on a lake in the clean early light and the figures bring that in…I vote to keep them there.

From: Nancy Essman — May 22, 2008

If the devil made you do it….then perhaps you should let him have his way every once in a while. If not…well, whoever or whatever provoked you to paint “them in” certainly added something quite lovely!

From: Ron Wilson — May 22, 2008

‘Like the yellow dinghy thingy. More staffage from you… Incidentally I found a gem of a Genn in the new Mercurio Gallery in Victoria BC – vintage 1969, before the ‘style’ kicked in. You CAN go home again, Robert!

From: Patricia Neil Lawton — May 22, 2008

Dear Robert,
We just met (for the third time in 25 years) tonight again at your successful Art Show at the Hambleton Gallery. I was the woman who got so much enjoyment out of visiting with “Dorothy”. Remember, I brought my student “Kaitlyn” with me and she was totally thrilled at meeting a man she’d been hearing about from me for the three years that she’s been my student. I am a painter of people and their “doings” and so want to tell you that I really am delighted with your painting with the yellow boat and figures in it. It makes the painting “for me”. I’d like to thank you for the visit at your exhibition. The evening was a delight and was made more so as it was Kaitlyn’s first vist to an art show. I’m glad it was yours and she will be forever impressed with this memory her whole life through. It’s so important that we help to educate our youngsters in a creative way. Creativity is such a “passion”.

From: Loraine Wellman — May 22, 2008

The figures add life to the painting. some paintings are much better with people. I like street scenes with people – without, they make me think there has been a disaster. With gardens, however, I’ve had people tell me they want the painting to be their own private garden – no people invading their territory. Drawing the human figure is good practice for every artist – no matter what your usual subject is. You can distort a tree and still have it be a tree – but drawing a person demands careful looking and correct proportions- and then you can put people into a painting when they are needed.

From: Ujwala Prabhu — May 22, 2008

A human element adds interest in a painting for me. I think the 3 people add to this painting. Just my opinion. :D Thank you for writing these letters. I look forward to them.

From: Charlotte B DeMolay — May 22, 2008

Human nature is too narcissist to abandon the figure in landscapes. We are instantly curious as to what the figures are doing, would we want to do that, can we do it better, etc.
There are beautiful landscapes but the landscape will always be static…add figures and suddenly there is motion, action, kinetic feedback. Much more than simply a “point of interest,” the figure becomes an instant story automatically engaging us.

From: Chris — May 23, 2008

I normally don’t like people in paintings; animals, yes, but not people; I prefer the wildness of Nature without people tramping all over it, so to speak. On the other hand it depends very much on what the subject is; I guess a city scene would be odd without them. I like this painting however, with the boat and occupants included….perhaps it’s to do with the fact that the boat colour is linked to the sky. But even without, it’s a lovely tranquil view.

From: Lanell Penrod — May 23, 2008

It has all been said before…the figure is “in”, enjoy reading your letters.

From: Brenda Robson — May 23, 2008

I think the figures work because of the fact that their features are blurred so we are not drawn to them so much as their shape and placement. Very nicely designed.

From: Carsten Groa — May 23, 2008

Dear Robert. The only thing I would like to shoot at is the title, Shouldn’t your picture have been called “Yellow Boat on Moose Lake” or another shot, you could have painted a dark muted red boat. Kind Regards. Carsten

From: Steve Randall — May 23, 2008

Your placement of figures in a boat almost worked. The figure in the stern is too big for the size of the boat, and the water reflection suggests the boat is not moving, while the oars apparently are. I often have similar problems.

From: Gainor Roberts — May 23, 2008

I love the people in the boat…it adds a “story” to an otherwise pretty but ordinary picture. My eye is drawn to the reflections in the water before I look at the people and boat…perhaps they are a bit to bright? I have been those people in a yellow dingy rowing out somewhere on many occasions and I can relate to the whole painting because I have been there and done that! Thanks for the interesting commentary on “Staffage” a new term for me, and of course one that I’ll have to think about. I think I like people in paintings sometimes and sometimes not…depends on the painting, and of course, as you point out, the skill of the artist in making the people right.

From: Karen R. Phinney — May 23, 2008

I like the figures in the boat, they add a human touch to the rugged scene… and one that is relaxing to contemplate. Leave ’em in, is my vote! Also love the blue tone of the mountains in the background, which you have picked up in the reflections and the figures and a bit in the shore….

From: Kelley MacDonald — May 23, 2008

Robert, the figures really ‘make’ the painting in this case. The scenery is beautiful, but there’s nothing compelling about it. The figures in the boat give the painting a narrative, allow the viewer to insert themselves into the painting. The inclusion of the boast turns the painting from ‘just another landscape’ to an invitation to participate in this particular landscape at this particular time. Beautiful.

From: Theresa Bayer — May 23, 2008

The figures in the boat look great, it gives the painting a focal point and a sense of narrative. I don’t think the devil made you do it, I think the painting made you do it. Paintings are always worth listening to.

From: Elaine Bailey — May 23, 2008

While I like your lake painting, for me, the addition of people is an invasion of my “beautiful solitude” when I view the painting. But–with that said—I’m not much on portraits of people or photos with people (unless it’s a deliberate photo of someone) in them. Thanks for all your good comments and ideas.

From: Robin Maria Pedrero — May 23, 2008

I like the boat with the people included in this particular piece of art work. I immediately went into the boat and peered down into the lovely water you painted.

From: Joan Hofman — May 23, 2008

The painting for “Staffage” could easily be posted on a very well known mail order catalog cover…it speaks to an era gone by.One has to wonder how much artists are influenced either unconsciously or otherwise by the collective mass’ marketing desires.

From: Linda M. Adams — May 23, 2008

As a non fisherwoman, every time I see “guys in a boat” – as opposed to “girls on rocks”, I am turned off. This particular staffage would keep me from buying the painting – but maybe that’s because I just don’t fish! Thanks for bringing it up – helpful as usual!

From: Stephanie Goff — May 23, 2008

The painting is great both ways (figures or not), but I think the use of boat and figures gives it more of a point of interest. It relaxes the mind to have a human connection. Nice work in my opinion.

From: Michelle — May 23, 2008

I like this style. I am not the sort to enjoy painting in rigid format and you are right people are difficult and I have not achieved that level of skill. On the other hand I am mostly alone where ever I go and sometimes there are no people. I believe people like to get away when they look at a painting, to another plane of thought or feeling and sometimes people can provoke this feeling but not necessarily all the time, for instance I find the people distracting and annoying.

From: Mitchell Torok — May 23, 2008

It depends on what you had in mind… a serene, still and quiet peaceful time for the viewer… or one that takes the viewer back in the picture and wakes up his or her childhood memories… and that’s him or her in the boat… with their dad… so either way the viewer wins! It’s a very nice painting!

From: Patricia Watkins — May 23, 2008

The boat was a distraction to me. It surely became the focal point. Without that boat the scene was purely tranquil. I guess I prefer to insert myself in the scene, as you said, in my imagination. Other people are always a distraction to me when I am in the wilderness. I like the idea of looking across that stretch of water to the houses on the other side and imagining that I am “far from the madding crowd.” It is a beautiful painting nonetheless. I think I agree with you. It must have been a temptation to place it there, but one that perhaps you regret because we do need peace and solitude. One would wish they were there, thus the temptation. Thank you for sharing. I always look forward to reading your letters each day with my cup of coffee before my students begin the mad rush of the day!

From: Melissa E. Keyes — May 23, 2008

Most Humans do seem to be fascinated with Humans. Have you been looking at Winslow Homer’s works lately?

From: Lenore Barnett — May 23, 2008

Like so many others, especially in the earlier thread, I really enjoyed the Devil Made You Do It addition. The figures caught my attention immediately. I too covered them up to see what would happen and found a more tranquil and beautiful scene but without the dynamism of the rowboar and figures.

From: Nancy — May 23, 2008

I like the figures. It is interesting, how covering the figures with the thumb really changes the mood of the painting. I think the painting has more impact without them, although maybe it’s just that it’s a different emotion.

From: Susan Holland — May 23, 2008

If the boat and people were smaller and indistinct it would be kept on the level of “reflections and vagaries” rather than becoming a “subject.” I like evidence of animate creatures, but not if they steal the show.

From: Janet Sellers — May 23, 2008

Hi, it’s me again. I love the boat and the figures! They bring a light heart to the dreary, sad trees. You often put those trees in your work, and they look so tragic to me. Instead of thinking that the trees have a rough life in the harsh climate, I can participate in the glee the fishermen must have in their outing. The yellow boat is perfect.

From: Nancy — May 23, 2008

Alas, I think it looks old fashion and a little corny, so sorry.

From: Thelma Leonard — May 23, 2008

The only thing missing in the Moose Lake picture is a loon over near the point of land on the right. Love that picture. Reminds me of some lakes I knew in New Hampshire, USA

From: Tinker Bachant — May 23, 2008

The boat is perfect. Having been brought up in the Catskills, and on a lake, it truly made me homesick. The proportions are fine. If you have ever actually seen a boat with people in it there would not be any nit-picking over the size (or the ripples from the oars). The trees are fir trees or maybe hemlocks, in shadow. Dreary? Walk in the forest sometime and tell me that these majestic giants are dreary!

From: Antonija — May 23, 2008

Well–I like the painting. The boat and figures are lit in a way that really conveys the joy of a brightening sunrise. I don’t think that feeling would be there without them.
Also–just want to mention how much I enjoy reading your essays. I haven’t painted in years, as I’ve become enamored with quilting and fiber arts. After receiving your letters, I feel as though I am ready to emerge from my studio once more. I’ll just grab my paints, trot out to a nearby park, and try my hand at plein air again! Thank you for that.

From: Connie McCoy — May 23, 2008

Your addition of the people gave an instant point of focus and a participatory element. Some viewers cannot get into the painting unless they can see a person in the painting with whom to identify. You have incorporated the boat people beautifully with the addition of yellow in other places. I don’t think it makes it better, but I have found people say to me, “Thank you for putting a person in that landscape.” Without the boat people in your painting, it is more serene and has a different message.

From: David White — May 23, 2008

Robert, I like the rowboat. Thanks for the thought provoking jabs twice a week. I think the 2 guys the dog and the rowing make the picture move and brings the viewer into the place. People are hard. I prefer gulls!

From: Raymond Mosier — May 23, 2008

When I read your letter on staffage and the description of your painting I expected something different than what I saw. I think the picture was about people in a boat embarking on an adventure in the north woods. What wonderful and new sights they would discover. Would they face danger in a desperate situation? All kinds of senarios are possible. A certain degree of mystery and suspense is present.
Your initial description, to paraphrase, was of remote lake in the wilderness, but as soon as you added people, they became the “purpose” of the painting. The added figures in the boat, especially the direction the boat is going, into the scene, becomes the theme of the painting and that is what makes the painting work. Without the boat and figures, the subject of the painting loses interest.

From: Nicole Hyde — May 23, 2008

To staff or not to staff? Whatever floats your boat.

From: Lynn Quinn — May 23, 2008

I like the boat & figures. It adds interest. Love the yellow in the reflections picking up yellow from the rocks & sky.

From: Elaine Cain — May 23, 2008

Those guys in the yellow rowboat are perfect. Shapes are believable. The color yellow accents the blues and violets of the painting.

From: Kenneth Flitton — May 23, 2008

I like the boat, men and dog. Well done and better than if they weren’t there.

From: Celeste Varley — May 23, 2008

Your staffage of the yellow boat is brilliant in this painting. My immediate reaction was a satisfying pulling together of the yellow sky and yellow-orange foreground rocks in an arc shape. The oars give a good excuse to show orange reflection in dark water too. Then, I sense the setting (?) sun off canvas on the right as source of this feast of colour touches.

From: Adonica Kechemir — May 23, 2008

Personally, I prefer the addition of the people in the boat. I think people always enhance art, and only enhance the feeling or message presented. All of my art is about the people in it and the landscape is only secondary. After all, what’s a tranquil lake without someone enjoying it? It tells more of a story when people and animals are added. Most of the world’s beloved art revolves around people, like The Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, the Lady of Shallot, etc. Art is a buffet for the eyes, and the more the better. Without staffage, I would consider it only half done.

From: Dawn Cosmos — May 23, 2008

I watch the sunrise each a.m. and feel you have captured its essence in the exquisite light of your painting. I too wanted to be in the same boat. Love the work of your last two featured artists as well. Let Pantheism reign……write about that one?

From: Jackie — May 23, 2008

The boat and occupants capture the light. Beautiful addition!

From: Marjory Sampson — May 23, 2008

I love your painting and the boat with people adds life to it. I think the boat needs to be a tiny bit larger according to the size of the people. Most times in my paintings, I try to add some life by making a few birds flying in the distance if there are no people.

From: Verena Heroux — May 23, 2008

“First Light on Moose Lake” is beautiful. The eye goes straight to the men on the boat if that’s your intention, it’s the gold colors on the dark background that makes it attracting.

From: Carol — May 23, 2008

I love your painting and believe the scene would be “lonely” and boring without the fishermen.

From: Gia Kramer — May 23, 2008

I love your painting and appreciate the dog you placed in it. I think it would have been a great painting anyway but since I love dogs you captured a mood that comes with including a dog.

From: Jeff Tschida — May 23, 2008

Robert, I like the boat. It adds life and motion, a sense of anticipation.

From: David Ehrmann — May 23, 2008

Robert, Winslow would praise you for your recent staffage, as do I. Wonderful painting: the early morning light, the flat water and the mood created are blissful.

From: Sue Ennis — May 23, 2008

I love the “staffage” in your painting. I think it gives it a whole new dimension and evokes a Norman Rockwellish feeling, pulling up memories of the excitement of being near a lake in the early morning. I love the reflections of the clouds in the lake and the joyous colour tones.

From: Mary Atkinson — May 23, 2008

I think you should take out the figures…they are far less interesting than the rest of the painting and only serve as a distraction…especially the yellow boat!

From: Diana Nicosia — May 23, 2008

I like the picture w/the people in it. The composition is modern w/o the people and boat. It works!

From: Pat Hill — May 23, 2008

I like the yellow boat. It’s an ‘instant story.’ Without it the painting is just a pretty scene. Also, I think it adds to the balance of the painting.

From: Mary T. — May 23, 2008

Concerning the current clickback and the yellow boat, I particularly like the placement as it keeps an off center feeling going for me.

From: Jogn Price — May 23, 2008

Actually I think the boat and its contents add greatly to your landscape. To me, many landscapes need an animal, man or beast, or something man made to eliminate that “empty” feeling.

From: — May 23, 2008

Great painting! but compositionally it feels a little heavy on the left to me, my eye wants to angle the foreground right hand rocks back into the picture and darken them a touch to balance the weight on the left.

From: Sharon Cory — May 23, 2008

It looks like a Ducks Unlimited print. Better without, I think. I paint a lot of beach scenes and usually they include people in typical repose positions. Lately I’ve been painting people the way they really look on the beach, full of lumps and bumps, not too flattering but much more fun. My clients like them too.

From: Gwen Pentecost — May 23, 2008

Works well, and it seems like its balanced between the story of the guys fishing, and the story of the beauty of the morning! Really nice!

From: Silvia F. Forrest — May 23, 2008

I love it! I can almost feel the coolness of the morning air caressing my face as I softly float away with my friends to greet another day. I am not sure I would have been able to place myself so vividly at the scene were it not for the little boat which by the way adds a lovely touch of color to the painting. Besides, what’s wrong with old fashioned?

From: Jo Evans — May 23, 2008

The painting is a very serene and peaceful setting, with wonderful light and another “story painting” which I love… I can’t give a professional critique (as if I would critique Robert Genn!) but I feel that the figures definitely define the feeling this painting is meant to convey …

From: Kelly Paquet — May 23, 2008

I like the well-placed rowboat and men and dog in the painting. I think it makes the painting more interesting. That’s my opinion.

From: — May 23, 2008

I’ve been doing landscapes for years and found that they often lacked interest after viewing over a period of time. After pondering this it became clear that by adding a figure or two or three, not only did the painting then have a “scale” for perspective, but it also allowed the viewer to emotionally place himself in the picture as an observer of the scene… Eric Sloan wrote, “I don’t paint scenes, I paint memories.”

From: Robin Brookes — May 23, 2008

Figures in the landscape may be passe now, but they add scope and proportion to huge spaces. Without them, you cannot appreciate how big the Grand Canyon is, for example. They also tell you something about the use of the space and contribute to the feeling of it, such as for peace of mind, entertainment, sustenance, struggle or survival. The fact that we have become a drivelling, self-serving, self-focused childish society may be a shame, but there is no reason to bow to it.

From: Alex Nodopaka — May 23, 2008

Yours was an illuminating article on the subject of staffage. The title of course caught my attention, as I am a stickler for spelling and thought you spoke about stuffing in the manner of George Carlin but then understood emptying the landscape to refill it with action figures of appropriate size. Thank you for making me understand the ways of my subconscious where I reverse the meaning and staffage becomes the main focus.

From: Terrie Chrisian — May 23, 2008

My current art love fits into both staffage and shibui. I am doing abstracts which begin with no plan whatever in mind. I simply begin to lay color onto the paper and play with shapes and changing colors. Then, as it progresses, I begin to see shapes that remind me of faces, critters, etc. As this “staffage” appears, I more fully develop the population with eyes, ears, or whatever else might inform the viewer. Here are a few examples. My last step is to fill in with some black permanent marker and line work. Often with metallics sharpies, and Caran D’Ache. I never know what will appear which is the greatest good fun of it all.

From: Virginia Peck — May 23, 2008

Yes, I immediately thought Winslow Homer, especially when I first saw it before enlarging, but I like the boat. What does bother me though, is the light blue outline around some of the objects… that feels illustrational to me. Also, I don’t care for the rocks w/ the patches of bright color in the foreground… I don’t believe them and feel they are distracting.

From: Carole Ann — May 23, 2008

I think the people and the yellow row boat add a lot to this painting. It is probably a matter of personal taste though. I don’t think it looks awkwardly old-fashioned. It’s not innovative, but sometimes that is nice. The main thing to me was the distance of the land in the landscape. I prefer flora and fauna at close range. Japanese painters are terrific at making plants come alive. Tortured old men-spirits live in trees, lovely woman-spirits float inside a weeping willow. These landscape artifacts have a story to tell. I’ve often wondered whether or not the painter also senses the anthropomorphic qualities their subjects seem to offer. The rowboat color yellow seemed a good choice. It adds a bit of dash to the somber quality. Very nice!

From: Jan Bush — May 23, 2008

The boat is perfect for this picture which lacked real focus. (I thought, but forgive me if I am wrong)

From: Sandra Donohue — May 23, 2008

I think that we should listen to that little voice inside our head that directs us in our work. In your painting, I don’t know what would reflect the first rays of the early morning sun better than the boat with the figures and dog. They are strategically placed and are pointed in the right direction, leading the viewer through the painting. They also don’t look like an after-thought. And who am I to judge your work! You get my vote of approval!

From: GK — May 23, 2008

Thanks. But I like the painting anyway.

From: Jerome Grimmer — May 23, 2008

This is not a good example of staffage as described in your latest letter. You may have thought of inserting the boat after being inspired by the scene, but as it stands it is THE focal point of the painting. It is not a beautiful sunrise on a lake that happens to have some human activity taking place, it is about an early morning adventure taking place in a breathtaking venue. Bravo.
Removing the boat and people would require completely re-thinking everything else so that a particular part of the landscape becomes the focal point. Definitely do-able, but whether you would wind up with a better painting is debatable. As it stands, the painting is a beauty!

From: Pat Marshall — May 23, 2008

I think the figures and boat are a great addition. They are a good focal point plus they give a directional push toward the more open right side of the scene. Also, I think that most people respond to the human or animal element in paintings. The painting is better with the figures.

From: Mira M. White — May 23, 2008

You needed the structure in that part of the painting, regardless of the image. I think it works.

From: Rick Ormond — May 23, 2008

Regarding “First Light on Moose Lake”, many people, I think, would imagine those people in the boat to be either themselves or members of their family — so, I like it. I really like the style of painting!

From: Helen Zapata — May 23, 2008

In looking at your painting of “First Light on Moose Lake”, I find I like the figures in the yellow rowboat very much. Without them, it would have been just another painting of a pretty lake scene. The addition of the figures in their boat transforms the painting. It has become a “moment in time” as opposed to just being about “a place”.

From: Ian Randell — May 23, 2008

It depends on what you want your painting to be “about”. We are so automatically drawn to people the painting becomes about “people in a landscape” when we add figures. In leaving out the figures the landscape must stand on its own as the primary subject matter.

From: Judy Gorton — May 23, 2008

I think your painting works both ways. It certainly could stand alone as landscape, but I think it works with the ‘staffage’ because you added splashes of the yellow on shore and didn’t make the humans and boat too big. Just my opinion.

From: Bret — May 23, 2008

Interesting painting. I think it works with the addition, but you’re right – if the boat weren’t there, it’d be a much different piece.

From: Bob Horne — May 23, 2008

I quite like the inclusion of boat, human forms and dog. It really makes the painting interesting and helps set a feel good mood. The warm lighting and reflection from rocks and boat are valuable to this painting. I like it !

From: Laurel Deery — May 23, 2008

Hi Robert, I do not usually reply to your letters, but you invited feedback so here goes. I like the addition of the people as it does two things for me. One, it draws my attention from the near shore to them and further on to the far shore. Second, the painting feels lonely without them in it. With them, it expresses a warmer moment in time.

From: Melisse Laing — May 23, 2008

I like the boat with the figures in the painting. It adds interest & enhances the balance of the composition. I wonder if my opinion is worth much since I’m not a painter – however, I am an artist & interest & balance are important in my compositions as well.

From: Jody Ahrens — May 23, 2008

My first reaction was wow! that’s a winner. If it sells right off, then the marketplace agrees … if it doesn’t … so what … it’s still a great painting.

From: Lucy Booth-Jay — May 23, 2008

Since you asked, – personally, I love it! The colors, the R&R activity (rowing and relaxing), the placement you chose – all add to the beauty of the scene. Of particular interest to my eye, was the choice of color for the reflections of the boat’s occupants. I would not have thought to make them orange – how wonderful it looks, and thinking about it, it seems the perfect choice! I would probably have made them a darker version of the yellow boat color and blue of what they’re wearing – yet when I picture that in my mind, the result would not have worked and I would then probably have painted out the boat and it’s occupants, and wondered why it still looked incomplete!

From: Lorraine Stiefenhofer — May 23, 2008

Hi Robert, I like the painting to which you refer, just as it is. OK, maybe I would have placed the boat significantly more to the right, just kidding! I think artists may be overly burdened with art history, and unduly influenced by fashion. I constantly pick my work to pieces.

From: Michele Tokach — May 23, 2008

I wanted to comment on your painting… I think the boat/people/dog is placed wonderfully. I think this made the painting. This makes the painting interesting. You have the boat turned perfectly… makes for a good composition. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

From: Molly Mooney — May 23, 2008

I love the yellow boat with the people!

From: Sandra — May 23, 2008

May I say how much I have enjoyed this letter? Your prose catches the sense of grace and balance in the subject: form and content perfectly in harmony.

From: Jacqueline Blaeske — May 23, 2008

Thank you for painting with such feeling!

From: Larry Rudolech — May 23, 2008

If we don’t try to make a connection with the viewer heart and soul then we have done nothing but illustrated something in life he may or may not have seen before. So why not just take a photo. My feeling is by adding the people you gave me more than another painting of trees and water. Trees and water I can’t really relate to. But I have been on the water early in the morning, I have had a dog I loved, and I have had friends I have fished with. So yes I think if you had not put the boat and figures in the painting I for one would have just kept on walking. And I have a hard time thinking you didn’t know that in the first place, or you would not have done it.

From: Hank Zauderer — May 23, 2008

Here’s my reaction to the figures + dog: For me (personally) figures can disturb the magic of nature. I am having some difficulty deciding what you intended as the Center of Interest in your painting, because there are several contenders:
There’s a distant Light on the lake, right next to the last pine tree.

There’s a reflection on the yellow boat.

There are several lovely warm yellows in the foreground. As such, my eye jumps to each of these 3 areas…

There are wonderful reflections in the lake.

As such, which of these did *you* want to have as the CI? I love the sky! And I see a certain Winslow Homer character in this work; he used to put lots of folks and dogs in his paintings…

From: Lucy Jefferson — May 23, 2008

I’m a photographer and I look at composition, rather than brushstrokes. Your good angel made you add the boat and guys for the sake of balance. Otherwise, the eye would be drawn straight to the end of that point of land and the FRAME. That would never do. The boat makes one stop and enjoy the scene with the occupants. Very attractive painting.

From: Jeanine Fondacaro — May 23, 2008

I love it! The instant I clicked on it the triangle of yellows pulled me into a swirl of joyous elation! I love the contrast and calmness of the rowers at the same time. I give the painting a thumbs up, Robert!

From: Norma Hoyle — May 23, 2008

Hi Robert, You rang a chord for me, but I’m afraid my opinion is in the minority. In my own approach to painting, I’m one of those who feel almost compelled to put something ‘animate’ into my paintings of scenery. Without it, my painting feels incomplete, but whatever is included, though not hidden, is always unobtrusive – something to be discovered, rather than demanding centre stage.
That said, to me your paintings (of scenery) are contemplative masterpieces, requiring nothing more. Additions such as those I feel my own paintings require would be mere distraction in yours. I therefore found the boat an intrusion into the purity of the scene. I’m sorry.

From: Armida — May 23, 2008

They belong. Good show.

From: Jane — May 23, 2008

As to May 23 painting, it is beautiful. The yellow spot of color in the water emphasizes the other colors throughout the painting. A fine painting is a fine painting regardless of time, style or anything else.

From: Carolyn Johnson — May 23, 2008

Dear Robert,
The painting needs the boat and occupants. I’m a teacher and if you were my pupil I would congratulate you–good choice.

From: Marney Ward — May 23, 2008

I like the boat and the figures, I tried covering it with my thumb and the painting looked a little cool and lonely without it. The yellows are not only a focal point, but they echo the morning light in the sky and on the rocks, and the figures provide a sense of animation that counters the stillness of the lake. It’s a nice balance of yin and yang in terms of colour, mood, bigness and smallness, animate and inanimate, coolness and warmth, and yet there is a harmony between the boat and the surroundings, the people in the boat seem to be cradled by the morning, enjoying the stillness even whilst they energize it. I think you done good!

From: Suzie Wolfer — May 23, 2008

I love the row boat and figures. It would seem so lonely and empty. It makes me happy to see them there.

From: Karen Mattson — May 23, 2008

I love the guys in the boat…..It reminds me of fishing with my dad in the upper peninsula of Michigan. So, I guess that would make it old fashioned, but then again, I still love to fish! It’s a wonderful painting!

From: Gordon Wright — May 23, 2008

It may well be on the cover of a fishing magazine or Readers Digest or in days of old Sportsman cigarettes.

From: Reet Herder — May 23, 2008

I just wanted to send in my response to your last email. I LOVED YOUR PAINTING!!! Your artwork is sensational and adding the people in the rowboat personalized the painting to the 10th degree. And, the composition and the colors are wonderful and full of life… Thank you so much for showing it to us… and, old fashion it is not.

From: Peggy Guichu — May 23, 2008
From: Eveleen Power — May 23, 2008

That’s a beautiful painting, I do the same but from the opposite angle as in I have the people as the main event with the landscape as a kind of backdrop- it somehow makes the landscape more exciting and real for me.

From: John Holoska — May 23, 2008

Thank you for keeping my spirits up and giving me a good recharge on my batteries through reading your gourmet articles.

From: Margaret Manlove — May 23, 2008

I think the yellow rowboat full of fishermen is magnificent. I took one look and said “Wow!” It adds warmth to an otherwise cool and lonely picture. Sometimes we need that extra ‘human dimension’ more than we think we do! Many thanks for sharing your work.

From: Carol — May 23, 2008

I think the boat with people in it is lovely. Adding people was a wise choice. They become the center of interest.

From: Misia — May 23, 2008

Like you I paint, and also in Human Body. This my wonderful way to express myself, on the skin of my lovely models.

From: Moncy Barbour — May 23, 2008

Your painting “First Light On Moose Lake” is breathtaking! I used to think that a painting without human or animal life was a bit dead? Although I love all art and this week found the most truest and eye catching at a graduation from pre school where my grand daughter had some of her works up. Among hers and other children’s I was captivated. But the title of my granddaughter’s painting said much. “My Daddy” She is is 5 years of age and wants to be a nurse like her mother and an artist too like me. I say go for it! Art is history of an evolving artist or a group movement. I would like to dedicate this letter to all of the child artists out there who paint with as much intense feeling and passion as any artist that has ever lived. Thanks for you letters Robert, you are a great asset to the art world and it is even free. You must love art too.

From: Val Norberry — May 23, 2008

I have an idea, kind of “Franzetta style” – have an Indian maiden going down the falls in a canoe full of flowers, to her sacrificial death. It was a tradition among the Indians of that area to sacrifice one maiden a year to the Niagra falls in that manner. Lots of color. You could paint her mouth open and screaming and her tonsils bright red!!!! So much for wonderful good ole’ days and wanting to be an Indian.

From: Janet Bowser — May 23, 2008
From: Anitta Trotter — May 23, 2008

You asked for comments about the addition of boat and people. I like what I like and not what I am told to like. This painting changes the emotion I feel when I look at your paintings. The unpeopled paintings evoke a feeling almost of loneliness in me, desolation. Probably because after coming to Canada I lived in central BC and was often taken to places like the ones you so often paint. Those were emotionally desolate and lonely years for me. This painting, on the other hand, reminds me of the childhoods of my now grown children, when we escaped the city for a week each summer to go to a cottage with my sister’s family and sometimes my parents-in-law. It brings with it gentle memories of the stillness, peace, soft early evening breezes punctuated by the echoing call of loons, sounds of paddles dipping and dripping into mirror water, memories of warm happy bodies, giggles and group hugs from any one of those precious times.
I could look at this painting for the rest of my life, but the feelings of emptiness, sorrow and fear that the painting without the boat evokes in me would cause me to look away fairly quickly.

From: Brad Greek — May 23, 2008

I’m pleased to hear that the human figure isn’t a “must have in a painting” requirement these days. I’ve never been inspired by people enough to study them enough to get it right. I suck at people, and envy those that can handle the figure with ease. Sure I’ll throw an occassional glob of color here or there with the knife to suggest a figure, but usually nothing more than that. Recently I’ve decided to put my vehicle (an old van) that I’m always out painting in, into my painting. A symbol that “I” was there. I may do a series of these. The van has more character than I do LOL. And seems to give the painting just enough “life”. I’m due for a change, so it might be the human, who knows. I believe your row boat was needed in your painting, it gives the viewer a focal paint and sets the mood of the painting, great job!

From: Gordon France — May 23, 2008

You mean old fashioned… like Winslow Homer’s Adirondack paintings?

From: LuvandStories — May 23, 2008

Without the boat and guys, the story is just beginning. With the boat and guys, the story is nearly finished. Both are good places to see. Both good stories. My interest in paintings is the story. Just my 2 cents…..

From: Mike Henderson — May 23, 2008

I think I do understand my genre. It is western or “cowboy art” and it almost always involves figures. I think this style has always been dismissed by the larger art world as illustration but it has quite a large following in the Western US and Canada. I, of course, think the boat and figures complete your painting well. As always it’s in the eye of the beholder. I don’t have to stretch my imagination far to put me in the boat, which is what I think my patrons do with my paintings.

From: Carol Chretien — May 23, 2008

…Has become a way for me to paint animals into scenes or, in truth, scenes surrounding the animals… which serves to help the purpose of painting art for rescue.
Your new landscape painting with the boating party is brilliant, literally and figuratively. It would be a nice peaceful scene without the figures but seeing the figures enjoying the moment made it more enjoyable for the viewer …I “heard” the oar dip into the water. That puts you there.

From: Kim Rody — May 23, 2008

I vote for the boat. When you drive along for miles and miles in the middle of gorgeous scenery, it tends to get monotonous. When you see some people or an animal or another “unnatural” object like a bright yellow boat, it tends to perk you up. I’ve never painted a reef without a fish in it. Or lobster. Or something.
By the way, when I saw the header I thought you were going to talk about getting help in the studio!!!

From: Hanna MacNaughtan — May 23, 2008
From: Patricia Peterson — May 23, 2008

The figures in your painting First Light on Moose Lake add a perfect element of time/space in leading the eye from the near shore to the feeling of the lake and especially the distant mountains and the quality of light in the sky. A depth of emotion is created with the trees as a backdrop for human appreciation of how nature is and exists without any consideration from humankind yet has our undying appreciation and wonder, as the placement of the figures in the boat reveal.
Your subject of staffage — another new word! has been an element of painting I have been mulling over for some time as the next area of development in my work (also in connection with surrounding interiors), and how the environment around the figure… and the space it create… resonates the meaning of the human form and the shape it takes in a work of art. I miss seeing the human figure in contemporary work, and in particular, landscape. Its more challenging to make a believable figure in that context than some optic 2D graphics such as an iPod ad to bring us to consumption rather than consideration of our place in the world.

From: Andrea Harris — May 23, 2008

Your “addition” to the painting adds interest — I like it. As a painter of nature and the figure, I tend to not add “staffage” to my nature artwork — this is because I choose to make the viewer feel they are “inside” my nature paintings and because of the scale. Your “First Light on Moose Lake” is austere and everything is “right” about what you created.

From: John Burk — May 23, 2008

Since you asked, I’d prefer your painting without the yellow rowboat. It’s a good color note, and falls nicely in the dark reflection. What it does for me is to keep your landscape from being a private moment, and it draws my eye from nice details like the brightness at the edge of the tree reflection in the water by the near bank. Nice work, though. I like your landscapes a whole lot.

From: Cathy Harville — May 23, 2008

I have a lot of trouble with clouds. I don’t know what it is, or why, but including clouds drives me bananas. After hours of struggling, I often leave them out. I rarely have clouds as the main subject. The color of the sky is imperative, but clouds seem unnecessary, and I find they often detract from my main subject, which usually is land or sea based. Is this weird? Does anyone else have trouble with an element? Or do I have I have a yet-to-be-named phobia? Paint yourself a great day!

From: Wendy Christensen — May 23, 2008

It’s better with the boat. (I made a copy and cloned out the boat and looked at them side by side, as well as separately.)

From: Edna Waller — May 23, 2008

Well, when you reach as many people as you do with your letters, you are bound to hit the mark with some of your readers. This week it is my turn. Lately I find myself placing a figure in a landscape or even making the figure in the landscape or interior the main point of interest. In my last painting completed just two weeks ago I used my favorite model — myself. And, I have two more self-portraits in the works. I believe I am beginning to see a trend here.

From: Kimberly — May 23, 2008

I was wondering what your thoughts were on all the computerized paintings that are out there. Well first let me explain. By computerized I mean an artist takes a photo of something and then through their computer they digitize it some how (Don’t ask me) and it digitizes the picture to make it look impressionistic but with a digital look. Break down the colors so the painter can see the layers and they paint them that one. Some almost look like a really good paint by number. I have seen many a painting hanging in exhibitions that I know they had to use this technique. (I have a friend who does it that is why I can tell I see it so much) I wondered what your thoughts were…and they are selling.

From: B. J. Adams — May 23, 2008

You are going to get thousands of letters discussing your two men and dog in the boat. That was the first thing I saw and I’m wondering if it was because you had written about adding the figures to the landscape or whether it actually became the dominant center of interest. I think if this addition had been more on the right side and further out in the water or landscape and smaller it probably wouldn’t have been so dominant and would have balanced with the rocks on the left. But, I am no critic.
In some of the early art works, particularly the oil paintings of Panini or the etchings by Piranesi, people were just that, measurements showing the immense scale of buildings. The architecture is what drew you in, not the figures.

From: Dianne Mize — May 23, 2008

This trend business always gets my blood boiling. Why should an artist allow current fad to determine whether or not he/she puts a person or animal into a painting, or any other image for that matter? Figures are representations/interpretations/expressions of human life. And animals are soul beings themselves. So why should including images of human or animal life be subject to trend? What about how something moving and breathing adds to the concept? Snubbing noses at paintings because they include human and/or animal activity is a form of elitism that has nothing whatsoever to do with art.
The inclusion of human and animal life in your painting makes an already fine painting far more alive.

From: Peggy Small — May 23, 2008

I think it’s beautiful as it is. I always like to have a “kicker” in a picture – whether it’s a person or a rock. Same thing with poetry. It should end with a “kicker.”

From: Cheryl — May 23, 2008

LOVED IT —— the light on the boat was wonderful!

From: Yaroslaw — May 23, 2008

Bob, the people at painting are in correct place – at boat and at painting.
Main mission of the artist – to change the world of people to the best. And it is not possible, if his creativity is separate from the people.

If the people are not necessary to him in his creativity, then it is not obligatory that his creativity will be necessary for the people.

If the artist works for the real people – the people on a painting really help him to be closer to the real people.

From: Kate Hoekstra — May 23, 2008

Adding the figures/boat to your painting created a nice “S” curve to the painting. I enjoy paintings which dance in that way. I’ve noticed that, without planning it, this pleasing curve appears often in a painting. I take it as a good sign.

From: Susan Parkinson — May 23, 2008

Your painting is very lovely with the “staffage” in it, but if you were to remove the boat you would have a completely different painting all together. The boat is very cute with its yellow color and cheerful figures and the painting would do well as a calendar page or the cover of Life magazine. However, the painting would be far more spectacular, in my view, without the staffage. If you block out the cute little boat with your finger you feel like you are looking at one of the Group of Seven’s works and, for my taste, it is ten times better sans boat, dog and persons.

From: Nancy — May 23, 2008

As always, your letters are eagerly read for their wisdom, insight, and inspiration. I very much like the addition of the figures in the boat, and think the whole painting lovely, but am bothered by the orange reflections in the water beneath the boat.

From: Fay Fairbairn — May 23, 2008

Love the children in the boat – I always like my work better when I include people – the scene is more personal to me.

From: Jeri-Lynn Ing — May 23, 2008

Your recent artwork, with the boat and figures, does just this. It gives your landscape another dimension. It allows the viewer to stop and think, perhaps even remember a time like it in their own memories. To visit the landscape in a intimate way. It becomes, for me, more than a beautiful place. For me the three red dots- along the shore line- are a little more distracting. My eye was fighting to stay on the boat- then again maybe that was what you intended? If so, well done.

From: Kit — May 23, 2008

Personally I love the rowboat in your painting. It evokes so many memories of peaceful times, summer days and stress less days. It also echoes the sunshine. Perfect. It doesn’t feel old fashioned because it’s still done in your contemporary style or could it be that I’m old fashioned (old at least). I often think that landscapes of “big” places feel lonely. A figure lets you know you could be there too if only in spirit.

From: Karuna Johnson — May 23, 2008

Without the figures, who would care if it was first or last light?

From: Mary Lapos — May 23, 2008

I like the idea of people in nature. I think it makes our brain happy. The composition is great. It’s hard to evaluate it because of computer distortion but since you asked :) … The warm tones of the boat and reflection are, to my eyes on my screen, just slightly too yellow … it stands out (as it should) but it jars with the rest of the composition … the morning light on everything else has a white, washy kind of feeling and the boat, even though local color, seems a bit too much like a cut and paste. Just backing off a bit on the intensity of the yellow I think would make it all hang together more … make it all kissed by the same light.

From: Sandy — May 23, 2008

In my opinion, in this case, the boat and figures add that extra ‘zing’ needed to change the painting from an okay landscape to a much more interesting and very nice composition.

From: Barbara Pace — May 23, 2008

“First Light”–Definitely better with the rowboat, I think. Nice to pick up the color from the rocks (or vice versa). Definitely makes me want to be in that boat! Barbara, Washington, DC

From: Joanne Corbaley — May 23, 2008

A very interesting discussion. I often think about adding figures to a landscape, occasionally do, and occasionally they add interest to the painting. More often they achieve the appearance of illustration… as you mentioned… This gives me one more argument in my mental discussions.

From: Diana Lynn — May 23, 2008

Call me old fashioned, but I like it! Makes me wish I was there.

From: Lynn Marlowe — May 23, 2008

I like the rowboat and figures. I feel it gives the picture more character.

From: Wendy — May 23, 2008

Wonderful letter..loved your painting..great balance and light..when people and objects are added to landscapes the whole piece sings when the painter does it professionally..most people can’t draw today. many thanks for your letters. They have been so helpful to a beginning painter.

From: Lynne Elkins — May 23, 2008

I think it is wonderful that the human eye can enjoy such peaceful surroundings. It would be sad not to be able to see this serenity by the human eye. I like them in the painting.

From: Arlie — May 23, 2008

The yellow rocks in the lower right balance nicely with the boat and lead your eye around the painting to the light in the far right. Excellent choice!

From: Suzanne — May 23, 2008

Painting works both ways. I prefer the stillness and quiet of nature without people. Allows me to enter painting and enjoy the feeling of solitude…so hard to discover stillness today. Wonderful work.

From: Adriana — May 23, 2008

I love the boat and the people. In Venice, it is Piazza San Marco.

From: Bill Kerr — May 23, 2008

Boat or no boat I like the work. I think the way the colour of the mountains (Quebec or Ontario) or hills (BC or Alberta) mellows towards the right edge and in synch with the water’s colour works very nicely. I also enjoy the glimmer of sunshine on the water peaking around behind the point but the fact that it is picked up in the lake in foreground center is special.
About the boat… I would have given the chap in the stern a fishing rod. They need a reason to be be out on the water. Otherwise it has a bit of an air of the sort of artifice that I think you had in mind when you said “old fashioned”. I recall old paintings by old masters where the patron’s horse, house or whatever was plunked in that had an artificial air about them despite the fact the work was wonderful.

Bill Kerr, Coast of Many Colours Art Studio,

From: Barbara Callow — May 23, 2008

I really like the boat and the figures. It reminds me of something, old fashioned or not.

From: Ursula E. Rettich — May 23, 2008

It looks like one of your paintings no surprise there ; with or without I don’t see much of a difference.

From: Phyllis Tarlow — May 23, 2008

Maybe because I started out as an illustrator and portrait artist, I find at times that adding a figure to a landscape says more than the landscape alone. It’s also a way of reminding the viewer of how much pleasure can be had by immersing oneself in nature and in an indirect way sending the message that a beautiful place should be preserved so it can be enjoyed.

From: Kathleen Self — May 23, 2008

I like the yellow canoe with people–it brings a sense of belonging to me, and helps me identify with the painting as a whole. And about Maxfield Parrish, I feel sorry for those poor barefoot girls traipsing about on rocks–don’t their feet hurt?

From: G Owen Studios — May 23, 2008

Hi, I read your commentary on “Staffage” and went to see your painting that included the figures. I think it added interest to the landscape and tells of a story of two friends and a dog sharing life together. Otherwise, it would be just another landscape.

From: Anna Morales Puigcerver — May 23, 2008

I think there would be something missing without the yellow row boat with figures. It adds warmth and balances the painting.

From: Karmen — May 23, 2008

I think the boat is a nice addition to your painting, but it took me a while to figure out that those were rocks in the foreground. They seem a little too abstact for the rest of the painting, which is quite realistic.

From: Edna Waller — May 24, 2008

Oops! I meant to say I am beginning to see a direction my own work is taking. I am not qualified to comment on general trends in the wider art scene.

From: Deb — May 24, 2008

Hello, I like it!

From: Alan Soffer — May 24, 2008

Dear Robert: I love your letters. Here comes the but. For me this is a corny painting with or without people. Sorry, most of us love and appreciate what you are doing, otherwise.

From: Marj Vetter — May 24, 2008

To my mind, the yellow rowboat and people makes the painting extremely interesting, conjures up all sorts of images, did they camp in a tent over night? How far from home are they? Are there moose behind the “bush” or scarier things watching them?

From: Lorraine — May 24, 2008

Your boat adds life and interest to your painting. There are too many empty landscapes already. Besides, the boat invites you to participate.

From: Diana Childs — May 24, 2008

Robert; I love love love the painting, including the people in the yellow rowboat. By inserting the people, I feel a peace and tranquility; and get the sense, that, for once, humans aren’t exploiting anything in nature. Thank you very much!!!

From: Pam — May 24, 2008

Sorry, I would find it more interesting w/out the boat or people. I like the lake solitary. It’s what’s going on while everyone is still sleeping.

From: Christopher Webb — May 24, 2008

If you were looking for feedback, here is mine. I think the boat/people work although there was something strange going on with the cool/warm colours. I tried blocking them out and the painting, although still strong, was not as interesting. When I blocked out bottom 1/4 however, the painting looked different again. My opinion is that the vibrant warm tones in the front compete and detract from the subject that you added. But please keep in mind that your work is much more sought after than mine and your instincts seem to be doing just fine.
You have also confirmed why I rarely ask for unsolicited feedback. You will always get it.

Cheers, Christopher

From: Martha In Sechelt B. C. — May 24, 2008

Found this letter very helpful – never heard of the word “staffage” before – always something to learn. Love your painting – and it needs the boat – without it there would be no movement! Same with victoria falls – the water moves as one looks at it. Beautiful tea bowl – would like to reach out and pick it up! Also Spain – just lovely. Keep up the good work – something to learn in each letter – M .G.

From: D. Arthur McBride (aka: Darlene Williams — May 25, 2008

Great painting! I LOVED it! The boat, men and dog add just the right touch! Makes you want to be there!

From: Jack Dickerson — May 26, 2008

Bob, I suspect that you would not have simply omitted the rowboat and people. You would have created another focal point, or counterpoint in the image. So, it is very difficult to make a simple judgement about “whether or not”. What you have demonstrated to all of us is how important “instinct” and “free” are when painting. U r right, you will never know. I personally really find the colors on the far right, of the reflections, really quite superb. But, as we both know, a painting will tell a different story for each who looks at it.

From: Katherine Farmer — May 26, 2008

Robert, It’s a beautiful painting… I envy your control that gives me the feeling I get when watching a perfect ballet move… that it is easy for you. We know how many years it takes for anything to become easy! Thank you for all your enthusiastic advice. The paintings I sell have no people in them. But, I don’t put people in my paintings. I do and sell portraits, if you are taking a poll. Kathy

From: Julie T. — May 26, 2008

I love, love, LOVE the guys and dog in the rowboat! I love the colors repeated in the rocks on the shore! I love the hint of warmth in they sky! If I could afford it, I’d love to buy so I could see everyday!
My one question–would the composition work as well if the guys, dog and rowboat were on the right side?

From: Helen Cook — May 26, 2008

I like it, Keeps the eye in the picture. The thoughts of a untrained pupil.

From: Debbie DeBaun — May 26, 2008

Your First Light on Moose Lake painting with boat and three people enhances your landscape painting. I am of the belief that in my photography and my painting in general people are an annoyance to the landscape or scene. However, in realizing that your addition was an afterthought I felt compelled to let you know that in my opinion (or perspective) it was the right decision to make for this painting. The boat gives the illusion of movement and the people who may be fishing or not gives the viewer a sense of fun and not simply admiration of the view before their eyes. It is a tranquil scene that invites the observer to participate.

From: Pixie — May 26, 2008

Being a figurative painter to begin with, I felt I was lacking. Now after several years of landscape painting I can now do both, at least adequately. I think it makes a bigger statement to have both. I love your picture. The people in the boat add sentiment to the scene. I was there once with my father. He was smoking a cigar and chumming with beer. I remember the blue glow of the distant mountains and the rocking of the boat. It’s peaceful and I’m there– thank you.

From: Suzanne Small — May 26, 2008

The painting evokes the promise of a beautiful summer day on the lake… much like the northern lakes of Ontario I where I spent my summers. I can almost feel the sense of anticipation in men and dog. (Hope they remembered to bring a good lunch and some bug repellent!) Adding the human and canine element brought the lovely landscape to life.

From: Mary Moquin — May 26, 2008

I’m afraid your painting is a tad heavy on the sentimental side. And, I’m really kind of sad that I feel that way. What is wrong with nostalgia and sentiment? Why does everything have to be ‘edgy’ and ‘raw’ to be accepted these days? Have painters like Kincaid just gone so far in that sicky sweet direction that we can’t take another granule of sugar? I have been struggling with this in my work and discussing it with others. The consensus is that it is nearly impossible these days to put a figure in a landscape without making it look sentimental. I’d be very interested to see examples of anyone that thinks they have achieved it.

From: Isobel Gibson — May 26, 2008

I love the boat and the figures in it. It adds interest and many people can put themselves in that place, remembering a similar experience. Without the boat, there would be no focal point, or at least the focal point would not be interesting. Of course, the placement within the dark reflection makes a great contrast to the boat and people. The dog is great! The light reflecting off the boat enhances the feeling of a low sun, thus morning. It still seems calm, despite the presence of people and dog. There is an exciting restrained anticipation, and a feeling of happiness to be here with each other. Love it!

From: Celeste Gober — May 26, 2008

With the staffage, it’s about the boat, and the landscape is just a backdrop for them. Without the staffage it’s about the landscape.

From: A. W. Berkshire — May 26, 2008

I was very interested about your dilemma about whether to put the boat into your painting. I often get in discussions about putting “life” into my paintings. I have to add something whether it is an eagle or a cat in the road. One of my favorite paintings was similar to yours and my art teacher told me not to spoil it with a boat. It was to be called “my favorite fishing whole” but with no life in it I named it ” Seventh day of Creation” (God rested) cause it was perfect….and I have felt the need to put life into all my painting since. However the lifeless ones sell faster. People just do not understand a squirrel on the fence talking to a cow…

From: Karen Frances — May 26, 2008

People or a person in a tableau always adds interest for me. I can look at painting of nature and think how beautiful but when a person is introduced I begin to form a story in my minds eye. I have realized only recently that I am a story teller when it comes to my art. Even when painting still life the curtain is blowing in the background or there is a letter sitting near by. Something to prick the viewers imagination or raise a question in their mind.
In short I liked the added boat with people within. It makes the work much more personal.

From: Kay Eaton — May 26, 2008

In my former life, I was, most recently, a tourism director for the county I live in. It was my firm belief that putting people into beautiful scenic photos of the area enhanced the ability of the viewer to have a sense of “belonging” to the scene. In other words, they could picture themselves as being there. That being said, I am now finding it difficult to look at a pretty scenic picture or painting without feeling that something is missing if there aren’t people or figures somewhere included. I definitely like the boaters in your First Light on Moose Lake.
On another note, I was wondering if you have ever discussed the concept of using photographs of actual people (sometimes taken as candids but sometimes posed) as a model for artwork. I’m looking back at some of the photos I’ve taken over the years, and would like to attempt to do some paintings from these, but don’t have “permission” from the person in the photo.

From: Lanita — May 26, 2008

Personally I love the people and boat addition to your painting . I want to be there . That tells the story !

From: Nancy J — May 26, 2008

Enjoyed your column and don’t you dare remove those figures or the rowboat! I don’t care what is being ‘done’ today you need something living in a painting and not just the trees.
My dear late friend Frederic Whitaker (often referred to as ‘Mr. Watercolor’) told me that every painting needs something living even if it is just a garden hat left in a painting of a corner of the garden. It shows that the lady of the flowers will be back or is just ‘off camera’ for a moment. If that is considered ‘illustration’ or ‘sentimental’ maybe it is something that is really needed in this world today.

So much is harsh and cold or hard-edged and digital let’s at least keep the images of people/animals intact.

From: Michal Barkai — May 26, 2008

You needed that boat because the horizontal line of trees stretches almost to the other end and “blocks” the view of lake. Had that inlet been shorter and allow for distant lake views, a smaller boat in the background or none at all would have been good options. I thought it came out beautiful.

From: Corrine Hull — May 26, 2008

Robert, I think if I had seen the lake without boat, I wouldn’t have missed it, but on seeing your finished painting I can’t imagine the painting without it. The Brown County school of artists (Steele, Forsythe, etc, often included figures and/or buildings, although I find in my reading that after 1914, T.C. Steele seldom used either. We still talk about meeting you in Indianapolis at the Land Trust opening.

From: Bonnie Steinsnyder — May 26, 2008

I like the guys in the boat, I think the bit of narrative gives the painting a special flavor of life on top of the lovely abstract properties of nature inspired art.

From: Rose van Staden — May 26, 2008

I like the people, it is good to have the human element in a painting, I think, I suppose because I like them and it adds interest.. I also loved the sky. I am glad that I have seen one of your paintings, it helps to tune in to someone through their work.

From: Robyn Eastgate-Manning — May 26, 2008

It is a strange coincidence that you should be talking about putting figures into paintings this week. I teach painting, mostly watercolour, and have been teaching my students how to do this for the last couple of weeks. They were very nervous at the idea but with a bit of practise and my encouragement, they have done beachscapes with figures enjoying the sun and water, and rural country paths with walkers.
The trick is to do tiny ones first in the distance in dark wet colours that are really a silhouette, and when they have confidence to put foreground figs in with wet pale colour for skin then dropping the clothes colours in and watching it run into the shadow side to create form. Of course the shadows help too, and it’s not as hard as they think. Just needs attention to shape. I am not sure it looks old-fashioned to put people, rather I think it creates interest, esp. if you keep the figs silhouetted so that people can imagine it is themselves. And I love your painting….the people are the best part!!! This is the first time I have written to you, hope you get it!

From: Alan Miles — May 26, 2008

Actually, I think that the rowboat and occupants really set a mood. I can place myself in that boat, and feel the tranquillity of the scene. In this example, I think that it definitely improves the work, giving a much more direct path to the emotional content of a scene such as that.

From: Jill Ferguson — May 26, 2008

Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that we had a yellow rowboat for years at my Grandparents cottage and it continues to be a special place for me. However, I really like the inclusion in your painting. To me it makes it more special and unique. Without the boat it would be just another landscape much like many done by lots of artists (though expertly manipulated of course!) The boat makes me want to be there and join in the fun. I also like how you have used the two foreground rock groups to compliment the boat, direct your attention and keep you from following the shoreline out of the picture. Love it.
I would also like to say how much I look forward to receiving your ramblings.

From: Don Kibble — May 26, 2008

Figures, even small ones, always tend to command attention so their use should be governed by their importance relative to the whole image. First Light on Moose Lake is an attractive eyeful and I find the way the figures have been done in this instance have made them the focal point. Mostly because of the contrast at that point. If they were a little smaller and back towards the far shoreline, and more subdued, the landscape would then increase in importance. After all, you painted a landscape. Adding figures changes the story a bit, and a bit more if they are too obvious.

From: Carita — May 26, 2008

I am a total “sucker” for reflections and how else can you get yellow reflections? I like it.

From: Candy Simchik — May 26, 2008

I like it. Very simplistic and goes with the painting. I have a painting I bought 29 yrs ago…my dad always would make up a story to his grandkids about a boat coming around the bend and for them to wait and watch…trying to get their imagination going. But sometimes having a figure-w/o much detail adds the feeling of humanity to the picture.
I like it very much! Without it I think it would be just another landscape. Staffage…new word for me. I don’t usually do figures either but in my maturity would very much like to try this style of adding in simplistic humanity.

From: Lucy Bates — May 26, 2008

I like it! It is often difficult to truly capture morning light in a landscape, but in this painting the boat seems necessary to reflect the light. It expresses that morning light perfectly and gives strength to the painting.

From: Bob McMurray — May 26, 2008

I like the yellow boat – in. Without it the painting is a beautiful place and great on its own but with it in I felt more of a connect with the image – I’ve been there, in a boat, with family. It also provides a commanding focal point and a connection between people and their environment. It’s a story and stories seem to connect more readily with the viewer.

From: Mike Jorden — May 26, 2008

Figures are useful in giving scale to landscapes. Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt often reduced the size of figures in their romantic depictions of the American west to emphasize the drama and power of the landscape for the viewer. For years, I have been largely unable to do a landscape without including in it people or animals. I find I am becoming increasingly interested in their stories and circumstances to the point that I feel like an illustrator of a documentary. They are leading me on my art journey. Obviously I like your inclusion of the boaters for the opportunity it affords to introduce a storey line, contrast of colour and that delicious light.

From: Silvia Vassileva — May 26, 2008

About the yellow boat- did it make your painting better or worse? It really doesn’t matter because it is not about WHAT you put on your painting- it is about HOW you did it. The difference between true artists and people who are trying to paint is that whatever you put on your painting or “the Devil makes you put” – you do in a very CONVINCING way. Professionally, spontaneously, easily- therefore you CONVINCED me that the boat and people must be right there where you put them.
I have been reading your letters religiously and I have to admit that in my more than 30 years artist life I have never met anybody who can put in words exactly what I think and feel about painting.

From: Joane Cardinal-Schubert — May 26, 2008

Probably you needed to place the boat/people there as it compositionally draws the eye back from a right zoomout, as does yellow incuded n’est ce pas!

From: Sally — May 26, 2008

I liked the yellow boat with the people…..I think the scene needed just that!

From: Trisha — May 26, 2008

I used to paint landscape, and never put figures in them. I was told now and then that I should by people such as art directors ..and asked why I didn’t.
Truth is, they were beautiful or peaceful places, and don’t we all like to think we can pick the right time for a walk down a country lane or along the shore when no-one else is there, and can revel in the peace and tranquility of it? I know I always have.

I liked to think that like me, the viewer can imagine they could happily step into that place in the painting and have it to themselves if only for a short while.

Years ago, when still under the pressures of a ‘proper’ job, if I could run along the seashore alone for half an hour before going to work, my day was better for it.

From: Sue Rochford — May 26, 2008

Shooting down someone else’s artwork requires a person to have a really steady hand and be prepared for backfire so instead I would like to just comment. The boat reminds me of the artist’s plight. Rocking it means the ripples flow out and there is a huge danger of losing all the cargo. Putting the boat in, implies a risk. Without the boat something would be missing – that part of the painting that is the human/animal aspect of Robert Genn. And of course you do know that it really doesn’t matter what we think. You are a competent skipper. Thankyou, Captain Genn for these challenges to our own mastery.

From: Roscoe — May 26, 2008

I enjoyed your painting of the yellow boat. And yes, to me the figures and yellow boat have become your center of interest. I am of the opinion that anytime you include people in your painting, people automatically become the center of interest. With your comments in your letter, you do not seem to find that this is usually true. To me, the viewers as well as the artist are drawn to human forms and their activities. It was also interesting to note the handling of the brown rocks and brown tree masses in your painting. I notice that you have included almost a square in which to highlight the boat and its occupants. Do you intentionally coordinate a color and value at other locations in all your paintings with this purpose in mind?

From: Peg — May 26, 2008

What’s not to like? The figures create a lively spot in a dark area, tell a story, add interesting balance, provide scale. They belong there. Just right!

From: Lee — May 26, 2008

Robert, I think the row boat w/ adds to picture, the lake would be nice on its own but I felt as if I wanted to be out in the row boat looking at picture.

From: Bette — May 26, 2008

Really enjoyed Shibui, and especially love First Light on Moose Lake – So beautiful, you are amazing.

From: Ann Galloway — May 26, 2008

It (the staffage) made the painting better. People are interested in people.

From: Connie Miller — May 26, 2008

Funny how this subject came up just as I was considering doing a painting from a photo my brother took in Utah of a wonderful small waterfall framed by high rocks…with a boy sliding down the waterfall. Everyone in my family “oohed” when they saw the photo, but I am still thinking that I like the composition better without the boy.
Usually I think a landscape looks so much more appealing without “staffage” and sometimes even resent the artist’s need to include the lone deer or fisherman in the composition. Your yellow rowboat, however, looks perfectly placed in the serene scene, so I give you points for changing my mind…at least about YOUR composition.

From: Anita Klein — May 26, 2008

Personally, I liked seeing the guys in the boat in your painting. I didn’t think it made the painting old fashioned, just different from your usual landscapes. My husband just bought himself a boat and your painting made me think of the great times we are going to have on it.

From: Ian Henley — May 26, 2008

Thank you so much for your letters. With, “Staffage”, you have asked for a response. My quick response is that if I had a choice of which painting I would buy to be part of my collection, it would be the one with the rowboat and the two people and the dog enjoying the enjoying the tranquillity of a calm bay as they contemplate nature. In fact, I would pay a significant premium for the inclusion of the rowboat. It reminds me of the Arthur Ransom’s books “The Swallows and the Amazons” and all the rest and me and our children and grandchildren as we all enjoyed life here on Bowen Island. Although, my early rowing was done on Coal Harbour and Lost Lagoon in Vancouver close to 80 years ago..
What I am getting at is that figures of people help to put me in the picture and the cottage on the point in the background also puts me in the picture.

I was at a show yesterday in The Gallery here on Bowen Island. It consisted of about 20 paintings of an average size of about 23″ x 36″ of water and shore scenes of Killarney Lake with a foreground of silhouetted trees and branches and shore shrubs. It provided a choice of images for persons who might like to take home a picture of a lake. One or two with a figure(s) would have given life to the whole show. I talked to the artist about your letter – which I am forwarding to her. She did not seem interested in my suggestions but other visitors agreed that a figure or two might have added a lot to the show.

From: Lee Rawn — May 26, 2008

Dear Robert, I like the painting. Sometimes a landscape is just a landscape which doesn’t always inspire or excite. (not that your landscape isn’t good). We humans are a funny bunch, and when we change our minds about what is good, many of us in lemming fashion follow along. In this instance, the yellow boat gives energy to the painting. Nicely done.

From: Lisa Arthur — May 26, 2008

I think the dog and guys and boat add much, a beautiful well-lit focal point; Most of all I love the reflection in the water. The foreground, I found a little confusing. At first glance, while looking at the boat, I thought you had cars on a narrow curving road reflecting light, then concluded they were actually rocks; there’s something incongruous about them. If the devil made you paint in the boat, good for her. :)

From: Leslie Tejada — May 26, 2008

That’s a nice little painting, with or without the men in the boat. Without them, the focus of the painting is the light in the sky; with them, it is split between this light and the men in the boat who are enjoying being bathed in this light. Or so it seems to me. Inserting figures into a painting always makes it more active, more going on. Your painting is more meditative without the boat, but it is nice either way.

From: Liz — May 26, 2008

I think it’s awesome Robert! Made the painting!

From: Barbara Swanson — May 26, 2008

Figures seem to always draw my eye. In your painting the people and the boat make the painting primarily “about them” rather than the scenery. The bright colors also draw my eye. Serenity dominates; I’m not interested in precisely who is there or if they catch fish. Having enjoyed fishing in high mountain lakes, I re-experience the emotions and sensations, which landscape details provide. Many times I think figures –especially those rendered simply rather than in detail– help a painting to “tell a story” which can be clear or ambiguous. I rarely include people in my paintings; which sometimes seem sterile without them, but I can’t add people “for effect”. I’d like to become more skilled at including figures if they provide a more complete sense of place.

From: Phee — May 26, 2008

I can’t imagine your painting without the boat and its people. Mainly, it reflects and enhances the fresh morning light. Skillfully done.

From: Jana Botkin — May 26, 2008

Absolutely beautiful! It would be a little bit boring without the yellow boat and staffage – still beautiful, but by seeing those folks on the lake, I want to become one of them! They look perfectly placed to me – I don’t think it was the devil that made you put them there!

From: Marion Edworthy — May 26, 2008

I find the people distracting. However, a boat pulled up on the beach might be pleasing to my eye.

From: Sally Ogletree — May 26, 2008

love it! love it! good move…

From: Debbie Reed — May 26, 2008

Tone down the yellow. Love all the comments!

From: Consuelo — May 27, 2008

Look what happens when you invite us to critique your work – everyone becomes a critic and you get a sense of how many are reading your weekly letters, oh you’re sly one Mr.Genn.

From: Sandra Bos — May 27, 2008

about the boat; I don’t think it has as much to do with the people, (what they’re doing, and all that stuff) as what the color, and image does for the painting! It’s the surprise color that makes the painting sing! I believe I learned something on a whole new level!
Oh, and it wasn’t the devil that made you do it. I’m sure it was your genius self!!

Thanks, Smiles, Sandra Bos, Cookeville, Tn.

From: Sherry Purvis — May 27, 2008

I think, we think too much. The painting works whether it is with the boat or without. If we buy into what the norm is for today, now, we buy into what the critics say we should be doing. The one thing this discussion and this painting proves is that it evokes emotion, for and against the boat. Guess what, isn’t that what makes you look and enjoy, or not so to speak. Whether we believe it or not, we still need to paint for ourselves, regardless of what we are told is the “in” thing or not.

From: Esther J. Williams — May 27, 2008

I think the paintings works beautifully on all levels. Your choice of yellow and orange is an artistic decision based on complimentary colors elsewhere in the painting. That makes it look contemporary, not old fashioned. Sometimes we are in a more earth toned mood, sometimes we want to be more colorful. Dancing sunlight on lakes can bounce into shadows and make them colorful. It makes me very happy, so do the boaters and dog. Great work!

From: Beryl Ryder — May 27, 2008

Maybe the orange reflection in the water was to be from the life jackets that the men were supposed to be wearing.

From: Jill — May 27, 2008

I don’t see a problem with the boat. Sometimes a little staffage can make the viewer feel less alienated.
I did want to comment on the article however. While I usually find them insightful and interesting, one line didn’t seem to fit: “bereft of mankind and even the hand of man.” Did Feminism ever happen? Shouldn’t we, as artists, who are sensitive to the changing meanings of our pictures and words strive to capture the ideals of our moment? Shouldn’t we think about their implications? Please modernize your eloquent speech to make it more accessible to all the women and men who love to read it.

From: Catherine Robertson — May 27, 2008

Regarding the comments that the weight of the painting is on the left, I find, upon gazing at the boat and the “dipping oars”, that my anticipation of its moving along, guides my eyes and “self” to the right hand side of the picture. I can almost see the boat “moving” along, disappearing around the point and off into the channel to fish or just gunkhole. This sense of illusion equalizes any left-side weight, if indeed there was any to begin with which, for me, was not a problem. I love the sea, rowboats, dogs, and fishing and am wondering where they’re bound for a morning’s fun and adventure. Trincomalli Channel, perhaps ? I LOVE the painting !

From: Katharine Robinson — May 28, 2008

I take the vantage point from the foreground of the painting (where I stand presumably), when not including the boatmen and am drawn to reflect on the etherial qualities of the scene…the light…the trees…the water…and can imagine myself there gazing on this scene…With the inclusion of the boatmen I reflect upon what THEY are feeling…how it feels to sit in the boat…balancing with the dog…the movement of the oars and moments of looking around to appreciate the light…the tranquility apparent.
My preference is for the former experience.

From: Gayle Gerson — May 29, 2008

I really like the people in the boat, but as much as I love canine companions; I would lose the dog. Two people and one yellow side of boat completes the requirements for the rule of three for compositional purposes.

From: Quin Sweetman — May 29, 2008

Love it! Loved the introductory background on staffage too. Reminds me of a story I heard about someone sticking in a little paper dog on Turner’s wet painting while it was premiering in a show, saying it was “wanting a focus.” I think it was Constable. Apparently, Turner agreed and left it!
I don’t often put people in my landscapes, but I’ve just started doing more figure painting from life. We’ll see what happens with the plein air work this summer!

From: Doug MacBean — May 30, 2008

First Light is a fine example of great composition. People, things, animals, whatever the choice, composition is paramount. Incorporating the human is only a subjective call, by the artist.
How successful, and why that item appears, illustrates a theme, is the scene better or diminished by figure? Doug MacBean

From: Janice Schoultz mudd — May 31, 2008

The devil made you do it?? He must have been feeling benevolent. That yellow boat and its occupants make me want to be there.

From: Kris Love — Jun 03, 2008

Devil, my foot. I think you were slyly pulling our legs. :-) God is in the details, and this detail makes the painting sing. Love your wit and wisdom, love you, love your boat. Happy painting, Robert!

From: Chris Everest — Nov 18, 2008

When I am photographing I don’t want people in my photos.
When my daughter asks why I don’t photograph her (like my wife does) I figure its because I am essentially anti-social. To put family in a photograph turns Art into Snaps.

From: photo-artist — Nov 18, 2008

Why not turn your family into models and put them where you want? Then make Art out of them.

From: Edna Waller — Jan 10, 2009

Wow! This one really stirred everyone up! I know we have to keep moving forward, but have you any thoughts as to why this particular letter hit the mark with so many?

From: Janice Robinson-Delaney — Jun 01, 2009

I think I see the painting as you presented it, the lovely lakeside scene with staffage, but I must admit that the staffage would be an afterthought when viewing the work, adding staffage might create purchaser-envy and chase the buyer away, in some settings I guess I’m saying staffage can be intrusive, but then most ofmy work is abstract, so that might explain my opinion.

From: muggzz — Feb 24, 2010


From: Kelly Leichert — Sep 14, 2011

I started out painting pure, figureless landscapes. Now I would not paint anything without a figure as it is such a challenge both to paint and to view. The figures and boat you added adds a narrative which sparked my imagination to make a story to go along with the beauty of the scene itself. Thanks.






Along the Banks of Rivers

acrylic painting
by Brian Alfred, Brooklyn, NY, 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 Mrs. Munn who wrote, “Perhaps you should have used a little red canoe with a lone occupant in a big hat…”

And also Sue Williams of Port Elizabeth, South Africa who wrote, “I think the yellow boat and occupants add a focal point and interest to the painting. I love the reflections and water surface you have in the painting.”

And also Sharon Cory of Winnipeg, MB, Canada who wrote, “It looks like a Ducks Unlimited print. Better without, I think.”

And also Chi Chi Singler of Seattle, WA, USA who wrote:,”I love the folks in the boat! Allows me to be there, in the same way characters in a play allow the audience to feel things they might not otherwise feel.”

And also Gail Hodgson of Kelown, BC, Canada who wrote, “It’s the ‘yellow’ boat that bugs my eye – I would prefer if the boat/trio were ‘barely there’ with subdued color.”

And also Katherine Harris of Bracciano, Italy who wrote, “You wrote ‘these days some photographers dine out on girls in red shorts sitting on rocks.’ Is that some Canadian slang? I’m American, but have lived in Italy for over 40 years, and am out of touch with current usage.”

And also Donna Clark of the UK who wrote, “However, I feel like the whole composition is lop-sided somehow. So much weight is on the left side of the canvas where the boat is. I would be interested in reading other’s and your response to the lopsidedness issue.”

And also Ted Pankowski of Woodinville, WA, USA who wrote, “You’re also lucky! It might have turned out corny. Let us all periodically thank the gods of painting!”

And also Lori Farmer of Brandon, MS, USA who wrote, “Robert, I’m glad the devil tempted you. The boat, people and dog are fine. They belong there. I can hear the dog panting, the guys talking about who’s going to catch the first, biggest and last fish, and I can hear the clunk of the oars on the side of the boat and as they plunge into the water. Well done.”

And also Richard Mason of Pittstown, NJ, USA who wrote, “If I was an impulse buyer I’d have to whip out the plastic and make the purchase, or just attempt to do one like it myself. Thanks for asking what I think.”

And also Jan Campbell of New Port Richey, FL, USA who wrote, “I have several oil paintings that my grandmother made in the ’50s. They are very nice pieces except for the fact that she didn’t prepare the canvas properly. They are starting to flake. Is there any way I can preserve them myself?”

And also Jim Larwill who wrote the poem,

First Light on Moose Lake

Figures in landscape, reflect this landscape,
soft oar echo soothing our struggles to paint
lakes pristine silent in golden slick nativity.

Beginnings mock this anticipation of our end:
barren wind frozen teeth swallows old-timer’s
dog seeing death, as we row away from shore.

Morning glow galvanizes a metallic moment,
where all at once the cobalt of oil dark water
shimmers sudden from a bright horizon flash.




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