On where to start

Dear Artist, Michelangelo started his Last Judgment in the upper left hand corner and, over a period of four years, worked his way down through about 250 nudes. Every figure was started with a “comp” — a paper drawing pounced (with a pounce wheel) and redrawn into place. In many cases the faces were painted first and lesser elements were passed on to assistants.

Unfinished Cezanne. The brush went here, there, everywhere — rendering a bit here, then going over there.

Surprisingly, many painters today labour from the top down — even landscapes — as if drawing a blind down the canvas. By contrast, Cezanne, more typical of the Impressionists and others, painted “all at once,” a system readily observed in Cezanne’s unfinished works. Other commendable artists, including many modern day ones like the American painter Richard Schmid, tend to start with a center of interest and work outwards, stroke by stroke, wiping off baddies as they go. There’s no right way. But it’s possible to identify definitive methodologies. Here are a few: Start with the most difficult area. Your freshness and early patience will help you to get it to your satisfaction and build the confidence to continue. As you move away from the difficult area, which is often the center of interest, natural defocus enhances the focal reality and the freshness of the whole. There’s nothing wrong with finishing up loose. Start with the foreground. Compositions fail when the foreground is treated as an afterthought. The foreground is the master of eye control. Elements as they proceed toward the back of the painting can be more arbitrary. Furthermore, the subject is often framed by the foreground. When on location, it’s always a good idea to look around at the various foregrounds available. Your chosen foreground is the prompt which invites proceeding with the job. Start with the end in mind. This may sound rigid but it means getting the whole pattern up early and then getting lost in a perceptibly timeless encounter. This is what Cezanne was perhaps after, and definitely got — the materialization of a unique item that stands on its own as something other than a “scene.” With materialization in play you have magic in your fingers and you become the wizard.

Mary and Christ. Christ’s genitalia, referred to as ‘objectionable,’ were painted over with drapery after Michelangelo died in 1564 by the Mannerist artist Daniele de Volterra, when the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art.

Best regards, Robert PS: “Nothing, of course, begins at the time you think it did.” (Lillian Hellman) Esoterica: Pope Paul III brought an associate up the scaffold to pass an opinion on Michelangelo’s half-finished Last Judgment. Biagio da Cesena said there were “too many nudes for such an honored place — more suitable in a bathhouse or wine shop.” Mike continued with the work as he saw fit — he had a written papal guarantee he could do what he wanted. For two hundred years artists were engaged to put breeches on some of the figures. This letter is adapted from one previously published as “Where to start” on October 24, 2000.   In praise of ‘foregrounds first’ by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington, NC, USA  

“Cobbs Maine Farm” — After Hopper
oil painting, 14 x 18 inches
by Mary Susan Vaughn

Where to start can be the difference between a masterpiece and a complete flop. I learned over the years that I should start in the background and move forward… back to front — dark to light — cool to warm. Maybe generations of experience dictate these lessons, but I completely agree with you, that when we start with the subject – the foreground — that the energy and patience, excitement and mastery, are plainly visible to all in the finished painting. I also agree that when starting with the foreground, or the subject, that when it is time to work on the background, it can be a bit frustrating since edges may need to be reworked; but, reworking a few edges is far less painful than scrubbing the entire painting. It is best to begin with the subject… the foreground… with the best an artist has to give! There is 1 comment for In praise of ‘foregrounds first’ by Mary Susan Vaughn
From: Damien Flint — Dec 12, 2013

Sometimes you dont know what the subject is going to be, and it materializes as you go along. Too much pre-ccnsideration can be dangerous

  Watercolor driven by other requirements by Doris Osbahr   Oh how different and more medium-driven is the watercolor, although there also are very clear different approaches on where and how to start. A friend of mine starts applying the shade washes. I start with the lighter areas and move into the darker ones. Yet, most everyone starts by determining where to leave white areas untouched (the highlights).   Can’t do both by Keith Donaldson, Minneapolis, MN, USA   What an inspiration you are to all of us who play happily in life’s sandbox or I suppose paintbox. I am surrounded in my studio by the results of 20 fulfilling years of painting whatever moved me. I regularly reject those which do not measure up and consign them to the trash (or paint on the back, I’m a watercolorist). I am much less happy as a marketer, but am comforted by a friend, a world famous potter, who told me once, “You can work at your art or at marketing your art, but you cannot do both without hurting one or the other.” Ah well, the pleasure is in the doing and the living each day.   Thinking from the scaffold by Linda Stephan, Birmingham, AL, USA   In Art History I was taught that the first panel Michelangelo did was the story of Noah and the Flood. I don’t know whether it is in a corner or not; however, I was taught that after he had done it, he realized he had too many figures in the composition to be easily read by viewers on the floor below. For future panels, he reduced the number of figures and enlarged their size accordingly.   Materialization by John MacKenzie, Orangeville, ON, Canada   “Can you help me with the concept of ‘materialization’ as in Cezanne’s aim of ‘the materialization of a unique item that stands on its own as something other than a ‘scene?’ ” (RG note) “Materialization” is a creative concept where all elements gradually appear on the canvas more or less as a unit and become a “thing unto itself.” The idea in this type of creativity is that the subject matter as rendered often wanders from reality and takes on the automatic and unique style of the artist in the business of making it happen. Cezanne’s style, for example, was distinct from that of other impressionists. Many of our readers noted that half closing the eyes during this process seems to aid the effect — I’m not sure why, but I think they’re right.   Doing a ‘Genn’ by Taylor Ikin, Tampa Bay, FL, USA  

“Sully’s Camp”
original painting, 20 x 26 inches
by Taylor Ikin

I teach art, and over the years my comments, as well as an image or two, have been posted in the Twice-Weekly Letter. In my teaching, I start the day with a reading… and if it is not from your twice-weekly email, then it is often from The Painter’s Keys. You are part of the class, so to speak. I would like you to know you have many friends, here in the Tampa Bay area, cheering you on with prayers and support and multiple positive thoughts. No one knows when our time will come. But one guarantee is that we are only passing through. I thought you might enjoy knowing when I shared your “cleaning out the dogs” painting comments, my group immediately embraced the idea and now refer to it as doing a “Genn”!   Pouncing for fun and profit by Marian Kemp, Powell River, BC, Canada  

pounce wheel

What is a “pounce” and what is a “pounce wheel”? (Sara G note) “Pounce patterns” and “pounce wheels” are a somewhat outdatedmethod of transferring a drawing or a motif from paper to another surface. A pounce wheel is a pen-like device with a serrated wheel at the end that the artist or assistant uses to put tiny perforations along the lines of a drawing. The paper is then taped to the final surface and “pounced” with a “pounce bag” of either chalk or charcoal, leaving a line of dots where the painted line was to go. Michelangelo used this method to lay out the panels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Some of today’s sign painters and a few muralists still use the system. There are 2 comments for Pouncing for fun and profit by Marian Kemp
From: BJ — Dec 11, 2013

And some embroiderers.

From: Vicki Jones — Dec 11, 2013

…and many sidewalk “chalk” artists, as well.

  Abstracts require the overall approach by Connie Cuthbertson, Fort Frances, ON, Canada  

“Sisters of Rethymnon”
acrylic painting, 36 x 48 inches
by Connie Cuthbertson

I remember you mentioning the importance of beginning with the foreground which I do in many of my landscapes. I also like to start with the exciting parts, the focus of interest, but only seem to do this when painting a still life or figure. Only with my abstracts do I begin with an all over approach like Cezanne. Once the painting has begun the overall approach takes over in all of my work as I begin looking for opportunities to link everything together. I find by working the painting as a whole near the end of the process, it’s easier to create harmony in my work.   There is 1 comment for Abstracts require the overall approach by Connie Cuthbertson
From: James Porteous — Dec 12, 2013

an abstract often benefits from committing to a central motif and then working outward from it with echoing and complimentary imagery

  Intuitive and just plain fun by Susan Thomas, Toronto, ON, Canada  

acrylic painting
by Susan Thomas

I saw a photo of you painting on an island on Lake of the Woods — my home. I am sure you were near what we called Battle Ship Island where we used to camp. But maybe you were elsewhere — there are 14,000 islands. My father guided on that lake through the Hades Passage and down to Wiley Point as a young man in the ’30s. He taught tourists how to clean pickerel on the canoe paddle and cook it over an open fire. He also made four very nice oil paintings of the Lake but was frustrated as he was driven to be so accurate — a tad anal retentive which he recognized. These paintings still sit in a place of pride on our cottage wall on the Lake and I pray it won’t burn down. I now have started to change my life with acrylics. Almost drunk with the texture and colour, I painted a stump that sits in the forest beside our home here on the Indian Land above Burrard Inlet. I threw salt and then pepper into my medium and then some sand imported from Bermuda and then as I was looking for crushed leaves, I added a dash or two of paprika. It was just plain fun. I started with the stump — wondering what little animals live there or cower there when the coyotes come at night. I had never seen such magnificent stumps — these massive cedar constructions found on the west coast. I started as I have never started when I was in watercolour — without fear — just drew an outline of that irregular shape and spent the day playing — all intuitive and just plain fun. There is 1 comment for Intuitive and just plain fun by Susan Thomas
From: Anonymous — Dec 10, 2013

Great letter…thanks so much – sprinkling paprika on a painting sounds like a wonderful happy moment!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for On where to start

From: Janice Vogel — Dec 06, 2013

Love the family photo! Great to see your big happy gang all together in your magical studio. Fondly, Janice

From: ashar — Dec 06, 2013

I like you am not precious about my work and cull it however; with me it is a natural process. I cannot afford to waste the canvas/board so I recycle them. I usually know after they have hung on my studio wall for a time that it just isn’t right. Then I face them to the wall in a queue to be re-morphed. Although I have on occasion made mistakes and shown pieces that frankly are just not worthy; when this happens I pray that it comes back home to be recycled. Only one piece has managed to get out there and I deeply regret it. I am sometimes appalled at some of the art that is out there from artists such as Picasso which I am sure were experimental and never intended to be shown. These works degrade the great artists and there legacy

From: Susan — Dec 06, 2013

It was wonderful to see your family photo and to hear your voice it warmed my heart. You are truly a gracious man. I pray for God to continue to bless you and your family. Thanks again for your generous sharing with all of us artist’s. Susan

From: Penny Otwell — Dec 06, 2013

Thank you for sharing this ! I love a good bonfire . . . especially with my work. It gives the POSSIBILITY of greater work. Hope you are comfortable, Robert. You know that people out here really love you — because of you, not just your fantastic work. With love, Penny

From: Paul Fayard — Dec 06, 2013

Thank You Robert! Long Live The Art Spirit!

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Dec 06, 2013

I cut way more than I need. Sometimes I put small parts together to get a slightly bigger part. At some point I lay the piece out on the floor until I can determine a finished size/shape. Then I start at the bottom- and as I’m a builder- I build the piece from the bottom up- never concerning myself with the idea that by the time get to the top- the whole won’t work. Moralists are way too concerned with nudity.

From: Brian Fossey — Dec 06, 2013

The golden system is to go here and there all at once while from time to time half-closing your eyes to watch the overall picture emerging.

From: Timothy J. Pielak — Dec 07, 2013

A heart touching photo and an incredibly joyful and honest interview. Sooo…New Zealand is on your bucket list…well, if during your fight to return to health you find you have a rekindled inkling and energy to go travelling..well…my sister, Deanna Pielak-Jones has been a kayak guide for years out of Keri Keri in the North Islands over the past 25 years and she would love to show you the natural beauty that surrounds her every day. She has been reading your letters for the past 3 years after I introduced your letters to her on one of her visits home here in British Columbia. I have never been to visit her since she moved to New Zealand in her early 20’s and a visit with her is also on my bucket list in the near future.

From: Diane Voyentzie — Dec 07, 2013

Robert, You are a dear man! Thank you for being the inspiration for your own beautiful family and for so many struggling painters and writers with your wise words.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Dec 07, 2013

Why are we (still) struggling- Diane? Why is struggling so integrated into the Creative Archetype? Why does our society continue to hold onto thoughtforms and patterns of behavior that directly inhibit the full manifestation of the creative edge? Why do we artists continue to struggle just to exist and keep producing while maintaining a roof over our heads and food on our shelves? How does one person magically make it while 10,000 others don’t? Why do we even care? I guess- like Robert- we all need to approach it from the ‘getting away with murder’ perspective. Pure psychotic illegality. It was just suggested you can’t have an ‘intellectual’ conversation with me- but that would be wrong- I just don’t respect ‘beliefs’ that indicate the presence of dysfunctional behavior patterns… and I hit below the belt whenever I feel like it! And- irregularly- people pay me lots of money to do a self/creative/healing/reading with them! Yep- that’s right! I use a tool (just like brushes and paint) to assist people in looking into the mirror of the Self. Why? To help them plug DIRECTLY back into the SELF. Scary territory- I know- but oh well… And the comment about the tarot- itself… virtually every tool I own has an ARTIST attached to it- even Salvador Dali created a deck. so insulting the TOOL insults a whole lot of artists- too. Careful where you step… some artists bite. Oh yeah- and ME- unhappy with myself? Are you out of your mind? My credits include more than 70 Colorado exhibits- more than 30 of them juried. 9 inter/national invitationals- 21 juried inter/national exhibits including Fiberart International 2001- 8 one-man exhibits- 6 exhibit awards including 2 Best-In-Show- 1 3rd Place national poetry award- and more than 8 published catalogs/books/cds. But hey- you have to work in Fiber to have heard of me… oh yeah- except for that internet thing… which allows me to insert my perspective into an artist’s conversation… what with me being an artist. Thanks Robert- for your dip into the internet and your creation of this particular (130,000 big) monster… and to everybody else- I think I’m still here because I’m a ‘Trickster’ and I make Robert both think- and laugh…

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Dec 07, 2013

I believe in painting all of the painting; all of the time. I usually work the darks and lights first and then add layer by layer each colour I am adding throughout this makes it possible to control the level of intensity of colour and allows me to stop when ever I decide it is finished.

From: Patrick Matriscino — Dec 07, 2013

Robert…..Just want you to know what a great influence you are to all of us artists around the world….To me ….You are a wonderful guide to my everyday painting and what is behind it !!!! MAY GOD BLESS MY FRIEND.

From: Diana Lynn Wilkes — Dec 07, 2013

Robert, thank you for sharing your talents, your skills, your passions, your beliefs, your family, and your life journey…especially at this time. I’ve always enjoyed your art-full writings but to see you surrounded by your dear family (and to recognize some of them) was especially heart-warming. Still enjoying the letters, recycled and fresh from Sara but now they are more precious than ever. God bless you.

From: Mike Barr — Dec 08, 2013

Further to Bruces comments on struggling artists. If artists are struggling it means that it’s time to get another job and do art part time. The world does not owe artists a living – like any other profession they have to sell to make a living and that means they have to produce what the public will buy. If they can’t produce what the public wants, then they have to be content with painting part time – what’s wrong with that?

From: Jackie Knott — Dec 09, 2013

Where to start? Funny how the “rules” of early training stay so ingrained … oh, wait, I don’t have to do that. It took me decades to shrug off the rules and understand I could paint any way I wanted. I’ve since found out each piece demands a slightly different handling. I’ve painted background first, focal interest first, all over … it depends. The point is feeling the freedom to do that. Each method has its benefits and drawbacks and we have to find what works for us individually. I so appreciated seeing your family in your studio, Robert. I see an accumulated life of intellectual curiosity, productivity, a messy, dynamic atmosphere of creativity … and obviously love. The best part of that photo is seeing children’s toys barely visible from the base of the image … continuity. The interview was not only revealing but great fun. I laughed out loud at “Good idea.”

From: Tony Angell — Dec 09, 2013

Richard Schmid and I did a retrospective show together at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma in the mid l980s. We had become good “artistic” friends through our mutual involvement in Artists of America shows in Denver. An exceptional fellow and artist with not only the remarkable directness of eye (you probably know his films and books) but also his good “kickass” friendship, honesty and sense of humor.

From: Rolf Vesperburgh — Dec 09, 2013

One must always start with the most difficult part. If you get it wrong, you can start again. If you start with the easy part, you will always have the fear of coming to the difficult part, and you will screw up.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Dec 09, 2013
From: Mary Susan Vaughn — Dec 09, 2013

One of my favorite paintings is your self-portrait with your dog, looking from behind your easel. I love that painting! I found a lithograph on eBay and purchased it the other day. I just received it in the mail and it is beautiful. I can’t wait to have it framed and hanging in my home studio. I also ordered your book of letters from your website. I’m having a “Robert Genn” Christmas you might say. I can’t afford one of your original paintings, but I have most all of your letters since 2006 in a special email folder. What a gift it is to have your words so close when I need to be inspired, or need to learn something all over again. I have learned so much from you, Robert. You have enriched my life enormously with your wit and wisdom over the years. Thanks to you, my artwork is much improved as is my passion for art. I just wanted to reach out to you and tell you how important you have been in my life as an artist, and continue to be. I wanted to thank you and tell you what a blessing you are to the artist community and for me, to my work as an artist.

From: Rachel Harvey — Dec 09, 2013

I don’t know you, but your letters have been concretely helpful in my art career.

From: Graham Wong — Dec 09, 2013

It is better to start anywhere than not to start at all.

From: Ileana Lavender — Dec 10, 2013

Mr. Genn, I want you to know – you touch my heart, my mind and my soul with your words- it’s pretty much my whole being! and in turn I pass these feelings on to my students- once in a while one of my students will ask about your letters and mention it to someone in another class and a discussion begins! you may not know this but your wisdom will live on in these middle school art student, and this is just one tiny part of your wonderful legacy- love, laughter and pax- Ileana ms art teacher ft lauderdale fl

From: Patsy Fleming — Dec 10, 2013

Dear Robert… I feel that I know you from your wonderful writing and your kind advice. I love the humor in your newsletters. I have learned so much from you, even though I am basically an abstract painter who is most comfortable painting in my studio. But most of the ideas and suggestions you write about I find apply to my work too and I appreciate them. Robert, if you must leave us, please do so slowly and painlessly. With affection, Patsy PS I hope Sara continues sending us your old letters. Thank you Sara. Patsy Fleming

From: Stella Reinwald — Dec 10, 2013

As so many others have commented above, I too feel I know you well, even though I have never “met” you outside of these posts on the internet. You come across as very wise, yet human, so curious and thoughtful—as in full of thought, and also fundamentally kind. You have somehow managed to balance being cocky enough to believe in your own success and humble enough to be constantly surprised by it. Amazing. I am awed by your work ethic, I suspect you have been exceedingly prolific in painting as well as learning and writing. We are about the same age Robert, and I too contemplate my mortality regularly these days. I do so envy you the life you have lived so far and the legacy you will leave behind, especially Sarah. She is obviously up to the task of carrying the torch of creative investigation and inspiration. Having no children, I will eventually fade from this earth like a wisp of smoke that might not have ever been. You, by contrast, are destined to live for many generations through the myriad contributions you have made not only in creating art, but teaching others how to be, and think, like artists. Thank you for your generosity in sharing your heart and mind with us.

From: Barnaby Guthrie — Dec 11, 2013

Great picture of the family, Bob. I much enjoyed the CBC interview. What a lot has passed under the bridge since we met in kindergarten. You’re in my thoughts a lot these days. Love and best wishes, Barney.

From: Mariette Hebert — Dec 12, 2013

Although we’ve never met your messages in my email inspires me. Great interview! Love and Best Wishes !

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 16, 2013

Without sounding eccentric – I start at the beginning with the idea. I usually drawing it out on newsprint making corrections as I go. When satisfied, I then move to the canvas – I don’t trace or transpose – I draw in paint on the canvas usually with raw umber diluted a bit. Doing this allows me to improve the idea or alter spacing and positioning. I paint the whole thing all at once;moving around the canvas. Only when the idea is nearly realized do I focus in on specifics working the smaller areas until I feel that one more stroke would ruin it. Then- I stop and look. And look. And look again.

From: Carole Pivarnik — Dec 18, 2013

Delightful interview…you are a remarkable human being, Mr. Genn. I have learned a lot of useful stuff from your letters and the comments others leave in response to them, but I think I’ve learned more about how to live a life well and with dignity and self respect just from observing you these last few months. Thank you.

  Featured Workshop: Barry Coombs 121013_robert-genn-workshop Barry Coombs Workshops Held in Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa


photograph, 16 x 20 inches by Ville Andersson, Helsinki, Finland

  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 Andra Norris who wrote, “‘Wiping of baddies as they go’ Robert Genn… I love your prose! Thank you for reaching out and reaching in.’ ” And also Dean Wilson of Victoria, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Wonderful picture of the family!” (RG note) Thanks Dean, and thanks to everyone who went to take a look at that photo and to hear the interview. Our stats went off the chart for three days.

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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