Strong and wrong


Dear Artist,

My daughter, Sara, and I are again up to Lake O’Hara and Yoho National Park in British Columbia. Today, in the champagne air of a place known as “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” both of us are struggling with extra-large canvases. We’ve come this high with a little help from our friends, and we’re talking about “strong and wrong.” It’s a term currently used by some of Sara’s New York musician friends. Apparently it’s better to blow a strong note off key than to produce a wimpy one that doesn’t get noticed.


Sara Genn at the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon,’ below Cathedral Mountain, 2009. “We’ve always felt a sense of ‘event’ in outdoor painting.”

Here in this grandeur where boldness has dominion, big statements seem appropriate. This place was formed in fire and reorganized by ice. Those mountains are strong. These rocks are monumental. These skies are so powerful and move so fast between the peaks, you can’t really grab ’em. Let ‘er rip.

A line of hikers is far below on a zigzag pathway. Sometimes we glimpse others climbing the distant cols or moving slowly along the windy ledges. All around there’s a spirit. Something’s happening in this amphitheatre beyond boots and poles, backpacks and water bottles. It’s something to do with worship.

A 30 x 34 underway on the meadow above Lake McArthur. The metal easel is a Soltek. The lightweight parasol is held with bungees. The rig only blew over once.

“A 30 x 34 underway on the meadow above Lake McArthur. The metal easel is a Soltek. The lightweight parasol is held with bungees. The rig only blew over once.”

For us paint-pushers it’s all about inhaling, so much so that one can be out of breath trying to climb Nature’s truth. Our audacity seems impudent. Nearby, there’s a place called “All Souls.” We don’t know how it got its name, but we can guess. As if anyone can enter, we find the best path is to simply accept the test. In the words of the English poet Robert Browning, “I count life just a stuff to try the soul’s strength on.”

Every time we return, we feel it again. There’s the mystery of creation, the evidence of sweeping powers, the presence of a mighty hand. Cannot the little hand that mimics this be also mighty?


“This 30 x 34 inch canvas was essentially painted in two sessions. In the morning I used mostly ‘Open’ acrylics. After lunch I glazed and went back in with regular Goldens.” (Robert Genn, 2009)

Best regards,


PS: “Something we were withholding made us weak until we found it was ourselves.” (Robert Frost)


“Strong and wrong in the magic hour. Actually, what you pick up is a kind of irrational exuberance and appreciation for life itself. It’s pretty heady, like champagne.”

Esoterica: A benefit in painting, not available to musicians, is the ability to cover or quickly remove bloopers. What’s a blooper between friends? As we say in the cover-up-your-sins world of acrylics, “Nobody knows what’s under there.” But a bold early statement is often key to a stronger work. Later and lesser strokes become just grace notes to the greater theme. We’re noticing how valuable are the early gestures — cursory, generous, thick and large — the strong and wrong.

072809_robert-genn-photo2This letter was originally published as “Strong and wrong” on July 28, 2009.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” (Robert Frost)



  1. Higgs Merino on

    “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

    b(Robert Frost)

    How would he know? He’d never been down the other trail/road/journey. Try both or 8 paths. Schheeessh.

        • I think Higgs meant that Frost didn’t know what the other path would have been like, unless he had gone back to it, and chosen differently to compare the two. I for one will try many paths, even if it means going back to the original and taking a different turn. Yes, there are many paths, value in all of them.

          • I think what Frost was saying is that he didn’t follow any path prescribed for him. He took the path that seemed right, and was blissfully happy along it. Thank you for the beautiful letter Sara, a lovely memory. I can’t imagine a better path than the one that took you and your dad to that beautiful lake.

  2. What a lovely post! I am so glad to have discovered you two.
    I stop my busy rushing around to savor your thoughts about art and life.
    Thank you!

  3. Ruth Sentelle on

    Thank you, Sara, for sharing this moving inspiring article. Truly an example of Dad’s appreciation of nature, life and inspiration. As are ALL your articles, you and Dad move and inspire all of us who love the arts.
    Gratefully, Ruth

  4. Thank you for this letter Sara. I think I need to follow your Dad’s advice to “let her rip”. Perhaps some day I will produce a beautiful painting in two sessions!

  5. “Our audacity seems impudent”
    Isn’t it just that! Always inadequate to the task of capturing the glory and grandeur of Mother Nature, we can only hope to interpret how it makes us feel with our simple tools….be they paint & brushes, pen & paper, musical notes or other media of choice. To “blow” a sour note with force doesn’t make us less wimpy….just more impudent.

  6. How well narrated! Such a beautiful rendering, I so agree, our bloopers can be camouflaged, and no one but us would know better. the serenity of the natural beauty can lift one’s soul even if one is not a real artist, it still helps to uplift a person soul. Thanks for sharing .

  7. Edward Walsh on

    Wonderful memories and moments you Sara I’m sure will not be forgotten! Thank you for sharing. Eddie Walsh

  8. Suzanne Ross WHS on

    I’m headed to Cadillac Mt Acadia NP, where my dad picnicked and his sis painted watercolors. Champagne air looking over Frencmam’s Bay awaits me. Thanks for this write up so pertinent to painters!

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Featured Workshop

Art Retreat in Killarney Ontario
August 31, 2019 to September 5, 2019


Six days in the Near North of Ontario Canada. Killarney and the La Cloche Mountains were a favourite location the Group of Seven visited to paint. Rugged, with granite cliffs thrusting hundreds of feet out of the water. Northern forest, islands, bald rocks and only accessible by boat. We travel to most locations on a sturdy pontoon boat. Whether it’s setting up on a rock face, a low lying island, or sitting at the base of a waterfall, every view is worth capturing. You stay in rustic cabins, each with its own cooking facilities. There is a large room we can paint in if the weather turns against us. Your instructor is Keith Thirgood who has been teaching adults to paint for 12 years. He will show you a step by step approach to painting en plein air, which makes capturing a scene easier than you might have thought possible. He’ll also teach Modern Colour Theory with a limited palette, which makes colour mixing easy.

For more information, visit the Canals
Oil on Linen
40x30 inches

Featured Artist

A professional painter in both watercolor and oil for over 35 years, I have been creating plein air workshops in Europe for artists to join me since 1996. Plein air is one of the most exciting methods of painting, and I teach a very easy to learn way of capturing the light quickly, that any artist can apply to their own work during our adventures to Europe. Travel for artists is a great way to immerse yourself in painting and make great advances in your techniques by watching other professionals work, and by sharing your own ideas with other artists we all grow! Authentic locations, such as a 12th Century Castle in Ireland, a French Maison in the countryside of France, or an Italian Villa in an historic hilltop village in Italy are carefully chosen. We want our artists and non-painting guests to feel relaxed and at home, with en-suite bedrooms, excellent chef prepared cuisine, and convenient transfers to painting and exploring locations so you can be where you want to be to create. Join me on our next exciting journey!


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