Subjects and ideas


Dear Artist,

Early on in my painting life, my dad made an observation about our creative differences. “You are, for the most part, an idea-driven artist,” he said. “I am, for the most part, subject-driven.” At the time, I’d been building a written list of titles for work not yet made, drawing from literary reference, word play and free associations with colour and forms pulled from nature. Meanwhile, my dad was cruising sketches he had made during a recent material-gathering trip, his ideas emanating from the memory and visual record of a specific place, time and experience.

Pond on the Yakoun, Queen Charlotte Islands 30 x 34 inches, acrylic on canvas by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Pond on the Yakoun, Queen Charlotte Islands
30 x 34 inches, acrylic on canvas
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Knowing the source of our images is insightful, but we are not bound by these courts of inspiration. By acknowledging the origin of our artwork, a radicalization of personal processes may occur. Being subject-driven means you have physical specificity on offer: Think of the playwright who draws from history to tell a universal truth about the human condition. Mountain X is rendered accurately with recognizable features and uniqueness, while its spiritual, universal mountain-ness is interpreted into the representation. The process is advanced further with a title: name of mountain, date of observation, seasonal and weather conditions, revealed symbolism or reference to a piqued mystery.

Idea-driven art can get sucked into the vortex of “conceptualism,” which, at its most extreme, eschews the material altogether. Before boarding that runaway train, consider remaining a painter. Begin with an idea before conceiving of size or medium. This can include tackling a still-earthly technical challenge or a visual goal. “The idea,” wrote Sol LeWitt, “becomes a machine that makes the art.”



Forest Spirit Rising 34 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas by Robert Genn

Forest Spirit Rising
34 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas
by Robert Genn

PS: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” (Aristotle)

Esoterica: “Since art is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas through form, the reproduction of the form only reinforces the concept,” wrote LeWitt. “It is the idea that is being reproduced. Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.”

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?  (William Blake, From The TygerSongs of Experience)

Sara and Robert Genn in the Bugaboos, 2013The exhibition Robert Genn: A Lifetime of Painting continues at Madrona Gallery in Victoria, B.C., Canada until February 2, 2019.

“The head governs, the heart assists, the body acts.” (Robert Genn)





  1. Colleen Thompson on

    Dear Sara, Such insight- thank you. These pieces of art shared here are of my new ‘backyard’ up here in the Haida Gwaii- have you been here? So many artists-in-residence here – one lovely human/artist- Marianne Wettlaufer. Hope you are well, Colleen

  2. Shellee Cunnington on

    Dear Sara,

    Wonderful letter and quotes, thank you for sharing parts of your life, such brilliant inspiration. I adore both you and your Dad’s philosophies and your Dad’s art, his style is enchanting.
    That is a great picture of you two.

    Wishing you and all bright thoughts.

  3. Today someone commented on my latest painting..”Your work always takes my heart to a place where I feel I’m getting a glimpse of God’s creativity”. It was the compliment that summed up my goal as an artist. Thank you for this beautiful newsletter. So often the synchronicity of what’s going on in your (and your Dad’s) writings touches my life, too.
    Big hugs to you, Sara.

  4. What a beautiful letter, Sara. I love the image of you and your dad having this conversation — father and daughter, a pair of creative minds. We are so fortunate that you continue to share his letters with us and that you have inherited his passion for both painting and writing.

  5. Great letter – this hit several “nails” on the head for me. . . . . a life long visual artist but 20 years in advertising and design taught me to love the conceptual: the best art is about ideas.
    – yet as a painter the dance of imagery and deeper ideas is one that will call out and challenge me – always. Go deep.

  6. Ellen C Larsen on

    “Before boarding that runaway train, consider remaining a painter.” !!! I just adore this sentiment (advice)!

  7. Another great article, Sarah. Decidedly saved for its reference value. Also, the added photo of you and your Dad, at the end was heart warming touch. Thank you, so much. Have been a subscriber for several years and still going strong!

  8. Beautiful and insightful thoughts, Sara. Thank you so much for sharing your own thoughts and keeping your father’s wonderful legacy alive. I absolutely love the painting on this letter!

  9. Dear Sara.

    As ever, a lovely, insightful post. Thank you.

    Noticed that your dad’s art is on exhibit in Victoria. I am so sad to have missed this — I would have come from Vancouver to see it. Any chance of getting a similar show in Vancouver?

  10. Ronald F Pehmoeller on

    LeWitt was the ultimate conceptualist. I’m not sure he ever implemented a piece on his own. he just wrote the description and others painted or drew them. I drew one for a show while I was in art school.

    • Thanks, Sara, for sharing this wonderful dialogue between you and your dad.
      Seems I bounce between the two approaches.
      However, the idea approach has been my primary way of starting for many years. The subject is often secondary as I set a new challenge in composition, color scheme, or for the process of painting. Seems I am forever experimenting!
      On the other hand, when out of doors I love to paint the landscape! Harder to get out as l have aged.

      In conclusion, I just love to smear paint and respond to the magic.

      Sometimes I wish I could be more consistent in my output. Might sell more.

      Gene Rouse

      Sara, any ideas?

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Featured Workshop

Abstract Painting – North Vancouver, Canada
January 26, 2019 to January 27, 2019


This personalized two-day course instructed by renowned abstract painter Steve Baylis will give students the confidence and understanding to pursue abstract painting.


Using a combination of demonstrations, discussions and hands-on painting, students will complete an abstract painting using a variety of techniques and processes.


This will be an opportunity to overcome your fears of abstract art. Morning, 1994
Acrylic on canvas
34 x 30 inches
Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Featured Artist

Robert’s technique includes a tradition of strong design with patterns of color and form, with a pervasive sense of personal style. Grand themes are transposed onto small panels and larger canvases in a manner similar to members of the Group of Seven. Most of Robert’s work is in acrylic. He has also done considerable work in oils, watercolour, and silk screen printing.


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