Dear Artist,

I guess there’s about a billion paintings of sky, mountains, trees and water. Beneath these basic and universal elements lie symbols that may empower our work.


“Electric: Lake of the Woods”
acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 inches
Robert Genn (1936 – 2014)

For example, the sky may represent infinity, eternity, immortality, transcendence or inspiration. As the traditional residence of gods, the sky may suggest omnipotence. The sky may also be symbolic of order in the universe.

Mountains are thought to contain divine inspiration, and are the focus of pilgrimages of transcendence and spiritual elevation. Mountains surpass ordinary humanity and extend toward the heavens. They symbolize constancy and permanence and at their peak signify the state of absolute consciousness. Mountains can also signify danger. Climbing a mountain may depict inner elevation.


“Just Before MacCarthur Meadows, Yoho”
acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
by Robert Genn

Trees may invoke struggle, rebirth, and other traits such as barrenness, complexity, productivity, fecundity, and the presence of the sheltering mother.

Water — by way of river, lake and ocean — may be suggestive of ambition, tranquility and life-force. Ocean, in itself, suggests the beginning of life on Earth, and symbolizes formlessness, the unfathomable, and chaos. The ocean can also be seen as a symbol of stability as it has existed largely unchanged for centuries. The ocean is considered to be boundless, a place where one can easily be lost, and can therefore be seen to represent the boundless span of life and the way one can become lost on life’s journey.


“Whistler Creek Pattern”
acrylic on canvas, 16 x 16 inches
by Robert Genn

Spirited with these understandings, the next question is in what way need these elements be artistically rendered in order to best bring out their symbolic character? To this there are a billion answers — ranging through hyper-realism, stylization, obfuscation, to the merest flick of suggestion.

Best regards,


PS: “To transmit the spirit, there must be form. When the form, the mind and the hand are in total accord, each forgetting the other’s separate existence, then the spirit will reside in your work.” (Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang)

Esoterica: Simplicity and naivete can be deceptive. Crudeness can be deceptive. Even straightforwardness can be deceptive. Be aware of what may be hidden among trees, water, mountains and sky. It may be transcendent spirit. “Great art is at once surface and symbol.” (Oscar Wilde)

This letter was originally published as “Symbols” on October 19, 2001.


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“We artists allow others to see through our windows.” (Robert Genn)



  1. F. Armstrong Green on

    I think some reading of Jung et al. would be in order. Water represents the subconscious and the abyss. Mountains–earth–represents consciousness. “Tree” is so ingrained in our subconscious that its very origin gives a clue: treowe, firm, as in tree trunk.
    Shadow represents the ego, our dark side, as especially shown in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Shadow,” a much ignored but perhaps his greatest work. See Ursula Le Guin’s essay on it.
    These are just a few of the things I think you ought to do some research on.

    • Interesting connection between art and psychology and what it reveals about ourselves. One of the most appealing connections in art to me is that space in which the water meets the land. Would you interpret that as the transformation of the unconscious into the conscious? And of course it often incorporates that marvelous S curve.

    • Jung has done a good job linking the physical plane with our minds, as other have also. He tended to stick to the mind, not necessarily the highest consciousness. Robert is taking the higher octave of symbolism and tending to the soul’s aspirations. I find Robert’s symbolism very inspiring. What a fine soul he was/is!

  2. Working with it in pioneer school projects, the study of symbolism begins with Mandala – most children make them…circle with lines radiating from it… the human hand or the sun, a story of the human genome and our one-cell beginnings. We’d watch for balance in the elements in the picture: foreground, middleground, background and how children work in one plane at first. Then the psychology revealed in the balance of land, sea and air…too much sky? Too little sky? Too much stuff and not enough matrix? We would NEVER steer them….just observe, since they can be a help and even indicator of health or disease of body or psychology. To me trees are communication, since they seem to form a oneness, a link among the other elements, drawing from the earth , nurtured by air, sun, and water. No matter how you see it , it’s a grand thing and it is US.

  3. Jamuna Snitkin on

    He speaks to meaning in the arts and makes me “take heart” that this is valued today. We need the,artists voice to ring clearly in this world of conflict and confusion. Artists don’t need to reflect what is going on, but to uplift our spirits to deal with what is going on

  4. Art is destined to be a unique gift that will transcend space and time if you walk slowly and dream in the clouds. Carry your tools everywhere, as the life you lead begins to shine through your work with strokes of love, tolerance and kindness. Always ask for help. Just beyond your vision is a multitude of helpers waiting for your call. No need for struggle. Paint, canvas, brushes are all part of your dream. Use them to dream as big as you possibly can. Nothing can stop that energy flow but you. Thoughts are things. Control them with a vengeance.

  5. The tree is also the self. Draw one from your imagination. Notice if and where it may be damaged. How in leaf is it? Is it bearing fruit? Are the roots revealed or concealed? How high and far out do its branches reach? Does it serve additional purposes: support a home? A swing or hammock?What is its proximity to other trees, to a road, to water? You can learn a lot about yourself if you imagine and draw a tree.

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