The almost-dark test


Dear Artist,

One evening when I was turning out the lights and shutting down my studio, I glanced in the darkness in the direction of my easel and had an alarming thought. I realized that all over the world, all kinds of regular people might be doing something similar. Before going to bed they might be casting their eyes around their homes to see that everything was okay. Some of those eyes might catch for a moment on one of my paintings. There are a few out and about.


“Nocturne in Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge”
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)

As I looked back into my studio, I realized that paintings ought to work in the almost-dark as well as in the full light of galleries or on home walls. Almost-dark is similar to what we do when we half-close our eyes. Areas of incongruity pop out, spindly and weak elements beg to be strengthened, woolliness is exposed as major-woolly. You notice funny things in the almost-dark — odd things, ghostly things, apparitions, things that look like something else. That evening I made a mental inventory of what needed to be dealt with in the morning.

I’ve been doing it ever since. For some reason I’m always able to remember my list. It kicks off the day. Sometimes the repairs are done before coffee.


“Nocturne In Grey And Gold: Chelsea Snow”
1876 oil painting
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Of course there are other useful devices to shake the mind and see things anew. These include mirror viewing, taking outside (or inside), sideways glances, upside-down, through binoculars backwards, through a glass darkly, through a glass of scotch, through gels or colour filters, through screen-doors, scrims or lace curtains. Kahlil Gibran, speaking both practically and philosophically, said, “I have sharp and penetrating vision because I see through the mesh of a sieve.”

A secondary easel is the greatest stage for this sort of creative reassessment. The “Caritas” easel relieves the pressure and obligations of the work easel. Caritas comes from a Greek word meaning to cherish, appreciate and give special attention to. Paintings on the caritas easel, temporarily framed, gain or lose power. When brought to the almost-dark the effect is magnified. Art comes out at night. Some art sneaks away in anguish and embarrassment — unable to face its own weaknesses. Fortunately, some art dances confidently into the wee hours, hopefully in other people’s homes as well.


“Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”
oil on canvas, c.1875
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Best regards,


PS: “The mind stands in the way of the eye.” (Arthur Stern)

Esoterica: “An artist,” said James McNeill Whistler, “is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.” An altered state of seeing can help an artist better define that vision. Looking back doesn’t necessarily bring on a sense of contentment. It’s one of the pro-tools that creators need in order to better understand what it is they’re up to. The idea is to seek out and kill the banal and ordinary. The idea is to find and honour the central motif. The idea is to make your vision stronger. “An artist,” says Tom Lynch, “is paid for his vision, not his reporting.”

This letter was originally published as “The almost-dark test” on June 17, 2005.


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“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” (Jonathan Swift)



  1. Bridget Syms on

    I love this post. I have been painting on gold leaf recently, and to see the work in the half light completely changes the whole tenor of the painting. The glow of the gold and the depth of the oil glazes bring something that I could never have imagined when painting in the full light.

  2. i use most of these , but low light is quite helpful to me . If it jumps out in low light it may be too strong in daylight . Mirrors are also very useful , I think it tricks the brain . Upside down , in landscapes , if your perspective and values are right , you should feel like ducking to get further into the painting ,. Whatever works for you . So many ways to look at it on the easel . Find what works for you

  3. Elaine Seepish on

    Thank you Sara for continuing to send your and your father’s always thoughtful and practical words. They endure.
    I only found out about your newsletter a few years ago and encourage all my creative friends to check it out.
    Long may you carry it on!

  4. Mary Manning on

    A diptych, Zion in Winter, with silver leaf, gold leaf and acrylic revealed gorgeous depth in low light. Thank you, Sara, for reaffirmi g the delight.

  5. Humbly and gratefully I have had patrons send hearty thanks for my northern lights paintings which they claim “glow in the night” or in subdued light! I think its the magic of watercolour. myself. Always a blessing to hear back from folks.

  6. My studio is on the same floor as my bedroom and the last thing at night ,I go into my studio to study my latest work , I go to bed thinking of what I will do to the painting in the morning , I also work a lot on black sanded paper , I just sold a painting of the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge at night .

  7. Linda Harbison on

    I also find that I see a work differently if I enter it in a local show. This lets me see if it can hold its own among its peers.

  8. Such a good letter. So many times, when I’m finished for the day, and having a last look at what’s been done, I take note of what’s off, what needs work, which area lies dark and heavy. Thank you for reminding me where I first learned this.

  9. Taking a photo at the end of a session works for me. I can look at it later, after dinner, and see it afresh. Problems jump out of the thumbnail size-image, and then I can zoom in and see how to fix them, in the morning. Thanks for the letter.

  10. Philippa Hajdu on

    yes….I find that when I see my work in a dim light ..either early morning or just before bed I often can see what is neede d to be done…if it’s at night I make a list and then go to work in the morning…often before breakfast if I have time!

  11. I remember this letter from before, specifically the advice about the secondary easel, and have put that into practice-to great benefit. To support this practice of putting the finished painting on the secondary easel I also purchased another palette (with the lid to keep my acrylic paints moist) so I could get started on the next painting while preserving the paints I had specially mixed for the previous painting. It is so easy to jump back into that last painting to make a needed correction when the paint is readily available.

  12. Wonderful letter as usual. One caution though – when Robert suggests looking at a painting through a glass of scotch reminds me of the time I looked at a recent painting after a glass (OK, two) of wine and immediately got up and “fixed the problem”. Of course it was ruined! Lesson learned!

  13. When I view one of my paintings late at night, I can’t go to sleep. I keep repainting it in my almost sleep over and over again.

  14. yes…to bring up the ‘dawn’ and ‘dusk’ factor is important – auto wrecks, trip and fall happen notoriously at these times when the odd vision tricks happen. But so do romance and insight and the resurrection….and neat art.

  15. In our farm house we had a fireplace and mantle set between to book shelves and two windows. It was in shadow. There was no light near it. It was my place to test paintings. If anything was wrong with them, it showed up there. My main trouble was trying to keep in mind that defect once the painting was back in strong studio light. I wrote notes to myself. Having that darkish spot for looking and really seeing the whole from a distance was extremely helpful. I never really knew what I had done until I set the painting on the mantle.

    Donna Veeder

  16. >the architect John Wood made a very accurate plan of the Stones in 17amee0ark4blR, considering they had been moved and scattered at least a century before…Wood made a plan based mostly on tales from locals and on markings in the ground, but quite a bit of it was fantasy and educated guesses.

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