The distraction technique


Dear Artist,

Last Sunday at 2 p.m. my friend Murray came to the studio. He brought with him a very nice 1999 “Carmen” Chablis (Chile) as well as some ripe Limburger and a good Brie. He even brought his own wine glasses and napkins. Although Murray’s not an artist — he’s a retired insurance salesman — we’ve been friends for years. Very diplomatic and polite (he comes from the old school), he never once mentioned what I was doing or what I had going on my easel. We talked about all the stuff that interested him — politics, golf, investments, food, wine, insurance. He told me about how he had once sold more “whole life” in one month than anyone else in his district — more than anyone else in his office in a whole year. As I painted, Murray picked up a stray chair and moved it around so he could have eye contact with me. When he finally left four hours later, I noticed that I had done the most part of a 36″ x 40″.

Lake of the Woods Classic, 2005 acrylic on canvas 36 x 40 inches by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Lake of the Woods Classic, 2005
acrylic on canvas
36 x 40 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Barely conscious of my painting process, I nevertheless caught onto some things that were happening. The emergent painting went slower and more deliberately than normal. While I listened and responded, there were pauses where another part of me was considering my various moves. I noticed tentative assays that were somehow overruled. There was a pleasant amount of patience. I was thrilled to hear of the passion that Murray had brought to his career — it gave me that “worthwhile” feeling — a sense of righteousness and accomplishment in my own choice of life path. As we talked and my empathy for him grew, I identified with his life as a salesman. I saw how, on our ride on this carousel, we all do our best with what we have been given. A sense of elan, a feeling of mastery, had me holding the brush by the end, gesturing, flourishing. No, I wasn’t showing off. I was being what I could become. Our friendship, our enriched conversation, and the soft, unbusinesslike space of an unspoiled Sunday did the job. His gift was a blessing of time and the use of my other brain.

Lake of the Woods Classic (detail) by Robert Genn

Lake of the Woods Classic (detail)
by Robert Genn

Eventually we looked at our watches. He had to go. As we were gathering up the stuff and tossing remains of Brie to Dorothy, I asked him what he thought about someone sitting around and painting pictures. “It’s not for me,” he said. When he got into his four-by-four, he rolled down the windows and cranked up The Ride of the Valkyries. Then he sailed away as if he had just closed a big sale.

Best regards,


Lake of the Woods Classic (detail) by Robert Genn

Lake of the Woods Classic (detail)
by Robert Genn

PS: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (William Shakespeare)

Esoterica: What’s going on here? The human brain is a map of evolution. At the base of the brain are the most primitive functions, the unconscious automatic things like breath regulation, the heart, fight or flight, etc. As you go up and forward, the functions advance and become more human. This base is called the “lizard brain” because it’s the part of the brain that we have in common with lizards. The lizard brain holds what Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel calls the “fog of fear.” Regarding our creative competence, many artists carry the fog of fear in spades. The idea is to find ways to penetrate this fog. Simply stated, relaxation and the distraction of good company are what put the lizard to sleep and gave play to a half-decent painting.

GENNThis letter was originally published as “The distraction technique” on September 30, 2005.

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“Art is a course in personal development that has no reliable diploma and no known end. The pursuit of art instructs in beauty as well as ugliness, fantasy as well as common sense. Art levels souls and baffles brains. Art softens pain because it is pain. Art gives joy because it is joy.” (Robert Genn)



  1. William Honeywell on

    Every time I pop in to one of these letters, I’m reminded of what a treasure both your Dad… AND the rest of the family is to have in my life. Thanks Sara, best to your Mom and bros from the Honeywells, as always!

  2. Loved reading this Sara! I remember the first time I read it, and laughed at the fact that the insurance salesman who was a good friend, didn’t even realize that he was treading on your father’s work space..but, what a lesson. Your father was gracious, and even enjoyed the interference…and made it work into something that we all can learn from! Take your time… Make time, take time, there may not be another time.

  3. I have often done this distraction technique in a different way. I find having actual people around very distracting though. Often when landscape painting, I’d get these guys who wanted to hang around chatting but I don’t think it was a good thing. Sometimes you need to make conscious decisions (especially landscape painting: what time it is, where is the sun, etc.)

    • Put some earphones in your ears and dangle the wire down into your shirt pocket or under an apron or jacket. When someone starts talking to you, carry on painting as if you don’t hear them. If they persist in getting your attention, just point at the earphones, shrug and keep on painting!

  4. I love this story and, unlike others, it is the first time I have read it. Such a treat to recognize the gift of allowing someone to be with you while you work. Maybe not for all the time but every once in a while, like a Sunday afternoon. I like this and I can see how it might work for some one like the insurance salesman in the story who needs little support to be able to entertain his audience. After all, he even brought his own wine glass to go with the wine and cheese he was sharing. Just brilliant! This kind of thing sometimes happens if I am plein air painting (without the offer of wine and cheese). I remember one Sunday on a street corner in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. I was working with acrylics and though I tried to keep painting, my guest was so entertaining I finally stopped, visited for 45 minutes, and squeezed out fresh paint after the person had moved on. I wasn’t a local and had been there about four weeks painting having travelled from my home on the other side of Canada on the southwest coast of British Columbia. That conversation has remained one of my most special memories of this trip and makes me laugh out loud when I look at the painting sketch. Such gifts of time are treasures I think.

  5. I recently worked on my art while talking long distance to a friend in an engaging conversation,the results of my efforts were rewarding I think because I was distracted from myself in a good way

    • Jamuna Jacqueline snitkin on

      “distracted from myself, in a good way” I really like that concept. I think there is a lot to explore in that idea.

  6. Love this letter. Now I just have to find myself a retired entertaining insurance salesman who drops by at the perfect time with wine, cheese and glasses, and doesn’t overstay their welcome…

  7. I enjoyed Robert’s ability to simply be absorbed into his friends generous personality and continue carrying forth with his work, which remained of little interest to his guest. This spoke of his personal life and the richness our friends bring to our attempts at being well rounded. This was full of Robert’s warmth and his uncanny ability to see those around him with an objective, but loving clarity. Enjoyed this very much.

  8. Robert’s connection between the ‘fog of fear’ and the lizard brain being put to rest briefly by friendship and quiet conversation struck me this morning as the way through the Covid 19 pandemic. The Covid 19 ‘fog of fear’ is active in us all. It is the lizard brain surfacing in all of us as we hear the news, encounter someone without a mask or too close, or lie awake at night worrying about our grown children. When we spend time with friends, go for hikes in the autumn colours together, or read something like Robert’s musings, we lift that fog briefly and see where we are and what’s important in our lives. Thank you Sarah for posting this piece!

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Oil on Canvas
48 x 48 in.

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