The full painting


Dear Artist,

Almost everyone who reads my letters will have had this experience: You’re at work in the studio and a non-art friend drops by. Carrying a conversation with half your brain, you continue painting with the other half.


“Composition IX” 1936
oil painting by
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Yesterday it was Jim. He and I share a love of vintage Bentleys. His is 1936, mine’s 1938. After some carburetor talk, Jim happened to notice I was pulling the painting out of my head. “What is it you’re trying to do there?” he asked.

I consider all art questions valid, even from a guy who smells of gasoline. “I’m trying to make a full painting,” I said. When Jim left, a Scotch later, I got to thinking what I was trying to tell him:


“Yellow, red, blue” 1925
oil painting by Wassily Kandinsky

The painting needs a foreground, middle ground and background.

It needs a strong black, white and grayscale design.

It needs gradations, large and small and interlocking patterns.

It needs attention to counterpoint and negative areas.

It needs a sense of mystery, fantasy, illusion or wonder.


“Transverse Line” 1923
by Wassily Kandinsky

It needs fresh slashes, swipes and textures.

It needs not to be overworked, laboured or boring.

It needs colour sophistication — perhaps light and shade.

It needs at least some elements to be formed up properly.

It needs one area to determine what another area will be.

It needs to reflect the joy or meaning of an occasion, whether in the present or past.

It’s a given that my priorities may not be your priorities. But these are the sort of things we need to think about when we are trying to make art. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. One of my much-celebrated weaknesses is that I try to analyze everything. “The unexamined painting is not worth painting.” Funnily, one can discuss carburetion while ticking off a list.


“Composition VI” 1913
by Wassily Kandinsky

Best regards,


PS: “The composition is the organized sum of the interior functions of every part of the work.” (Wassily Kandinsky)

Esoterica: To make a full painting we need to prioritize and execute those nuances and stylistic tendencies that make our work unique. Some of these priorities come automatically and intuitively, others require a self-made and self-managed checklist tattooed deeply into our creative core. In the words of the late Canadian portraitist Myfanwy Pavelic: “I’d rather it took over me than I took over it.”

This letter was originally published as “The full painting” on December 18, 2009.

wassily-kandinsky-self-portraitDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble…” (Wassily Kandinsky)



  1. I’m lucky , my studio is upstairs in my house , no is allowed there , mainly because o f space and clutter . my other passion is sailing, and its winter here , so my sailing buddies are elsewhere . I have my dog Jack , a bottle of scotch , good music and bingo the winter has passed !

  2. I agree with Pavelic: “I’d rather it took over me than I took over it.” And then all the analysis goes out the window. Lol. But as I probably replied back when Robert wrote this letter, on the rare occasion when someone visits me in the studio, I only pretend to paint. The painting can’t take me over with somebody watching.

    • Interesting Warren, I am the same way., In fact, I can’t even listen to music with words when I paint. It takes me away from the painting. As a sort of decorative painter, I don’t like clients to watch me, or God forbid talk to me about anything. I find the work becomes diddling and small and fussy. Talking and painting don’t work well together for me.

      • Diane, not only does talking AND painting not work well for me, talking ABOUT a painting doesn’t either. As a result you will never find me talking about an ongoing work, or in the case of a particular series that I may have going, I may not talk painting at all for extended periods. I can always fall back on carbeuration, I suppose.

  3. Did your Dad think that Kandinsky’s “Transverse Line” 1923 looked like a pile of car parts? Art is full of secret humor….part of the fun.

    Happy Holiday to you all and thank you for over a decade of “Painter’s key’s” in my mailbox – always good!

    By the way…I could relate to your Dad’s insights better than to his art – I probably need to see some of it in person or something…but his writings are golden. Sara, you did the right thing in perpetuating this site!

    Thank you,


  4. here is a gift: talk about art and the internet…

    Art is life and so is our online art.
    Story:my site was hacked two Christmases ago and it was major trauma , after fourteen years online with almost no issues. It was a few months fighting for my domain name and by then I had a wonderful new site I LOVE with Squarespace and a new domain name , But for Christmas I was able to reassign the original domain name and it feels like a living thing to have that to see when I click to my site. Good…a good thing.

  5. For more than a year, I experimented, going bigger, bolder, pouring paint, and gave a solo art show at The DiFiore Center for arts and Education in St. George. As this year ends, I feel more integration than I’ve felt in a lifetime, and I am feeling another creative leap coming. That said, drawing and sketching with discipline allows these leaps and bounds to happen.

  6. Years ago I had a student who said that I could paint in a traffic jam. It turns out that I’m enough of a ham that an audience seems to turn me on. I understand how many artists require quiet and being alone. We are all so different. I can paint alone in the studio, but if someone wants to know what i’m really up to I can do that and keep painting just fine. I’m not sure about discussing carburetors while painting, the process of the work can continue to happen. Roberts list here is just as good as it was originally!

    • I have to paint in company, because when I started to work with any serious intent, I had a small child and taught high-school art full time….so now I find that on the rare occasions that I get to be alone with my work, I talk out loud to it. The thing that may be strange (or no, depending on whether or not you are an artist) is that it talks back! Thanks for the letters. They remind me that I have a community of fellow artists who also consider these issues!

      • I agree Kathy, I am a public school teacher and paint best when there is a distraction in the room to pull me away to look back with fresh eyes. Questions lead to more questions. And those inform the work.

  7. I’m primarily a plein aire painter, and have learned to deal with the public if I am positioned in a place where they are likely to spot me and want to chat. What works for me is that I stop painting and engage them by asking about THEM. I drill them with personal questions because people usually love talking about themselves. Once the pleasantries are discussed, I announce “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, and I must get back to work now.” They received a card, and maybe a handshake or hug…..and then the focused conversation with my work continues.

  8. I have never really read a lot of these comments before…very insightful. I have just retired as a public Junior High School Fine arts and Social Studies and when I used to tell my students that I had a number of unfinished works in my studio they would ask me why. I told them that they (paintings) were not talking to me yet as to how to go about finishing them!! Some of the students would just shake their heads at me while others seemed to understand where I was coming from! I miss their questions and awe when I would do demonstrations for them. The students were a constant inspiration for me! These days I am slowly getting back into my studio and playing. I like to listen to the radio and some good old rock and roll to get the creative juices flowing! I still have many unfinished works and some are even whispering …but they will eventually talk to me and tell me what they need. In the meantime I will continue to play!

  9. I have been enjoying your letter posts and those of your father’s for many years, yet not long enough. I so like the idea of posting older notes so those of us who did not get on board early enough can still use those wonderful insights.

  10. When I’m in the studio working, any disruption is a buzzkill. It may take up to an hour to refocus and get back to work.
    When I’m painting en plein-air, I can deal with distraction up to a point. A questioner gets three questions. After that, adios, seeya, have a wonderful day on your way somewhere else.
    It’s not mean or nasty to do this.
    Do I go to their place of work and flap my gums while they are trying to earn money?
    The pictures aint gonna paint thenselves while Nero fiddles.

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Featured Workshop

to 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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