The groove


Dear Artist,

I’ve never been fully able to put my finger on what it is — but I’m going to try again. For those of you who might know more about it, I’d really like to hear from you. I hate to admit it, but it’s actually a bit of a mystery. I’m talking about “the groove.”


Callum Innes in his studio, 1990

I got onto the subject again today because I found myself in a bit of a panic. Shows coming up, so many things to do, so many projects to which I had optimistically said yes. I knew in my heart to slow down and take my measured time, to live in the paint, to think things out but, like my dog Emily when she’s running excitedly on fresh sandbars, my hind legs get ahead of my front ones. On the one hand, in life and art, energy and bravura are necessary to maintain elan. On the other hand there’s the need for contemplation and refinement. How to strike the happy medium? “Think,” I said.


Callum Innes studio, 2000

In my case I’m trying to resolve the acrylic sketches that were started on the Mackenzie River in July. Our boat was towed back into the driveway on Monday — half-finished paintings sticking out of all the nooks and crannies. I wish I could say that all they required was a signature. They require “the groove.” There’s the clear necessity that the work taken to the studio easel is exactly what you want to do right now. Choose the one you want to work on. Hey, it happens when you’re relaxed. Quality flourishes in “extra time.” Personal invention keeps an artist’s personality in the exercise and makes the job more fun. While there may be a reworking of themes there’s also the sense of exploitation. It’s not what subject you paint, it’s how much you’re able to take out of and put into a subject. Something else — obfuscation. Ugly passages can be overrun with glazing. Dullness particularly can be overcome with a bright or complementary scumble. Negative areas can be gone back into. Half close your eyes. Pay attention to surfaces. Re-live the moments. Let it happen in front of you. It’s still an elusive mystery. Something just happens that I can only describe as “wonderful” — and the odd one, thank goodness, is okay.


Callum Innes studio, 2015

For a moment there, I almost knew what it was.

Best regards,


PS: “The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its result is but a by-product, a footprint, of the state.” (Robert Henri)

Esoterica: Passing through and above all individual techniques are three valuable considerations: They are pattern, form and surface. “Technique is a vehicle.” (Callum Innes)

This letter was originally published as “The groove” on September 21, 2001.



    • Hi Robert,
      There are many expressions for life’s fulfilment, what ever you do or how it ever it evolves
      The groove is as good an expression as any.
      For myself, I am still not sure! I have ,and will continue to make marks, on average I tend to still be finishing paintings 30/40 years on.
      Now almost finished a picture started in 1983, why not sure, maybe it will be in the groove hope so

  1. to me panic is my normal for getting things done or started. no matter how hard I try, I work best in the heat of the moment!

  2. “The groove” is that radiation of calm energy, alert relaxation which is practiced not natural. We’re all naturally more like Emily on a sandbar. But if we use music and reflection, come at the groove sideways, we can attin it and hold it for a time. However, it’s also easy to knock ourselves out of the groove, and then we need to stop and start the process all over again. Attaining the groove may be one of our most difficult processes, and yet I forget about doing it all the time. Thanks for rediscovering it for me, Robert.

  3. thank you Robert for your continued words of wisdom . the grove is a wonderful place , when one is in it . you only realize it when you are struggling outside of it . work flows best when grooving

  4. Robert, Robert, Robert you are so missed by moi and I’m sure by all of the other artists who depended on you for
    weekly inspirational fountains of wisdom which calmed our worried brows and put brushes back in our hands.
    And Sara, if only each of us could have been raised by such a kind, knowing artistic father. Your memories must be
    rich beyond belief of your father.

  5. In music, ‘groove’ usually implies that there is ‘swing’ in the feel of the piece. Listen to Glen Miller. It’s Music for Dancing. It’s not a simple deviation in tempo, it’s more where emphasis (accents) are consistently placed within the bar. Renowned Funk bass player Bootsy Collins famously said: It doesn’t matter what you play, as long as you hit ‘One’. ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four. If you want to get a better grasp of this concept, which is a constant feature in Jazz, count repeatedly 1, 2, 3, 4 but place the emphasis on the ‘3’. Odd signatures (7/8) are fun.
    I had to laugh at Derek Guthrie’s quote. Was it a typo or a ‘Freudian’ slip when he said: Money is the grove (sic)…?

  6. For me 95 percent of my paintings start with a sort of panic. I’m like a prize fighter before the fight all sweaty and full of adrenaline. But once I put the brush to the canvas I get into the groove and get the job done. It’s as though the muses will have nothing to do with me unless I’m willing to get started and then things begin to happen almost of their own accord. Often the result is some real nice work that someone will want to hang on their wall.

    The other 5 percent of my work starts with feverish excitement. Here I am inspired. No effort is needed to get me going. Just try to stop me. What I produce under this spell is always my favourite and what I consider my best work. I often hang onto these paintings for a long time wanting to keep them for myself. Eventually, I let them go to loving homes where they will be loved and responsibly cared for. The most hazardous place for a painting seems to be in my studio.

    Thank you for continuing to share your dad’s letters. He continues to inspire me.

  7. I’d love to find that groove, but for me it’s a roller coaster that I’ve been riding for a very long time. I over commit, panic and under deliver. Then I beat myself up and decide to take a break and work on improving quality. Then I feel under committed, which makes me panic even more. Then I over commit…

    Bob, wherever you are, I am sure that you are in the best groove that there is.

  8. William Burrell on

    Thanks for discussing what I consider one of the most interesting mysteries of creativity and life overall. “Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life” by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, is one of my favorite books on the subject. In it the author (spelling his name twice is a sure path to error) takes on the subject both in theory and in practical application. It is much as you describe and even more. I highly recommend it. In our highly charged world, with its distractions and preoccupations flow, is a state that is most desirable.

  9. I don’t know how to get there, but when I find myself there, time flows different. I might think that 90 min. have gone by and look at the clock and find that 3 or 4 hours have flown by. It’s when you become so engaged that you have tunnel vision in a sense. The canvas and palette is the center of your universe.

  10. This missing element in all of this is experience and the confidence that comes with it. That special groove comes when we don’t have to think to much about the process. Just like driving a car, at first there was just too much to think about when we first tried it, but then when we could drive without being conscious of the gears and clutch, we could really enjoy the ride and we are more able to get through sticky situations. Same with painting. Getting in the ‘groove’ can take years to attain. A worthy goal though!

  11. Thank you for provoking our thoughts on this subject. I find the groove to be a free flowing state of mind. That only comes after planning out a painting, clean brushes, and everything you need laid out in front of you. Having maybe a sketch or value study hanging. In other words, some preparation is involved to eliminate the interruptions in the process once you feel it flowing. The time spent in planning is made up when the groove or process starts. Painting fast builds momentum , with no consciousness of time, strokes seem to lay themselves down with accuracy almost like being possessed speed doesn’t allow overworking . The focus is uninterrupted. I Lock the doors, turn phones off, and music (without words) clears my mind. The painting is done almost intuitively .

  12. I usually think of it as The Zone, but I like The Groove. It brings to mind the mental image of a record needle being lowered into the groove of a vinyl LP. After a few soft hypnotic crackles we start to hear music that sweeps us away deeper into ourselves. I think that’s what the groove is…submerging into our hearts – becoming more attuned with who we are, but it does take energy. It’s as if we have to get through a barrier…remove our metaphysical armour/fears and then leap with faith off the cliff into the creative water. Just the other day I finally found myself in the groove after a long dry spell during which I’ve not been well (it’s amazing the damage a lack of iron can cause). It felt so good to let all the stress and fears fade away. It was just me and a hypnotic song on repeat and the story. I’m looking forward to another episode of freedom today.

  13. The stub of the trail does exist in Rigaud, including a riwalay bridge that you can walk across if you like (I did). But the trail is quite rocky. It is signed for snowmobile use.Instead, you can take County Highway 10 east from St-Eugene, which turns into a nice quiet road at the border (Chemin du Haut-de-la-Chute) and takes you straight into Rigaud, where you can take QC-342 a kilometre or two to Chemin de l’Anse. There’s a mysterious bicycle-themed roadside park with benches, water, and a gazebo at this intersection.Chemin de l’Anse will take you along the lakeshore through Hudson all the way to Vaudreuil-Dorion. Or you can take the ferry over to Oka and get on the Route Verte which takes you directly to Deux-Montagnes commuter rail station.

  14. wow! super! like they said. . you rock! but good. . You? Your as we learned? dance. . 1-2-3-4 as ut di? To E and B and D.. I sat as if dance tango. . or waltz or belalt. . but for r? sumer you? your g? Niaux!

  15. The coalition that worked for many years is already shattered, or we wouldn’t be presented right now with a field of liberals to choose from. Conservatives must be untrustworthy allies in politics for the same reason. And conservatives have already abdicated their place at the table. The fact is that we’re out of the game and have no way back in. We don’t need to wait for November 2008; we’ve lost already.

  16. Thanks for hints Libelulle, left the bottom R/H corner til after my art class today, but still needed your help to finish it, I am with Jezza in that I had the wrong homophone at 6d! last one in for me was 21d bit obscure I thought, 3 words I didn’t know today but got with help from ‘my friends’ were 25a, 15d and 11a! no favourites today and leaning towards a 4* for me too, beautiful weather here, off to Tenerife on Monday, typical!

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