The secret


Dear Artist,

The other day I happened to be paying a visit to one of my galleries. I noticed a guy moving slowly along a wall — his nose almost dragging on the paintings. “He’s an art student — comes in here all the time,” said the dealer. “He’s studying all the artists and trying to figure out their secrets.” The guy was making notes, lost in his own world.


“Helm Crag, Grasmere (Lion and the Lamb)”
watercolour painting
by William Heaton Cooper (1903-1995)

On the way back to my studio, music turned up real loud, I realized that if someone had an invention, or had developed a new cure for something, the first thing they might do would be to head for the patent office. But it’s difficult to patent a style. A clever lab technician could certainly grind up and reverse-engineer a new pill, but, as that fellow in the gallery was finding, it’s difficult to grind out the real secrets in someone else’s work.

I believe that every one of us has the right and the responsibility to create something that is a bit unique — to develop a look that may be somewhat private and difficult for others to unravel. With all the permutations and combinations possible, I also think there will always be enough uniqueness to go around.


“Bulk How Farm, Little Langdale, Lake District”
watercolour on paper, 14 x 21¼ inches
(35.6 x 54 cm)
by William Heaton Cooper

While secrets can sometimes be fairly clear and on the surface, at most times they’re mysteriously subtle. For the artist-inventor who discovers them, they are often hard won. They appear by a variety of means. This includes the order in which work is built, the process and execution, reference methods, self-crit techniques, personal mythology, learned and inherited tendencies, attitude, and a host of other factors like palette, equipment, format, lighting, etc. More than anything, secrets have to do with personal habits and the conscious or unconscious prejudices of the worker. Repetition also plays its part and is a valuable contributor.


“View of the Troutbeck in Snow”
pencil and watercolour on paper, 32.5 x 50cm
by William Heaton Cooper

An outsider, cruising a wall of art, is stuck with the problem of getting into someone else’s skin.

For those of us who regularly toil at art, it’s clear that glimmers of secrets regularly flit before our eyes. Like butterflies, they need to be netted and examined. This evolved “knowledge” is what electrifies and inspires the better artists — and puts a mark of distinction on their art. Knowing something special, something a bit different, even hazily, means you can claim it. That’s the secret.”


“Langdale from High Close”
watercolour on paper
by William Heaton Cooper

Best regards,


PS: “Let each man exercise the art he knows.” (Aristophanes, 450-385 BC)

Esoterica: For the developing artist — and we’re all developing — a state of honest curiosity is at the root of creative secrets. Like lab technicians, we look to the possibilities of what might happen when we mix this with that. As in most human pursuits, it’s often useful to avoid one-sided answers to many-sided questions. It’s okay to doubt. It’s important to test. The way to discover secrets is to be a student of your own efforts. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” (Confucius, 551-479 BC)

This letter was originally published as “The secret” on October 6, 2006.

Wainwright Pictorial Guides Boxed Set (Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, England)


The group show Emergence opens at Dimmitt Contemporary Art in Houston, Texas this Thursday, November 8 from 6-8pm. If you are in the neighbourhood, Sara and Peter will be there and would love to see you.

“Art arises when the secret vision of the artist and the manifestation of nature agree to find new shapes.” (Kahlil Gibran)



  1. “…. is what electrifies and inspires… puts a mark of distinction on their art. Knowing something special, something a bit different, even hazily, means you can claim it. That’s the secret.” Brilliantly put. Thank you.

  2. All very true and helpful, as ever – and how nice to see this article illustrated by William Heaton Cooper.
    For those who don’t know, he was the first in a family of artists (note Robert’s reference to learned and inherited tendencies), First of all there was Alfred, then son William and now grandson Julian – all very fine landscape artists each in their own individual way.
    The Heaton Cooper Gallery is situated in the lovely village of Grasmere in the English Lake District, perhaps better known to many as the home (at Dove Cottage) of poet William Wordsworth for many years. It is also the site of Wordsworth’s grave.

  3. Chevalier Daniel C. Boyer on

    They are not necessarily, and indeed they are certainly not secrets, given that they are actually, and usually, listed in the media, but the use of new media (not “new media” as in electronics) may fall roughly into, almost, the category described. The effects I have developed by diluting gouache with Coca-Cola and Diet Coke, something which to my knowledge wasn’t done before, could have, for example, have added to a uniqueness, as could have what other painters have done, such as Miró in using blackberry jam (to say nothing of his proposal for four-dimensional painting).

  4. Langdale from High Close has little to do with technique if you are trying to figure out why the guy did it. Its secret is the upfront part, the shock of the scene as he saw it. Looking from a distance must be frustrating for the technician. Its everything for the artist.

  5. Occasionally I am asked if I worry about someone copying my work… I smile and suggest I need to become famous first. The answer is really no. Granted the first seven or eight layers could be accomplished by anyone. When I get really busy selling my work, I will hire a student to do them. The next step is difficult and unrepeatable. Even I cannot repeat it as those first seven or eight layers are quite random. So I am unique. Love having the freedom that comes with that.

    • One time I walked into a restaurant and on the wall was a copy of one of my paintings. It had to be a copy because I had painted the original from my own imagination not from any other reference material. IT WAS A HORRIBLE copy! I had to laugh!

  6. William Heaton Cooper, whom I never before this post of Robert’s is an excellent example of the theme of personal secrets and mystery. This artist displays an amazing simplicity and luminosity that has a mysterious substance or strength of presence, particularly for the watercolor medium. Have never seen watercolor paintings with this quality that I usually associate with oils (my medium of choice). Mr. Cooper most certainly had developed a”secret method!

  7. I’m always looking closely at paintings in galleries – looking at brush techniques, glazes, texture. And I’ve often wondered how people working in galleries always guess pretty quickly that I’m an artist.

    I guess this is why. Mystery solved.

  8. How wonderful to discover Mr. Cooper. As a watercolour artist, I’m amazed at the detail achieved. Wish I could find the “secret”, but then again, lets just admire his work.

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