The serendipitous brush


Dear Artist,

Seasoned painters may think I’m reinventing the wheel here, but this idea is one that many — even many abstractionists — need to know about: The normal and obvious process is to mix a colour to match the local colour of the subject matter and then apply it in its proper place in the painting. For a change, try this: Mix a colour — any colour — then look around and try to find a place to put it. For many artists this is awkward, reverse thinking. I’m here to tell you — it’s dynamite.


“The Siesta” 1894
oil on canvas 88.9 x 116.2 cm
by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903)

There’s another spin to the process: You have your brush loaded with that arbitrary colour, and you’re looking around for somewhere to put it. Say this: “Form up.” You’re telling yourself to find and shape one of the painting’s forms that are in need of further resolution. Of course, some artists actively avoid forms. That’s okay, too. Like you do when you go to the shoe store — you’re “trying on.” It’s the old story of commit and correct. Your imagination can only tell you so much about what will happen when you put a certain colour in a certain place. To truly see how things will work out — you have to commit.


“The White Horse” 1898
oil on canvas 140.5 x 92 cm
by Paul Gauguin

There’s yet another spin to the process: You don’t have to put your stroke of colour in an exact place. You might just try putting it “nearby.” You do this somewhat automatically by simply standing back a bit, half closing your eyes, and seeing — that’s it — seeing — approximately where that colour is needed. It’s Charles Reid’s idea of letting the painting tell you what it needs. This “nearby” idea may not always make sense — it may appear unnatural, even sloppy. But it’s an exercise that can give energy and vitality to the work.

The real beauty of using these sister processes is that your work of art develops holistically. By going here and there with a serendipitous brush, elements overall gradually come into focus. Like a ship emerging from a fog, your creation builds itself and is more likely to have a look of unity.


“Autumn at Pont Aven” 1888
oil on canvas 72 x 93 cm
by Paul Gauguin

Best regards,


PS: “Painting calls for skill of hand in order to discover things not seen, that hide themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.” (Leonardo da Vinci) “Painting means gaining control without impeding the creative process.” (Don Farrell)

Esoterica: Paintings are effective when they contain form and formlessness, gradations and flats, recessions and protrusions, losts and founds, opacities and transparencies, fecundity and paucity, and leave the viewer to put in some of the flourishes. “I shut my eyes in order to see.” (Paul Gauguin)

This letter was originally published as “The serendipitous brush” on August 9, 2002.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“In painting one must search rather for suggestion than for description, as is done in music.” (Paul Gauguin)




  1. Excellent advice – as always. It’s always useful to have in mind the thought, ‘What will happen if I do this?’
    Only one way to find out. And what’s the worst thing that can happen? It’s only a painting after all. No-one will die.

  2. Thank you Robert …… I always feel ready to go to my studio when I read advice like the advice in this letter. So many artists ask this question ……. In a book by Wolf Kahn , a student asked him how he decided on a colour to put in a painting …. He answered by saying …. pick a colour, any colour , and put it on the canvas….. Then pick another colour …….. play, create …. its what painting is all about …..

    • Kathy Taylor on

      I like that. “…….play, create… its what painting is all about …” Thanks, Robin. I love the Gauguin paintings! So colorful. And Robert’s advice. Wonderful!

  3. Aloha from Hawaii, Sara Genn–

    If you ever create a book of yourfather’s art, or your own works, please keep “The Serendipitous Brush” in mind as a title!

    Tom Weber

  4. Ruth MacDonald on

    Thank you Frank Gordon! “What is the worst that can happen?” You are so right, no one will die and at the worst, I’ve only used a few extra minutes to examine what could happen.

  5. Joanne Stange on

    What interesting and stimulating ideas. Loved them. Thank you, Sara. Going to make a hard copy to refer to when I need a good boot out of that rut!

    • Nancy Stewart Matin on

      For years I’ve used the expression .. nobody got cancer, nobody died .. when a new idea, any idea, flopped

      Nancy Stewart Matin

  6. Chevalier Daniel C. Boyer on

    Parts of this are a very good idea, but it might be observed that the first part has certain similarities with the method developed by the surrealists in Haifa, in which pictures (presumably outlines) are then coloured at random. It it my understanding that brilliant results have been thus produced.

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