The tyranny of reality


Dear Artist,

Those of us who sometimes mentor and instruct students are familiar with trying to get people to really look at things. Recently, after a few days walking around in a subject-rich environment, I was agog with new possibilities. Burdened with reference, I returned to the studio and proceeded to paint the worst thing I’ve done in some time. It was one of those paintings that can have you considering a career in accountancy. During the fiasco I began to better understand a syndrome I’ve had all my life. It’s what I call “the tyranny of reality.”


“Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase” 1944
oil on canvas
by Paul Nash (1889-1946)

Let me explain. When we are overloaded with subject matter, we have an automatic tendency to neglect style and imagination. Subject matter is no match for spirit. Too much observation can change the creative event from one of spirit to one of rendering. Surprise, chance, illusion, personality, audacity, confidence and desire are the most affected. Abandonment and even desertion may have to be contemplated.

Sad to say, but glorious nature stomps on creativity. The artist becomes not a master, but a slave. On the other hand, reflecting in tranquility, uncluttered by overabundance and the need to get reality right, one is free to pass to another level. “Reality,” said Joyce Cary, “is a narrow little house which becomes a prison for those who can’t get out.”


“Eclipse of the Sunflower” 1945
oil painting
by Paul Nash

In 1970, the distinguished critic and social theorist Roland Barthes wrote, “Painting can feign reality without having seen it.” When I first read that statement a door opened. Time and again I’ve seen the idea make timid artists brave. Those who dare to “feign reality” are in the agreeable business of surprising themselves. Believe me, it’s anticipated surprise that keeps us at our easels. I hardly know of an evolved artist in any field who doesn’t understand this. “The job of art,” said Françoise Sagan, “is to take reality by surprise.”

Bogging down in detail will spoil the fun every time. I can’t think how many times I’ve failed to break down that door. Clive Bell, another critic lashing out in the age of hyper-realism, noted, “Detail is the fatty degeneration of art.” He has a point. Fat is tyranny. Reduce.


“Wood on the Downs” 1930
oil painting
by Paul Nash

Best regards,


PS: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality.” (Aristotle)

Esoterica: Many significant artists might say that the opposite is true, and for many, it is. Artists with no respect for or understanding of reality can be a slave to their own imaginations. When these imaginations are shallow, which they sometimes are, there’s nothing like a shot or two of the real world. One of the hazards of art instruction is where you suggest one person might loosen up, and you tell another to start looking more carefully at things. Within earshot, people are getting the opposite information. It’s not like accountancy at all.

This letter was originally published as “The tyranny of reality” on April 15, 2008.

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

“I believed that by a process of what I can only describe as inward dilation of the eyes I could increase my actual vision.” (Paul Nash)



  1. Perfect timing! As is so often the case for me. This letter, like many others, spoke to my current issue eloquently and in words, I couldn’t fail to understand.
    I want out of that house! LOL

  2. So true. Skiers, scholars and entrepreneurs also know that you need to set a line and follow it. What you find along the way is what you are looking for. Although these “finds” might seem surprising they count because they fit into the preset.

    • The truth of this letter really landed for me.
      I have never considered how being overwhelmed by material affects my judgements regarding options and possibilities and choices with other elements of art. Thank you.

  3. Vasundhara Koppolu on

    Being chained to the external reality is something that makes us live in a state of bondage. When we break those chains and use the freedom to explore the inner reality and express it in our own creative life, the whole process becomes holy and very healing to the entire Universe. Thank yo for the letter.

  4. Barbara J. Brown on

    The first time I ventured outside, heavily laden with every art contraption I could possibly carry, including a cumbersome French easel, I was so overwhelmed with the scenery that I fiddled with the tripod, palette, brushes, and anything else I could think of to avoid the task at hand, namely trying to decide on what to paint. I carted my gear from place to place. The others got set up in minutes and were busily painting away. I looked through my fingers. I squinted my eyes. I used my new cardboard viewer. The more I looked, the worse it got. It really was a comedy of errors – all mine. Inside my head I was yelling, “Isn’t this supposed to be fun?!” (I’d gotten through many years of, ironically, accounting, by dreaming of the time I could retire and paint. ) Finally I pulled out my cell phone and took pictures of possibilities without putting any paint onto canvas. Fortunately I’ve improved on all fronts since then, refining my gear and my painting process, but I’ll never forget that day.

    • I can deeply appreciate your comments, Barbara, as I have had this experience as well. Interestingly, I am a retired accountant who now paints. Thank you for letting me know that I am not alone.

  5. Paul Nash was an interesting artist. The war, any of them, did that to many. He has a definite place in the development of painting. I’m glad to have the chance to see. His work definitely raises the question of how much/little detail one need put in to tell the story.

  6. Thank you! This piece has justified my existence as I paint mostly from memory and imagination. I will use photographs but only as an idea or suggestion. I have in the past been caught in this very trap of too much information.

  7. Salvador Dali said ‘don’t worry about perfection, you’ll never achieve it’. I to have to keep reminding myself ‘you’re making a piece of art , not copying what you see’ ‘let it be created, not copied’

  8. Indeed, thank you for this re-issue of Robert’s letter. It speaks to my soul, as I am trying to follow Aristotle’s way of reality for many years. I had a dialogue about his with Robert and I am most grateful to him for sharing that reality when artist and art become congruent in pursuing his specific way of creating it. Zoltan.

  9. enjoyed that, especially the last bit about the hazards of teaching art, I sometimes tell my adult students that whatever I say the opposite may be also true. I haven’t read much on the enduring interest in Realism especially photorealism.

  10. Pingback: One: Another Level : Karen Blanchet

Reply To dave armstrong Cancel Reply

Featured Workshop

Watermedia Workshop in Greece with G. Politis AWS, RI
August 19, 2019 to August 26, 2019


Discover the majestic island of Santorini with George Politis AWS, SDWS, RI. Small and large format, painting in watercolour and other watermedia like watercolour pencils, acrylic inks and collage, learning techniques and how to see and find a subject (often far from the obvious). Boost the creativity by new inspirational ideas, winning techniques for an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Pure watercolour to mixed watermedia, realistic to abstract painting. All inclusive (course, hotel, all 3 meals per day, transportation in Santorini during the workshop).  Up to 12 artists, all levels accepted. preparing chappaathi
oil painting

Featured Artist

I, Ramya Sadasivam, have been practicing art since 2006. I so love to portray Indian culture, customs, day to day chores of the hard-working laborers, happy village life and life of women. I love to capture the difference in values between the shadows and bright light and also I like to capture genuine emotion.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.