The Wild One


Dear Artist,

There’s a challenging creative method which produces surprising, often mind-boggling results. Some artists do it instinctively; it’s the way they habitually work. This is such a good system that I would appreciate if you didn’t let it go any further than between you and I. It seems dangerous, but I almost guarantee it won’t kill you:


“The Tent” 1915
oil on wood panel, 21.5 x 26.8 cm
by Tom Thomson (1877 – 1917)

Block off a big chunk of private time. Prepare a batch of supports — panels, canvasses, paper, whatever. Get everything ready as if a big event is going to take place. It is. Squeeze massive amounts of color, vehicle, medium. Know that you’re going to be fast, like a Ferrari, so you’re going to need to lubricate. If possible work wet into wet. You’ve done a bit of planning. Turn up the radio volume. Go like a wild woman. Put your back into it — feel the sweat — the ache in your arms. Do what you always do, and then some, and calculatedly do it faster, harder, and, if possible, fresher. Let intuition and pure animal energy guide your hands.


“Spring, Canoe Lake” 1916
oil sketch by Tom Thomson

Multitrack. Stay thinking, thinking ahead, but keep up the concert pitch. Do one, then another, then go back. Keep telling yourself that you’re about as highly evolved as creators get. Be surprised. Make noises. Throw the stuff around your studio. Lubricate again. Stand on your own shoulders. Seize the day. Put down and pick up. Try new angles, different strokes. Exhaust yourself.

“Keep going until you are face down in the broadloom.”

In the morning go at it again but with more circumspection, care and tenderness — a bit here, a correction there, not too much. Throw out the unredeemable ones. Sign the rest. Don’t tell anyone how you did it. Savour the glory.


“Tea Lake Dam” Spring 1917
oil on wood panel, 8 3/8 x 10 5/16 inches
by Tom Thomson

Best regards,


PS: “Artists are the people among us who realize creation didn’t stop on the sixth day.” (Joel Peter Witkin)

“Don’t talk about this. Never talk about your secret methods. If you talk about them, they stop working.” (Jean Cocteau)


This letter was originally published as “The Wild One” on April 7, 2000.

Download 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.

“Extreme things are like miracles. Nothing is as boring as a person who is just okay.” (Joel Peter Witkin)



  1. When I head to Europe to paint this week for the next 3 weeks I will try to do all of what Robert wrote about. I will be in places that have inspired artists for hundreds of years. Venice, Roma, Trevi, Spoletto, Assisi, all places with ancient history built on top of even more ancient history, and yet a modern culture peeks through its underbelly. I have cut beautiful primed linen canvas various sizes and stapled each one separately to foam core. Stacking and stapling each one so I can lift one off and start another quickly. My plein-air painting set-up is dual. I have two depending on the size I want to work. One is a large folding Stanrite easel that holds a large palette that can I can work on 16″x20″ canvas’s with a backpack style carrier that holds paint, brushes, knives paper towels and everything else. My other is a beautiful small wood Pochade box (Alla Prima Pochade) that fits in a rolling backpack with the canvas panels, small tripod, and lots of paint. It accommodates up to 10″ canvas in height, and I am enjoying doing 8″x16″ canvas’s so I have lots of those stapled to foam core cut that size as well. My paint holder is something I made and you may want to make one too. I love it. It is organized and I have shared photos of it on my Instagram account @ Sharon_Rusch_Shaver. I will be posting photos of the adventure there for those who would like to follow along. Plein-air painting is a challenge, I look forward to sharing my efforts. Cheers!

    • Thanks for the Tom Thomson mini gallery. I love his photo as well. I have a great curiosity of who tore it in half; was it a lover, a disgruntled family member or himself?

    • Sharon, thanks for sharing your excellent Plein-air kit ideas with us! I’ll be “borrowing” them.
      Unfortunately I am not an Instagram user and will not be able follow you that way, is it possible to follow you on FaceBook?

  2. Nah, that would not work for me. The world is already crazy, over the top hurry, hurry, hurry. I prefer to kick back, take my time and enjoy the process while drinking a glass of wine. No rush, rush for me.

  3. This post is very appealing to me. Painting fast is something I’ve done before bet I haven’t thought about it so deliberately. I know Van Gogh always tried to paint fast and his work shows it. Thanks for the article.

  4. I never thought about how fast or slow I paint, although some oils took forever, and some watercolors were done in less than 20 minutes while floating backwards in my kayak. It would seem odd to me to approach a work from the opposite direction, by making time the master.

  5. Your power to move mountains endures, dear Sir. And you continue to show others the way to scale those peaks… Thank you for the reminder that only when we step out of our comfort zone that we truly can touch the face of brilliance.

  6. Besides the gratitude, all I want to do is smile in remembrance of these “dangerous ” actions- and the chance of repeating them! Thanks again for sharing in these amazing little bits of life.

  7. I like the idea of having a limited amount of time to capture the essence of a scene to paint: hence I did a better painting when setting the timer for 15 mins. I didn’t fiddle, lolly gag around and mess things up or never get started in the right direction. A timed piece for me forced me to look at the light, darks and midtones and get them in right away…then work on detail.
    Don’t think I could do a fast and furious big long painting episode though…sounds exhausting, but I should try it at least once! Thanks for all these lovely letters! I miss him also, btw.

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My enjoyment in representing the beauty of our world with strong design and bold colours is what drives my passion for my landscape painting of Savary Island and other parts of our amazing planet.


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