Three useful systems


Dear Artist,

Outdoor work can be confusing. Because there is often so much to look at, the painter may not know where to begin. Here are three basic approaches you might find useful:

Late Surprise, 2007 36 x 40 inches Acrylic on canvas by Robert Genn

Late Surprise, 2007
36 x 40 inches
Acrylic on canvas
by Robert Genn (1936 – 2014)

Even though your planned subject may be off in the distance, before you do anything about it, search around your immediate environment and find something in the foreground. This can be anything that interests you or has design potential — a stump, colourful foliage, animal or human figure. Render this to some degree of completion first. Pay attention to its form, design and colour and try to get it more or less right. With one strong motif in the foreground, the rest of the design can be more easily composed. Elements of the composition can then be tied in to harmonize and complement the foreground motif, and a more enriched work is the result.

Another way to approach an environment is to mask off a particular view using two L-shaped pieces of card or a small viewfinder. Eliminating peripheral clutter clarifies compositions. The problem with this approach is that you can get stuck with what’s out there. After the fact, significant powers of imagination may be required to bring the work up to creative standards. Nevertheless, pre-framing has its place. Seasoned painters tend to look at the world and see frames all over the place.

Evening, Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, ON, 1990 30 x 30 inches Acrylic on canvas by Robert Genn

Evening, Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, ON, 1990
30 x 30 inches
Acrylic on canvas
by Robert Genn

A third way is to pay little or no attention to the view at hand and to dedicate your eyes to the canvas itself and the design as it develops. One stroke begets another and a new vision appears. Rather than slavishly copying a scene, one inhales the feeling of the place and commits this feeling to the canvas realm. In this mode, conventions such as form and drawing may suffer, but more abstract and personal work may result. This is the style finder’s way. The result is often a unique vision and a country mile of personal satisfaction.

It’s sometimes the combination of many approaches that keeps the practitioner interested. The outdoor workstation is a place of invention as well as toil. The eternal puzzle draws us back. It was ever thus. We are not donut machines.

Golden Surprise, 1979 24 x 30 inches Acrylic on canvas by Robert Genn

Golden Surprise, 1979
24 x 30 inches
Acrylic on canvas
by Robert Genn

Best regards,


PS: “The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration.” (Thomas Edison)

Esoterica: In some situations it may be necessary to retreat to your comfort zone. At other times you need to cruise for new challenges and new subjects. A combination keeps you at work until the grazing elk get too close for comfort.

This letter was originally published as “Three useful systems” on June 18, 2010.


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.

“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)



    • Penelope Slade on

      A perfect article for me now! struggling to figure out “my way” w/plein aire painting….and I need more miles under my belt. Pen

  1. Just what I needed to read right now. I struggle with getting the scene just right. Relying on my view finder a bit to much perhaps, and sacrificing a freer more satisfying result. Something I will be working on!

  2. I really connect with the Esoterica in this valuable article by Robert Genn. He has a wonderful way of adding relevant visuals, often times with humor, in his words of wisdom for each of us to take and from which to learn. Thank you, Sara and “thank you” Robert wherever you are, hopefully resting in peace for all eternity with our Dear Creator….Suszanne

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Visual Abstraction…Translating Everyday Images Into Stunning Abstract Designs
September 23, 2019 to September 27, 2019


Never be without a design from which to create an abstract painting. Taking images you see on your daily walk, while shopping or in your home… dissecting them into shapes and value to produce abstract paintings that sell.


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This workshop will fill fast.  Limited to 10 artists.  Each artist will have their own table. the Wall
oil on canvas
24 x 30 inches, 2017

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