The power of three


Dear Artist,

Today, in this studio, I’m reminding myself of the power of three. Apart from foreground, middle-ground and background, there are three trees, three color-grounds, three motifs. Four has a tendency to be static, two suggests coupling or perhaps confrontation, while one represents loneliness and is not generally enough. Three carries with it the possibility of psychological rightness.

The philosopher Pythagoras thought three was the perfect number, expressive of beginning, middle and end. The idea of Trinity is central to many religions. The Hindu Trimurti is made up of Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver), and Shiva (Destroyer). The ancient world was ruled by Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Three-forked lightning, the trident and a three-headed dog figure with these characters. The Fates are three, the Furies three, the Graces three, the Harpies three, the Muses were three times three. In Greek mythology a threatening and critical Pythoness sat on a three-legged stool called a tripod.

Man is traditionally threefold (body, soul and spirit), as is our world (earth, sea and air). Historic enemies of man have been the world, the flesh and the devil. Today’s realistic enemies seem to be fear, ignorance and hatred. The Christian graces are Faith, Hope and Charity. The kingdoms of Nature are animal, vegetable and mineral. The primary colors are red, yellow and blue.

I’ve noticed that my paintings are good, bad and indifferent. With all this threeness one might think the idea is valuable. It is. Threeness rings an inner bell in the heart, mind and soul. Our inner-child loves to hear of it. There were three blind mice, three bags full, three men in a tub, three little maids from school and fiddlers three. The “three little words” are “I love you.” In the studio, three reminds us to look three times, think twice, and paint once. And when the imaginary Pythoness over there on her three-legged stool sticks out her three-pronged tongue at your work, you must say, “Out,” “out” and “out.”

Best regards,


PS: “Say Mark — you know what I want? Three trees. Black spruce, rough, cold looking trees, you know what I mean? Three trees against a cold green gray northern sky — where can I get them at once?” (Tom Thomson was speaking to his friend Mark Robinson in 1916)

Esoterica: The popularity of threeness is based on the perceived sense of completeness. “Three essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love and something to hope for.” (Joseph Addison) “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.” (John Ruskin)

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Triangles in art
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA


artwork by
Kelly Borsheim

Don’t forget Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I tend to look at things in the form of triangles and often tell people that triangles are the most versatile form of all. Spin an equilateral triangle on its center and you have a circle. Triangles can be precarious or stable, yet always interesting. I see shapes easier when I look for the triangles within them.





Three’s company
by Richard Wilson, UK

Two may be company but three is not a crowd when it comes to composition. Three and the presence of the three-cornered motif is one of the great design strengtheners in flat art. If you look at the classic books on design and composition such as Landscape Painting by R. O. Dunlop, and some of the newer books as well, you will see the frequent use of a triangular or three-pointed compositional device.


Celtic Triads
by Irene Brady Thomas, Alameda, California, USA


painting by Irene Brady Thomas

You can’t forget the old Celtic Triads, the traditional Laws, Customs and Wisdoms of the pre-Christian Celtic people. For instance: Three things which prolong the lifetime of a person: the soil which rears a child, the food which nourishes a child, and play which diverts a child.




The power of four
by Nicoletta Baumeister, London, Ontario, Canada

I fear this business about three is purely manufactured by our puny human need to sort. One of the hallmarks of human behavior, in fact the first task babies do that psychology pin-points as the start of intelligence (narrowly meaning of course, human intelligence) is to sort. This turns the kiddies into three types: Good, bad, and undecided. Please draw your attention to the value of four: Body, mind, soul, spirit — Earth, air, water, fire; God, son, holy spirit, devil. In each case the four dynamics include the invisible, ephemeral ‘other’ or ‘opposite.’


Weaknesses in creativity test
by Theresa Bayer, Texas, USA


artwork by Theresa Bayer

There is no one definitive creative path. There are many ways to be creative — not only intuitive ways but organized, logical ways, too. When it comes to increasing creativity, a more innovative approach should be taken that includes all thinking styles—perhaps an alpha/omega approach.



Handy maulstick for artists
by Robert Amos, Victoria, BC, Canada


painting by Robert Amos

Sarah my wife just said to me she’d like to have a maulstick like the one she once saw you using. The ones I’ve seen are simply a stick with a soft sort of end to them, but she said you had one with a hook which hooked over the top of the canvas. Is this so? What’s it like?

(RG note) On my studio easel I have an old bamboo ski-pole with the round thing still on the end. It hangs over a nail which is at the very top of the easel. For various portable easels I use those ramin-wood dowels that you buy in home-supply and hardware stores. The ones I get are generally half inch (1cm or so). I cut them to various lengths and screw a brass hook into the top. There’s a small eye at the top of the easel, not the canvas. That way they are always hanging there at the ready and you don’t have to go looking for them. These dowels, incidentally, are handy as a straight or slightly curved straight-edge for lining up horizons and other uses. You can drag a brush along them without getting too much paint on the dowel. For those who are unfamiliar with this tool, the maulstick (or mahlstick) is used to rest the hand when doing finicky work. Its first recorded use was in the 16th century, and often appears in artists’ self-portraits.


Artists’ names and signatures
by Bob Young, Guelph, Ontario, Canada


painting by Bob Young

One point you have not addressed concerns artist names. That is, how do you sign your work if your name is identical to another well-known artist? My formal name is Robert Young, and that’s how I’d like to sign my works; however, I understand there’s a senior artist named Robert Young (not to mention the star of the 1960s TV show Marcus Welby, MD). So, I’ve taken to signing my works either “Bob Young” or just “Young” — but I don’t really like either of those. Given that I’m trying to establish myself as an artist in commercial galleries, what do you think is the best solution to my name dilemma?

(RG note) Interesting problem. There happens to be two David Edwards painting within shooting distance of my studio. They do nothing about it and collectors are confused. I suggest staking out your territory with Robert J. Young, (or whatever your middle name is). I think Robert is more serious than Bob, and therefore better. Bob is valuable in the realm of friendship and is a funny word—if your work is funny maybe Bob would be okay. Young is not enough. I’d also consider R. Blatchford Young (etc.) The main thing is that you must stick with not only the name you decide on, but the way it’s written. When I was about 24 years old I stopped signing my name GENN and started signing Robert Genn in a particular way and have not varied since. This is important, I think. Having said all of this, I’ve often thought of painting under a pseudonym, particularly when my style wanted to wander, but I’ve never done it. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea for experimental artists with a variety of styles or interests. Please let us know what you decide.


Workshops work for artists
by Kathleen Knight, Utah, USA

I agree with most of what “Anonymous” said in a previous responses, e.g. artistic values being in the eye of the beholder, and artists “need to do what’s right for themselves and not think anyone is an oracle,” but I strongly disagree with his/her statement that “Artists must stop joining clubs and taking lessons.” After a lifetime of drawing and a little painting on my own, I took a series of workshops that changed my life: I gained some technical skills and, more important, a confidence that I never had before. I now can take myself and my art seriously. (I note that Anonymous reads your letters, which is about the same as joining a club) I say take what works from others and leave the rest alone.


Making acrylics more permanent
by Jim Rowe


painting by Jim Rowe

I’m concerned about the longevity of acrylic paint. I have never learned how to paint and have just done what I wanted. I am now wondering if I am painting in a way that is going to stand the test of time. This is what I am doing: (1) I prime raw canvas with a minimum amount of gesso, just enough to keep the paint from running where it’s not wanted (2) All paintings are done with a watercolour style, the canvas is horizontal and level. I water down the acrylic paint till there isn’t much paint there at all and do countless washes till an effect is reached, it looks like airbrush work. (3) Then I varnish it with two coats of Stevenson Acrylic Matte Medium. This gives the painting a connection in the texture but at the same time it doesn’t look varnished, a third coat would make it look varnished but I don’t take it that far. I am on the assumption that this mat medium gives me some UV protection but I can’t remember where I have heard any reliable information.

(RG note) Matte medium alone will not protect your painting from ultra-violet induced fading, but it will add protection and volume to the underlying pigment, no matter how thinly painted. All acrylic colourmen recommend that you use lots of medium during the painting process itself. I do too. Paintings done without the addition of acrylic medium during the painting process are likely to scuff (you notice at the corners) and become a bit chalky. Use lots of medium, and varnish with medium. Let it dry thoroughly. Then, to properly protect your painting you need to finish up with another coat of UV varnish. It’s an altogether different molecule and is isolated from the acrylic medium molecule. The one I use and recommend is Golden Polymer Varnish with UVLS in either matte or gloss.


Painting outdoors with acrylics
by Nancy Sands, Los Angeles, California, USA

I always enjoy receiving your letter because it often covers a topic I need or enjoy thinking about. I have not developed the technique or the skill to put my paintings “out there” to be sold. I am still working on finding myself in my work. I have read The Painter’s Keys and found it to be most enlightening, although the artists in your seminar seem to be far ahead of me. I have one question. You mentioned that you have given up painting in oil because of the dangers to your health, and yet, you often paint outdoors. Since acrylics dry so quickly, is there anything you do when painting outside to keep them moist?

(RG note) I recently worked with Jane Morris-Wyatt who had her acrylics in a round plastic box with a tight lid and wet coffee-filters on the bottom. She reported that her great big gobs of acrylic stayed wet for “months.” When painting outdoors, I work fairly fast from a strip palette, sometimes spritz, sometimes use a Liquitex product called “Slow-dri Gel Retarder,” try to be in the shade, and re-squeeze often. I waste a bit.


The value of enthusiasm
by Radha (L. Saccoccio) NYC, USA

I would say what you were writing about is daring people (if they are not already doing so) to live so very fully. Do what inspires you without boundaries. Allow life to awaken your enthusiasm continually and if we seem drunk because of it, all the better. It is to be more alive in this sensation rather than to be hardened and rigid because of life. This may be what is propelling me to move from NYC to Ojai, CA. I believe in living fully and presently, doing what’s best at a given time. Not letting preconceptions rule. In our solitude we know our own truth, we just have to remember to listen to it.

Enthusiasm by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda states that enthusiasm makes you soar. She says the word enthusiasm comes from the Greek “enthusiasmos.” “The syllable ‘en’ means ‘in, within, or possessed.’ And ‘theos means ‘God.’ So the word enthusiasm literally means ‘carrying God within’ or possessed of the inner Lord.’ By this definition, when you are filled with enthusiasm, you are filled with the energy of God, with great power, with amazing grace.” This may sound too religious for some, but the essence is what I believe most artists experience when they are in the depths of creativity as well as when they allow their spirit to be inspired by life. When we are enthusiastic we are intoxicated with passion rooted in our true selves and it flows into all we do.







Fang Lijun, China


painting by Fang Lijun


“Power of Three” Quotations

“Avarice, envy, pride, / Three fatal sparks, / have set the hearts of all / On Fire.” (Dante Alighieri)

“Creation is dominated by three absolutely different factors: First, nature, which works upon us by its laws; second, the artist, who creates a spiritual contact with nature and his materials; third, the medium of expression through which the artist translates his inner world.” (Hans Hofmann)

“There are three ingredients to the good life; learning, earning, and yearning.” (Christopher Morley)

“The three foundations of judgment: Bold Design, Constant Practice, and Frequent Mistakes.” (John Masefield)

“There are three types of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened… You can decide which type of person you want to be.” (Mary Kay Ash)

“For me, there are three sets of things painting does, but all painters do them differently, and that’s what’s interesting. These are: opening out a space or closing it up; making something full or empty (how you divide a canvas, making it shrink, or keep it’s size); and the simple opposition of positive and negative.” (Gary Wragg)

“You have three treasures. Guard and keep them. The first is deep love, the second is frugality, and the third is not to dare to be ahead of the world.” (Lao Tzu)

(RG note) The Resource of Art Quotations is one of the most popular destinations for thoughtful artists on the net. It’s the largest resource of its kind anywhere, on line or in books. Totally a labor of love by volunteers and friends of these letters, it’s growing all the time.


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

This includes Maxine Halbert, who wrote that of all the analogies the greatest Trinity of all was omitted: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This was echoed by several writers. Other threes that were reported missing were the three kings and the three little pigs. Heidi Smith mentioned traffic lights, (red, orange and green); Id, ego, superego; the three bears; Me, myself and I; Three months between Decree Nisi and Absolute; Birth, life and death. The Three Musketeers were mentioned by someone else, as were, for some reason, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


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