Tune up


Dear Artist,

Where I live, the spiders come out in autumn. They’re in my face when I bend to turn on the garden hose. Going about their sky-harvest and their devious mating-games, they spread their webs across my larger windows. In the nearby forest there’s a surprise of mushrooms. The longer, darker nights bring the owl’s call closer. Even by day the night birds are more active, silently moving between the tall cedars. It’s time to step out into a season — something to do with what John Muir called “washing your spirit clean.”

 Vermont Landscape, 1967 Pastel on paper 11.5 x 17.25 inches by Wold Kahn (b. 1927)

Vermont Landscape, 1967
Pastel on paper
11.5 x 17.25 inches
by Wolf Kahn (b. 1927)

John Muir (1838-1914) was a Scottish-born naturalist, author, and early advocate of the preservation of wilderness. His essays and books were fresh with the spell of wilderness, particularly of the Sierra Nevada in California. Muir popularized the idea of nature as healer. Yosemite and Sequoia National Park, the Sierra Club and the modern environmental movement, are direct results of his gentle insight.

With the influence of a rigid, biblically-minded father, Muir, by age 11, could recite most of the bible by heart. Words and turn-of-phrase did him well, and while he escaped orthodox beliefs with little apology, he wrote well and often of a universal view of the power of deity through attention to nature.

Two Barns at Dawn, 1973 oil on canvas 36.4 x 48.3 inches by Wolf Kahn

Two Barns at Dawn, 1973
oil on canvas
36.4 x 48.3 inches
by Wolf Kahn

When painters take their paints to the forest, they feel this presence. While the hiker, jogger and even the photographer can get some of the benefit, the richest spirit is released to the ones who sit in a spot for some time. Fitting in and adapting to the scene, we become part of nature’s furnishings. Alone, or with a quiet friend, with simple, timeless tools and procedures, we honour the privilege. Consistently, the surroundings that attracted us in the first place give up more secrets as we sit.

I wasn’t sure if Dorothy was bored or restless. She kept sniffing the air, alternately standing and sitting down. It was beyond squirrels; something deeper, something bigger. Suddenly she jumped up and took a rigid stance. It was a coyote — a rangy fellow about the same size as her, but skinny and ragged, as if his life might be a tough one. From not far away, he looked back at us with light yellow-grey eyes and some wild thought. Then, without notice or approval, he silently disappeared back into the mystery.

Order in Disorder, 2010 oil on canvas 52 1/2 x 66 inches by Wold Kahn

Order in Disorder, 2010
oil on canvas
52 1/2 x 66 inches
by Wolf Kahn

Best regards,


PS: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.” (John Muir)

Esoterica: For woodland work, a small set of Golden Open acrylics is a delicious choice. While I wouldn’t want to eat them, they seem less toxic than some other media. A test box of six “modern” colours (¾ ounce, 22ml), or something similar, is perfect for delicate mixing in an understated autumn. The paint stays maneuverable for a long time and cleans up neatly, leaving no evidence that anyone was there.

This letter was originally published as “Tune up” on October 2, 2009.

John Muir, 1907

John Muir, 1907

Sara Genn: New Alphabet is on view until October 17th, 2019 at Dimmitt Contemporary Art, 3637 West Alabama Street, Houston. 

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.

“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings.” (John Muir)




  1. Greetings from John Muir’s home in Martinez, California, where we also see the spiders come out in fall. This is beautiful. I’ve been reading these letters for a long time; thanks for them!

  2. Living in the woods….I understand its power to reduce stress and bring into focus what truly matters in our overly cluttered, manic world. The glorious beauty that greets the eye is humbling and requires a spirit of love from the artist. To attempt to capture the essence of nature, we must become one with it….and I can think of no finer way than quiet contemplation with a canvas & brush….or sketch pad & pencil….or camera….or no paraphernalia other than your eyes and mind to carry you into the studio for transformation.

  3. Nature is definitely an inspiration to me in my art that is representational and leaves no one wondering what my message is, which is the absolute beauty that exists around us in nature from humans to animals to just the majestic land around each of us.

  4. Jamuna Snitkin on

    the work of Wolf Kahn is so delicious. Something in me responds to the light he captures so consistently. Thank you for putting his work in front of us this time

  5. “There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual – become clairvoyant. We reach then into reality. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.” – Robert Henri

  6. “Fitting in and adapting to the scene, we become part of nature’s furnishings.” That is a great thought. We are not really separate from nature any more than a tree or a rock is separate; we are a part of it, fulfilling our role in the greater scheme of things.

  7. This is lovely. I often envy those who live in parts of the world where being outside, painting, looking, is something you can simply decided to do. Up here in the windy Isle of Ireland, you might grab a lucky day when one comes along when the world is still enough for long enough to let you get at it with your eyes and your paints together. Changeable is how we describe the weather, and as soon as you have settled down you are jumping up and running from the rain. I used to try paint in the front of my car, park up on some hillside in this small bubble for a studio and take what ever came along. Mostly now, I settle for the looking and leave the paints at home. The looking gets longer, the drama of the ever changing sky and sea carries me off.

    • We have much the same problem in the Yorkshire Dales, Catharine. These days i make sure I always have a small sketchbook and camera (or smartphone) with me every time I go for a walk. These quick little drawings and the photographs are the basis for my studio work – they help unlock the memory of that day’s experience. I then need the peace and calm of the studio for the incessant working and re-working that just wouldn’t be possible out on the hill.

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Featured Workshop

Ireland Plein Air
June 7, 2020 to June 16, 2020


Join award-winning Plein air painter Sharon Rusch Shaver as she conducts her next exciting workshop to the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland. Painting daily in your chosen medium: oil; watercolor; pastel; pen and ink artists as well as photographers will find plenty of inspiration where the sea defines the life and creates excitement on this amazing Island. Daily demonstrations and one-on-one help will be provided for those wanting to learn how to work quickly capturing that changing light and color in their paintings.

Delicious chef prepared gourmet meals and a well-appointed ensuite rooms, as well as all ground transfers are included. All-inclusive* 9 nights accommodation, transfers, meals, and instruction. Go to: Adventure-Artists.com

Artist Sharon Rusch Shaver has postponed the Ireland Adventure until 2021. If you would like updated information about this an other upcoming adventures, you can get on her mailing list by visiting: Adventure-Artists

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Sharon Rusch Shaver

https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/peter-hobden_moment-wpcf_300x240.jpgWaiting Moment
oil on canvas
54 x 40 cm

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