Winging it


Dear Artist,

On Dec. 8, 1903, with government funding, countless advisors and great ballyhoo, Samuel Pierpont Langley’s flying machine plopped unpleasantly into the Potomac. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got their Flyer off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Langley’s plans were mostly theoretical and his machine was produced from blueprint and built by others. But by studying the Wright brothers’ working notes, you see that their insight and their execution are woven together. By trial and error and over a period of time they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping. Each adjustment was a small spark of insight that led to others. Along the way they found it necessary to build a wind tunnel and other devices to test the lift and controllability of their ever-changing designs.


“Snow Storm – Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps” oil painting
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)

Applying the Wright metaphor to the artistic creative process, we can see that success might come with a succession of adjustments in a series production. In Keith Sawyer’s controversial new book, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, he explains that these adjustments need not be world-shaking. One does not necessarily have a sense of revelation. Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, uses the Wright brothers’ “tinkering” as an example. Indeed, it’s the minor nature of changes that leads to progress. To bring this line of thought closer to our easel experience — a progressive process of working from one quasi-experimental work to the next might lead to artistic character. On this path, errors are inevitable, even vital. Failures become the stepping stones to success. By carefully watching and managing a personal progression, a creator stealthily finds his muse.


“The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834”
oil on canvas
by J.M.W. Turner

In these letters I’ve often talked about series production as an aid to creativity. With small works in series there is greater freedom to experiment and err. Combinations and variations abound within each small work and within the greater series. A feeling of letting go, of “winging it,” brings out our innate inventiveness. Instead of a theoretical blueprint-based slavery, one feels the magic of automatic flow. The interest and attention of the creator is held by this process and the results often have a sort of celestial inevitability — the look of natural beauty and persistent magic. Works thus produced might even “fly.”

Applying the Wright metaphor to the artistic creative process, we can see that success might come with a succession of adjustments in a series production.

Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

“Peace – Burial at Sea”
oil on canvas
by J. M. W. Turner

Best regards,


PS: “While in the process of executing an idea, creativity happens not with one brilliant flash but in a chain reaction of many tiny sparks.” (R. Keith Sawyer)

Esoterica: In 1988, another Keith — a Canadian diplomat named Keith Spicer — wrote a book on public speaking called Winging It. He explained a simple system of speaking with minimal notes that took advantage of natural thought progression based on logical point-to-point or story-to-story presentation. Timing, disclosure, invention, visualization and on-the-spot improvisation follow. Material is given out in what seems to be an effortless flow. With the use of very few key words to keep me on track, my best public speaking has been done using Spicer’s method. When I’m up there doing it, I often feel it’s much like painting a series.

This letter was originally published as “Winging it” on January 17, 2006.

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water exhibited 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, hereProceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.” (J. M. W. Turner)



  1. Reminds me of my eight year period of psychoanalysis where I was encouraged to free associate on the couch. Some of the deepest, most creative sessions occurred when I “went off” into the wild blues yonder. One must hold to the idea that “anything goes.” This is when the sparks begin to fly. A good analyst then becomes a gentle guide or advisor who helps you put things together into a meaningful whole.

  2. In a month I’ll be 68. Single. No dependents. Low income. An ‘urban hermit’. This letter gives me much pause for…

    I started building flying model planes decades ago. I learned about R.J. Mitchell, who designed the Spitfire and the legendary Barnes Wallis who designed the Wellington bomber employing a ‘geodisic’ frame for the fuselage. This was long before architect Buckminster Fuller used ‘geodisic’ principles in his designs. See the American Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. An amazing space. Airplanes are architecture that flies. A plane on the ground is a sculpture.

    When I retired I decided to try my hand at painting. Abstract Impressionism. Acrylics. Inspired by Jackson Pollack.
    After a year of ‘winging it’, I had enough paintings I was confident enough to show a friend who ‘curated’ at a small downtown bar which hosted an ‘open mic’ once a week. I sold seven paintings in one week. Now I work with camera.

    I remember Keith Spicer very well. He was the Commissioner of Official Languages after the still-controversial attempts at ‘bilingualism’ were introduced in Canada. Some people can speak well from notes. Some should never speak without a well-prepared script. The most effective illustration of this point would be Trump vs Obama.

  3. ” Winging it ” is an inspirational piece. So many concepts in so few lines. Thank you or these esoteric thoughts.
    And some of the additions by others are equally motivaing.

  4. How timely! My last 3 paintings have been total wipers, even though they were not without tremendous value to me. I’ve had this concept rolling around in my brain for a few years, and finally decided to tackle it, even if it meant a huge sacrifice of time and failure. Parts of the paintings were fabulous – and parts were just awful. I still can’t pull the idea together with consistent success, but I KNOW I’m on to something. I’ve just GOT to figure out how to harness this (woman, thy name is stubborn!).

  5. yes – it is so very much a matter of engagement – the inventor immersing intimately with the invention, to garner all insights possible, and open the mind to learning, evolving in “successive approximation to the desired result” .
    Watch a child learn to walk – the result may be the same to the casual observer, but each child is unique in its process: e some will throw themselves into into it and , confused, fall down a lot; others will study it all out and test their legs and test their balance and THEN attempt a step….it”s all a miracle. And most win it.

  6. The Wright’s also extensively observed, mimicked then designed their flyer to emulate the greatest flyers of all time – BIRDS. Can your think of a better instructor or muse then the best of the best? Artists have been doing this for centuries, they find their muse then try to emulate them.

  7. Turner has always been one of my idols though I paint nothing like him. All that color! All that atmosphere! And they look as if they were done in five minutes but I am sure they were not. Improvisation. Does anyone know what size his paintings were, usually? They look as though they could be enormous but I do not know.

    Donna Veeder

  8. Love this thread.
    For me the best work happens when I get something of a balance between the Langley and the Wright approaches. Especially with a portrait, I like to plan and prepare and draw with as much precision as I can, then let the fluidity of the paint bring spontaneity and the unknown to the table. I find it quite easy to get lost in either of these aspects. The very best work comes when the mind goes quiet and intuition takes over completely, with the brain just supplying enough memory of all the technical facilities it has garnered over the years so as to add the necessary craft. The Wright brothers knew the medium they were working with. I’m waffling. G’night.

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Featured Workshop

to series #1
Oil on canvas with pyrite and amethyst
48 x 48"/122x122cm

Featured Artist

Candace studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Angers, France but it is her travels in the deserts of Africa and Oman, Antarctica and the Arctic, and sacred sights of Machu Picchu and Petra that serve as her true place of learning. A desire to combine these experiences with a deeper understanding of her own spirituality has provided the underlying focus and inspiration for her paintings.


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