The navigation of wrong turns

Dear Artist, Last week I conducted a short workshop with seven students on an antique boat amid spectacular West Coast scenery. Apart from the possible benefit to students, I like these encounters because they give me an opportunity to try to understand the varieties and machinations of the creative process.

Fern and Ross of Mothership Adventures getting the gear on and off the Zodiac. This was a first class operation where the hospitality was exemplary. We all apologized to Ross and Fern for a few spots of acrylic on their lovely varnish.

Even with such a small group, there is a range of expectations and capabilities. Some folks are seasoned painters while others are just getting started. Some are anxious to learn, even desperate for progress, while others merely want to drop their anchors in a comfort zone and have a stimulating holiday. Needless to say, some arrive with significant formal art education and are primed with attitude and theory. Still others just want to find out how to make a handsome living. Some students show immediate sensitivity to an environment that may be new to them. Some also immediately demonstrate sophisticated colour and sound compositions. One might say these are the talented ones, but they are often beginners whose sensibilities have not yet been overwritten. Like many instructors, I have often toyed with the idea of working with an open minded person who has never picked up a brush and turning her into a great painter in short order. Art is a never-ending maze where wrong turns can hinder for decades. With the current democratization and the widespread triumph of individualism, many artists simply stay mired. So many choices, so many wrong turns — unless of course you are one of those believers who think there is no such thing as a wrong turn. At workshops, floating or otherwise, the most progress is made by students who can simply see with fresh eyes. They are not so stuck with an inner vision whose planks may be riddled with past mistakes. For a few days at least, they are not so in love with their own treasured styles. These folks can pump out their gnarly bilges and look at things a bit differently. During the encounter they keep busy with a mildly competitive abandon. Fast learners, they find overhearing to be as good as hearing. Wise students filter what they need from the itinerant instructor, who may himself be mired in his own lifetime of wrong turns.

Islets in Prideaux Haven in Desolation Sound. Precious material like this appeared out of the fog from the fantail. Every day we moved frequently and put the hook down among new vistas and ‘ready made’ paintings.

Best regards, Robert PS: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” (Robert Frost) Esoterica: Royally fed and pampered, we worked for three days from before breakfast until last light. On the fantail, or by Zodiac to precious islets or quiet coves, we painted up a pile of small, mostly unfinished works. Most of us slept well, took no naps and simply kept going. We dried our acrylics around the ship’s cozy fire. There was no end to good cheer and a sense of blessedness. On the last day, after a prolonged silence, someone said, “I just love it.”   Floating workshop

Columbia III is skippered by Ross Campbell of Mothership Adventures out of Campbell River, BC. Canada. A former Anglican Mission ship, now beautifully restored and maintained, she serves perfectly as a floating studio.


The good life on the fantail. Rachel, Susie, Katherine, Beverly and Reta. We had an ideal complement of seven students. As usual, I put on the pressure for them to work fast and furious on lots of small sketches.


On the Curme Islets, Desolation Sound, BC. We had lots of socked in weather, but during breaks we went ashore. That’s me on the right in my Mark Seven Portable Painting Contraption (MSPPC, not patentable).


In places like this there is a great sense of exhilaration. Fresh air, vast open spaces with nary a passing boat or aircraft, a few soaring gulls and oystercatchers, and a resident Sea Lion snuffing and grunting. Rachel, Beverly and Barb.


Stellar Sea Lion. This large male was flopping around below us as we painted. One might get the idea that the islet group belonged to him. Sea life abounds and the Curme Islets are a great place to harvest oysters.


Rain on the West Coast doesn’t dampen spirits. As a matter of fact, between the rain and the klag (low lying clouds) we had plenty of moody subject matter and creative challenge. Acrylics didn’t dry up either.

              From the model’s perspective by Bev Hanna, Midland, ON, Canada  

pastel painting, 9 x 12 inches
by Bev Hanna

Robert wrote, “Wise students filter what they need from the itinerant instructor.” This is so true! I spent many years as an artist’s model, and in those classes, learned more than I ever did as a student in art school. I had so many “AHA!” moments, listening while a variety of instructors taught other pupils. I feel blessed to have had the chance to learn from some excellent teachers, and even be paid for the opportunity.       Change of scene by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA  

oil painting, 30 x 24 inches
by Jackie Knott

Travel or at least a change of scene always stimulates the senses. How one approaches the opportunity is individual. I can’t imagine going on this trip and not picking the brain of every person aboard, including the captain and deck hand. If an artist can’t be inspired by these scenes there is no hope for them. That’s not a wrong turn; it’s a rut. Life is full of missteps, personally and professionally. The important thing is to recognize it, learn from it and regroup; then move on.     There is 1 comment for Change of scene by Jackie Knott
From: Julie Roberts — Jun 04, 2010

I clicked on your painting and enjoyed looking at it for a long time. The skin tones are lovely and you captured the young innocent gaze of this girl. I admire your skill!

  Walking a tightrope by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

“Night Fall”
original painting, 41 x 31 inches
by Jeffrey Hessing

I don’t believe in wrong turns and certainly there is no time for regrets. I often have thought that being an artist is like walking a tightrope. If you do too much of the same thing, say landscapes, people wonder why you don’t do people or cities. If you diversify people wonder why you do so many different things. The only solution is to please yourself in whatever you are doing at the moment and that changes come from inside as growth rather than intellectually from a search for something. Any one on that boat, anyone doing landscape is on the road less traveled. At least these days. I’ve been on it for 35 years. It gets lonely sometimes but it is the only road for me.   Raw expressions by Betty Billups, Sandpoint, ID, USA  

“Overlooking Dingle Harbor”
original painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Betty Billups

Personally, I do not believe there is a short cut, to becoming an artist of any depth, or ability. Sure, anyone can stumble on one or two fascinating creations but unless they understand the “why” or the “how” it will be a while before they can create anything else close to the energy of that “successful” innocent, naïve piece. I think I would rather see the raw expression of a small painting, created by a “student” in search of some answer, than a painting by a seasoned painter, who is merely repeating what he has already discovered a thousand times before! I truly believe that the soul or heart of a painting is discovered on the journey to learning, on the path to trying to understand what or why something can work. There is 1 comment for Raw expressions by Betty Billups
From: Anonymous — Jun 03, 2010

Betty: From your comment and your painting style (very nice by the way!), I imagine you would enjoy getting the daily emails from Julian Merrow-Smith. He calls them “Postcards from Provence” as he lives in France. He is participant in the daily painters, those who commit to doing a small painting every day and posting it on the Internet. the link is:

  Avoiding creative constipation by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“Long distance”
acrylic and pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

Teaching can also be a way for an artist to avoid creative constipation. You are asked to devise ‘systems’ and to analyze your painting decisions and to use and explain approaches that other painters have used. I find that stimulating. My students ask me to work on their paintings to ‘show’ them what I mean. Like a good preacher, you have to lead by example not just give a good sermon. Having to ‘fix’ dozens of beginner paintings forces me to constantly question my ideas. In the process, new ideas are formulated and old ones tweaked and remodeled. Isn’t this just like the painting process? Teaching is an art form. Teaching adult beginners is very enjoyable. In a way they are very ‘childlike’ in their willingness to be shed the ego games and to be open to a new approach. Like rocks in a rushing stream, life has softened their hard edges and their need to be in absolute control. Most are able to ‘go with the flow’ and to accept their limitations. They are able to work hard and have fun. That is the key for both teacher and student.   Keeping it alive! by Karen Baillard, Charlottetown, PEI, Canada   I used to live in BC for many years, and now live on the opposite coast, on Prince Edward Island; seeing the familiar rocky and pine filled scenery brought back gentle memories of my time on the West coast. My artistic side has been dormant and put on the side while I manage life as a single working parent, but it will awaken again when the moment is ripe, and these pictures certainly keep it alive inside!   Artistic learning center by John D. Stevenson, Gatineau, QC, Canada  

“Over the fence”
oil painting, 20 x 28 inches
by John D. Stevenson

I am working out the details to start a Gallery/artistic learning center, one that uses seasoned artists who are willing and able to approach teaching art by allowing and encouraging the student to find their creative eye and bring it to the brush or palette knife. My plan is to teach the basic rules to the equipment and material they are using and let them play into their art that speaks to them. The process I feel should point out their wrong turns as they learn their tools and then the creative sparks should fly. I am using small 7-8 person classes at different times throughout the week allowing for times they are most relaxed and open to being creative; in other words building them into full time artists that paint every day in one way or another.   Artists don’t retire by Deborah Sims, Winter Park, FL, USA   As a 61-year-old who has known since age 4 (according to my sainted mother) that I intended to be an artist “when I grow up” I have taken more than a few wrong turns or as I like to think of them, side trips. I completed a BA in Fine Arts with a teaching minor, found I didn’t really like teaching and went on to spend many years working to pay bills and doing my art as a side line. That never made me very happy, there was always that drive to create, to live my life as an artist. Now, having raised my family and being fortunate enough to not have to work I have time and resources to pursue my creative path. I have experimented with many different ways of making art over the years; silversmithing, art quilts, mixed media collage, altered books, watercolor, etc., and have had small successes with each and learned a lot and enjoyed the processes. I still find myself looking for my voice, trying to find that process that gives wings to all the ideas floating around in my head. Even with all my education and years of workshops and trying new things I still consider myself a beginner. Each of these is a possibility. The only thing I know for sure is that art is part of breathing for me and I will continue to make my own and enjoy the art of others as long as I live. I recently had a friend ask me how I was enjoying retirement! I told her artists don’t retire, creating is just part of who we are. There is 1 comment for Artists don’t retire by Deborah Sims
From: Bob McMurray — Jun 04, 2010

I’ve always said, old artists never die they just decompose

  Right choices by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic  

wood sculpture
by Norman Ridenour

I never had a real choice but made one nevertheless. I grew up with a father of the ilk, ‘All artists are homosexual.’ ‘What the hell is that, what does it do?’ There was no art in the house but we hand hooked our rugs, built furniture, cooked creatively. I became an engineer and naval officer; it got me FAR from home. I did PhD research in Spain, a culture where art is important. Then a few years later, with new doctorate I was, ‘Too expensive.’ Community Colleges, ‘Unemployable’ Business. So I started building very high end furniture/sculpture; I got press, I got awards but little money. Now I live in Europe, teach English and history and then I do art. I came make enough to live quite comfortably, I am building a collector base, I have had two one man shows and I now have my first art student. Teaching in an unrelated field lets you store the visual energy for yourself. Fortunately I need relatively little people contact and I seem to have a constitution to depend on for at least another decade. More fortunately I have a very supportive wife who can help with the marketing in Czech and the dealing with financial offices and she gives wonderful hugs when the black demon of depression knocks down the door. I will never know if I made right choices. I fact, looking back, even with 72 years of life, I do not see too many optional roads I could have taken. (I probably should have been an industrial designer.) The only times I have been bored have been when I took a job, ‘To make money’ or when I had to be with random groups of people. Passion is a dangerous bitch, she will knock you down and kick you in the balls if she calls and you do not follow. (This is the male metaphor. Women are encouraged to develop their own version.) There are 2 comments for Right choices by Norman Ridenour
From: Liz Schamehorn — Jun 04, 2010

It’s great to read some of your life story after seeing your beautiful wood sculpture a few times on this site. We can all drive ourselves nuts with the what-ifs. Thanks for the bit in the brackets at the end. I think my passion is built in to myself. It is often lulled by a kind of anti-passion with a comforting parental voice whispering lies like, “It’s ok, you’re only a woman. You have family to take care of. All the best painters were men, anyway. You don’t want to be like those bitchy successful women artists, do you?” I sometimes have to wipe that kindly smile off it’s face!

From: Deb Sims — Jun 04, 2010

Amen Liz! It took me over 40 years to be able to respond “I am an artist” when people asked what I do! Family always came first and that is a choice I do not regret but it left a part of me missing. As for Norman’s metaphor, I think as women, we just retreat into denial of our creative self when passion calls and we don’t respond and the going gets rough. And you are so right, the what ifs can drive you nuts and do absolutely no good whatsoever! The older I get, the less I know for sure and I find a wonderful freedom in that. It leaves so many new paths to follow!

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Autumn Canopy

oil painting, 40 x 40 inches Melissa Jean, Kenora, ON, Canada

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Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The navigation of wrong turns

From: Elizabeth Westmark — May 31, 2010

Your book, The Twice-Weekly Letters, is like an eloquent, quiet friend to me. Ever since it arrived, I carry it around like a new puppy, even in the car in case I might have a few minutes to wait somewhere. I cannot imagine a better help-mate for artists of all stripes, including me, a writer. In addition, the book is …beautiful.

From: Tinker — Jun 01, 2010

I am totally green with envy! what a wonderful opportunity and what a beautiful place! How fortunate you all are to have been on this amazing “workshop” !

From: Jackie Knott — Jun 01, 2010

Travel, or at least a change of scene always stimulates the senses. How one approaches the oportunity is individual. I can’t imagine going on this trip and not picking the brain of every person aboard, including the captain and deck hand. Who is so smug they think there is nothing left to learn? If an artist can’t be inspired by these scenes there is no hope for them. That’s not a wrong turn; it’s a rut. Life is full of missteps, personally and professionally. The important thing is to recognize it, learn from it and regroup, then move on.

From: Janice Robinson-Delaney — Jun 01, 2010

Wonderful! or wunnerful, I wonder what the tour guides think of the art since they have a personal relationship to the areas?

From: Edie — Jun 01, 2010

While I am an appreciator of art and as a youngster played with some media, I haven’t done anything in years. Not sure how I first was introduced to your newsletter, but enjoy reading it. Your words of wisdom and wonderful insights apply to life in general.

From: Paula Christen — Jun 01, 2010

Thanks so much for sharing your floating workshop adventure and photos. If more people saw what a great time we artists have just soaking in the quiet places, more of them would take up the brush!

From: Heidi Smith — Jun 01, 2010

Oh how I wish I could have been on that workshop – how lucky you all are to be able to make that marvelous trip; a little piece of heaven. I would have loved to have seen some of the work from your students that was created on the voyage. All the best, and as always; thank you for sharing all your wonderful experiences with all of us.

From: Cathy Harville — Jun 01, 2010

My husband and I have a real mental illness when it comes to our boat. Kayaks strapped on top, we head out to explore new anchorages, and enjoy quiet time together. Painting on our boat is just about as calm as I can get – unless boat wakes squiggle my lines, which are often happy accidents. I paint mostly small stuff, due to the lack of space. The paint dries quickly in the warm, brackish air. Attached is a work I painted on our boat. I neglected our friends to work on it. I just can’t help it. I can talk and paint at the same time – sometimes! I never thought of a floating workshop before. What a marvelous idea!

From: Ian van Zyl — Jun 01, 2010

Greetings from the other side of the world! I do enjoy your letters, always uplifting to discover that our joy and disappointments are the same, no matter where we find ourselves geographically or artistically.

From: Elenor Hamilton — Jun 01, 2010

I do find your letters creative and thoughtful. They make a change from the many sentimental, predicable emails that I so often receive from well meaning friends. The latter are usually ones that people have received and forwarded, which is fine, but there is something immediate, personal and relevant about yours that makes them really worth reading. I am 63 and am 18months away from my 65th Birthday and retirement from my work as a Subject Advisor for Dramatic Arts in the High Schools in my town of Pietermaritzburg South Africa. I have sporadically involved myself in practicing painting and drawing and in teaching Visual Art; in offering and taking courses in screen printing etc. but for the past 3 years since my husband died I have not been busy with any form of visual art. I am very much looking forward to October 2011 when I will have the time and freedom to paint and draw as much as I choose but I know it would be a good thing to get started again before then!

From: Melissa McCracken — Jun 01, 2010

Robert, You are such a delight. I am the one who wrote the first comment in your book, i.e. Melissa. I was so thrilled to have left my paw print amongst the others. Meanwhile, I enjoy your letters, your filter, and I believe a wonderful new term: gnarly bilge. Yes! Your use of words is so refreshing and it conveys your insight with such grace, clarity and revelation. I know that you know what you have. Your hearth of words makes your vision a gift for you and in turn for the rest of us.

From: Jane Ross — Jun 01, 2010

Loved the column, and the pictures. Thank you!

From: Gavin Logan — Jun 01, 2010

Wrong turns. The commonest wrong turn is when students make spidery little pencil lines meant to delineate what they are looking at. They do it on a sketch pad without first establishing the format–the edges of the painting they are going to make. Paintings are best made of patches, not lines. Another popular wrong turn is trying to paint an oil or acrylic on a ground that is pure white. Grounds need to be tinted to start with.

From: Gavin Logan — Jun 01, 2010

I just found out if the live comment doesn’t go through after the first attempt at the addition, it will the next time if you refresh the page.

From: Nathan Kunz — Jun 01, 2010

Art is so full of wrong turns it’s a wonder anything turns out at all. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe anything put down on canvas or paper is ok if I say so.

From: Paul Burns — Jun 01, 2010

Art is a series of wrong turns that eventually becomes more narrow and then only seems to be a straight line. The best you can hope for is to prevent the breadth of things turning back on themselves at the beginning.

From: Pat Penderefski — Jun 01, 2010

The making of art has a few basic rules that need to be understood and practiced, particularly at the very beginning. The fact that these rules are not often followed is the reason so many give up in frustration. The lack of professionalism and “wrong turn” incompetence in fine art is rampant. No other profession that I know of can make this claim.

From: Gary Lanthrum — Jun 01, 2010

I have been sailing and diving in the waters around Campbell River and this story brought memories of magic days and nights floating back. There are many artists living and working in the area, although not all of them use traditional canvases. One old local used to joke about changing from farming crops to farming tourists. Finally he decided that he was going to work his art on the tourists he was farming. His art was teaching people to REALLY see what was right in front of them and understand what it meant. He passed on that knowledge to many people passing through the area. It sounds like Robert is carrying on the tradition by conducting workshops in the area. Learning to see what you are looking at in an important first step in painting the landscape.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 01, 2010

Robert- How can you simultaneously believe in wrong turns while having no regrets? They are somewhat incompatible. I put a lot of effort into a very few works which were discarded- a long time ago- but not recently. So after I figured out ‘the basics’ for me- I don’t make ‘mistakes’ or take ‘wrong turns’ anymore- because there aren’t any. Do I occasionally have to un-pick a seam? Sure! It means I’m tired and should stop for the day. Somebody might call it a ‘mistake’ but it is utterly meaningless. In other words- it doesn’t matter which path you take because all lead to the same point in space/time- the moment where a potential for reaching an interesting level of creative cosmic awareness exists. Or death. The statement is: There’s no difference between success and failure. Why? Because both lead to further growth. That is if growth is something you’re after… not everyone is… Now a successful bank account- that’s one thing. A successful painting- that’s something else and many paintings judged unsuccessful by many often rake in the big bucks- so that’s all subjective. The creative process allows for growth phases. Unexpected turns often facilitate them beautifully. But wrong- no…

From: Nancy Marshall — Jun 02, 2010

I have been painting with a local teaching artist for about 10 years. It took me several years to “unlearn” some bad habits. It took hard work and perseverance from my instructor – but now when I paint, I can actually hear her voice in my head as I block out my work. Having an open mind is key – also, the determination to keep trying. In time, one develops both skill and confidence.

From: Dorenda — Jun 02, 2010

I think it is incredibly important for students to try a multitude of teachers in discovering their art path. I so often see students stick with a teacher for years, emulating their every stroke and color, only to find out that what they are doing is merely copying, not really learning, not really painting. Take a little knowledge from each instructor, toss the bits that don’t ring true to you, and this is how you develop your individual style and skill. You will always have a teacher that will tell you something is wrong with what another teacher said was right about your work…YOU have to determine who is right. :)

From: Bob Ragland — Jun 02, 2010

My thinking about being an artist full time is, one needs to have some kind of income. The latte renters can cause starving artists. think about that. Even better google the latte factor on the web. This will give you an idea what people spend on coffee, just think all we artists want is part of those latte budgets. Smart people will realize, they can have art and their latte too . Back to the main point, I would advise take the job, save some money, then consider being an artist full time.

From: Betty Muckle — Jun 02, 2010

Last line says it all. Choose your instructor wisely!!

From: Keiko — Jun 02, 2010

I so loved reading about the boat workshop you conducted! Just wonder if you would consider doing it again….. I paint the Cape Cod scenes in watercolor during the summer days but not during the winter months. I should, yes I know. Anyway, I do enjoy reading your newsletters.

From: Sad — Jun 02, 2010

As a child, I was forced to a wrong turn by my parents. I went on that road being self-destructive, but the will to survive prevailed and I did my best of what they wanted me to do. The road was difficult but financially lucrative. It felt like a feast of food to which you are allergic. Over many years I managed to steer to the road of art. I made my way to an elite group of art elders congregated to celebrate their art life. There is little to learn from their art — just few techniques for producing saleable items. Passion for art is much mentioned, but little seen. Awards and achievements reminisced about — which have no significance. Life style seems important, not the art. Every person is considered a potential source of income as students, buyers or promoters. It seems that I have taken another wrong turn. Is that all there is? Am I just a dreamer? Is there some other, beautiful future for artists? I would rather go back to my old, wrong path, to again cling on scraps of learning, than be in this know-all place where art comes to die. Genn said a while ago “go to your room”. That never needed that as much as now.

From: Karen Finger Alldredge — Jun 03, 2010

Of the hundreds of works that have I’ve produced on the road to retirement, my heart wanders back to those early pieces that were hard won in the middle of the night when the babies were asleep and the uninterrupted time was precious. Those are my favorites. Now that I have all the time in the world to paint, inspiration and energy are in short supply. It is akin to something my young teen once said, ‘Experience is the comb that life hands you after you’ve lost all your hair’. I find myself yearning for something to fan the waning embers.

From: mars — Jun 05, 2010

RE- artist die—-they don’t die– just artisically fade away with age!!!!!!!


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