Painter Charles Philip Brooks runs a teaching studio in North Carolina. He focuses on the American Tonalist and Impressionist schools of painting. Recently he sent me a letter he’d written for his student Laurie Gayle. I soon realized his letter was a classic, so I asked him if we could give it a wider reading. I think you’ll find it worthwhile.
“Letter to the Student of Painting”
“Your day contains a great measure of freedom. Your responsibility as a painter is here within the walls of the studio and in the setting of the landscape. You have the opportunity to exercise genuine mastery at every step, and it is in this spirit of grand possibility that I hope you will reflect on the advice made plain here.
Do not grieve too long for the troubles of the outside world. There is important work to be done here. We can best express our care for all others by attending to our work well.
Allow yourself the peace of purpose and the knowledge that to make another attempt with the brush is a noble thing. If you accept the discipline of the truest principles of art, then yours is the reward of an unbroken line of tradition.
Therefore, you may earnestly free your mind of all heartaches, sadness, and transitory despairs. Creation is above these things.
Your vocation is as real and as true as any other. Those who denounce the artist as idle manifest a deep ignorance of the nature of art. Have faith that the civilized will somewhere, at some time, value your well-wrought works. It is a miracle that the world keeps its havens for art and yet it does. Know that to create art is to do a necessary piece of work. The most noble pleasures and measureless joys result from such endeavors. True art is undeniable and it is a gift for all humanity.
The threefold responsibility of the artist is: to creation, to individual talent, and to humanity. For creation the whole of nature we must cultivate prayerful awe. This is our source of work and our refuge as well. We should seek harmony with nature. For the individual talent long hours and years of steady industry hope to find our abilities fulfilled, our minds, hearts, and hands put to valuable service. In this way, we maintain the sanctity of art. Lastly, we make to humanity a willing gift of all we do. Our control over the material world lasts only a lingering moment and it takes a generous soul to build the ambition of a lifetime and then to hand it over in trust to the future.
Painting requires the bravery of solitude. Painting requires disciplined labor. To be a painter is to search the world with a benevolent eye for every subtle beauty that the infinite world offers.
Here is the opportunity to give your honest effort and to add in any small way to the legacy of art. Cultivate patience in your heart and you will improve. Learn to see well and your hand will become sure.
No pain or doubt can invade the honest soul engaged in the communion of creation. We artists must love the world with our deepest selves and forgive it at every turn.
To paint even a little passage with a measure of quality is to achieve a life’s triumph.
Spend your days wisely with the best thoughts and works of those who have walked the road before you. Search their paths, their timeless inspirations, and the lineage of their genius. Learn your craft well and your talent will mature into its full possibility. Keep an obedient heart before nature. She is the master above all other masters. Nature is the concrete manifestation of all that remains true and sublime. Let us always be thankful for her abundance and hopeful that we might approach her in our art. Nature will renew every generation of painters, ready to illuminate the minds of those who practice the art with what is calm, rational, beautiful, sublime, and eternal.
Such is the purity of your vocation. Treat every moment before the easel as a quick and tender opportunity. Invest your most noble self. Give your most noble self. To be a painter is to enjoy a precious state of life.” (Charles Philip Brooks)
Esoterica: FYI, we’ve put a selection of Charles Brooks’ paintings at the bottom of this letter.
Charles Philip Brooks
Thank you, Universe!
by Denise Auld, Poulsbo, WA, USA
Your email with Charles Brooks’ piece on painting came to me this morning as I sat sipping my tea. The timing is nothing short of magical. Last Sunday, my entire studio occupied a U-Haul truck as I moved from one county to another. I spent the last two days trying to organize the contents in some sort of logical layout in my beautiful new studio. Today I am looking forward to my first day of painting in my new space, and now I have the magnificent inspiration of Charles Brooks’ Ode to a Painter to hang on the wall next to my easels. Thank you Charles, thank you Robert, thank you Universe — I love being an artist.
A neutralizer of doubts
by Karen Dedrickson, WA, USA
Thank you 10,000 times for this timely letter. I have been going through so many doubts, more than usual trying to make sense of why I want to paint. The purpose, the reasons, and the value of what I do have cast long shadows over my feelings and inspirations. I am a mid-career artist, and this letter puts the value of what I am doing into a purpose that I can understand with my heart and soul — and forget the laundry and the dirty dishes!
The permanence of art
by Laurie Sain, Lander, WY, USA
I struggled with the idea of being an artist, both as a writer for 30 years and as a painter now, in light of all of the tribulations of the world. What was art good for, really? Then, when I married a few years ago, we traveled to Greece for a honeymoon. When we got back, I realized we had spent the entire three weeks looking at art and stone foundations of buildings long gone (my husband is an archeologist). I concluded that, in the long run, art was all that was left. It’s that important — to the artists and to the world that comes after them.
Shamed by letter
by Patricia Brett
Charles Brooks spoke to my heart and soul and you can tell how he feels about the great gift of being able to create art, and to me that is one of the most important aspects of being an artist, whether you’re painting, creating mixed media, designing jewelry, weaving beads, sculpting, doing fine art photography, or any other form of art. He truly knows what it means to be an artist. His letter is the first thing I think I’ve felt deeply enough about to put myself out there and comment on (online I mean)! I also looked at his paintings online and he truly has a great gift. I am in awe of his talent and would love to be able to learn from him. It makes me ashamed that I haven’t picked up a paint brush in over a year!
The wisdom of Doris McCarthy
by Lynda Pogue, Georgetown, ON, Canada
The inimitable Canadian painter Doris McCarthy (very frail…very old…almost gone…) wrote this in the front of her autobiography:
Look to this day,
For it is the very life of life.
In its brief course lies all the verities and realities of its existence.
The bliss of growth.
The glory of action.
The splendor of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow only a vision.
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look therefore well to this day.
Such is the salutation of the dawn.
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Working for a nobler cause
by Sher Sester, Oklahoma City, OK, USA
Thank you for sharing this letter! Sometimes in the busy world as a “Commercial Artist/Graphic Designer” and freelance fine artist, it is hard to take a moment to remember that our art “is a gift for all humanity.” I feel that deep inside, but forget, in the rush to please others in the commercial field, that I am creating for the world, not just one job or person. Working for a State Agency for health care, my artwork helps and educates our citizens and gets a lot of appreciation from the people my art is designed for, my fine art is a bonus that I don’t ever have enough time for, but the rewards are great there too. The reward is inside — the joy of creating art that talks to others (commercial and fine arts) and brings joy to humanity!
Lofty, encompassing letter
by Dayle Ann Stratton, Brandon, VT, USA
I am quickly writing this before leaving on a week-long retreat, so it will be brief (for me!). Thank you for posting this letter, and thank you to Charles Philip Brooks for writing it and for allowing you to share it. It encompasses all the things that are important to me as an artist: diligence, discipline, vision, patience, industry, respect for those from whom I’ve learned, both in art and in life. To be fully present so as to render honestly. And above all, though I work in solitude, I remember my connection to all those around me.
Giving our best
by Jill Paris Rody, Campbell River, BC, Canada
I can identify with that ‘seeker’ of beauty, and pray my work will be a blessing to the viewer. The message touched a core of belief in me that confirms I am “on track” with my passion of being an Artist. I have the honor of being the “Artist in Residence” at Still Water Books and Art (Campbell River, BC) and therefore am seeking to put forth the best of my current works, into the hands of wonderful shop owners, who, in turn promote the beauty of landscape (and other styles) to the local and visiting public. The lines in the message: “Do not grieve too long for the troubles of the outside world. There is important work to be done here. We can best express our care for all others by attending to our work well” meant so much to me. Passion and emotion for my art is enough to propel me through the day, and the additional cares of the world can be so very overwhelming otherwise. I have no desire to paint about troubles and angst. Beauty is the expression I want to portray, and in doing so, I feel I am giving my best to an often heart-sick world.
Crisis in education
by Rick Delanty, San Clemente, CA, USA
For 32 years I was a high school painting and drawing teacher. For the final exam, it was my custom to give the advanced class a topic that I thought would be current to their understanding of the art world, or their own places in it. One semester I handed out what I told the class was a letter to the editor written by a community member entitled, “Art Classes in Schools should be Cut!” The letter included six reasons for dropping art from school curriculums, including the toll it took on student study time for “more important” subjects, the unnecessary monies that needed to be spent on materials and classrooms, the inability of the arts to contribute to or improve society, etc. I told the students that their assignment during the test period was to respond to the writer in a “letter-to-the-editor” format. Now I’ve had many final exams during which it appeared that students were reluctant to get started — but not this one! At the end of over an hour of writing, the students turned their response — letters in, and I selected some to read aloud to the class.
No one thought that cutting the arts from school curricula was a good idea — in fact they were indignant, appalled, and disgusted that anyone would even suggest that! Student responses included the value of art as a leisure activity, a great way to spice up the school day, a class that could turn into a career, necessary to society for the design of just about everything, and a skill that would increase facility for all kinds of activities that related to creativity. Imagine their surprise when I told them that I had written the letter! They were even mad at me for coming up with the idea! To them it was obvious that without art, without creativity, without the freedom and opportunity to exercise it, both the school curriculum and society would suffer greatly. To them, both the creation and appreciation of art were privileges that — globally — we cannot do without.
Even in my career as a professional artist today, I think of those letters, written by students, and reflect that the arts are some of our greatest gifts on this planet, for appreciating life, ourselves, and our fellow man. Whenever I walk into the studio, I give thanks.
by Dorothy Adams
Thank you for sharing the beautiful letter to the Student of Painting; I will save it along with my best loved writings… the letter reminds me of the wisdom in Desiderata.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Written by Max Ehrmann in the 1920s
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Painting The Blues
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Bill McCall, who wrote, “Artists should read this letter before every painting session. It is a powerful reminder of what we all should already know!”
And also Shirley Jo Falconer of Oregon, USA, who wrote, “Clear our minds, friend, with the sewing machine, or dyeing, or beading, or whatever art as we know it.”
And also Marianne Deaver of Gap Mills, WV, USA, who wrote, “This I read with tears of gratitude.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Letter to the Student of Painting…