Levels of achievement


Dear Artist,

Every once in a while some experts will have a conference and announce that painting is now dead. They are usually referring to somewhat realistic paintings that depict something or other that a more or less average person can understand.


pastel painting by
Laura Coombs Hills ((1859-1952)

I’m painting in a place called Treguier in Brittany. About a hundred meters along the quay, another man is also painting. As it’s time for a Pernod, I take the opportunity to have a look. He’s working on a big, complex painting with several figures, boats, houses and fields beyond. He’s one of those painters who puts his whole body into his work. He’s grandiose, earnest, and extremely frustrated. I have never seen anyone actually tearing their hair out — but this big French guy is coming pretty close. I know he’s French because he’s swearing in it. As I go back to my 12″ x 16″ I notice another guy with an easel pressed close against a second-story window. He, too, appears to be labouring in the same field.


“Roses and Glass”
painting by Laura Coombs Hills

Rumours of the death of painting are greatly exaggerated, I’m thinking. It’s like these baguettes around here. The French are not suddenly going to stop baking them. Baguettes are not going to go out of style. Madame is not suddenly going to start carrying something else around on her bicycle.

This painting business will go on for a while yet as well. Because it’s good to do. And also because it’s bloody difficult to do — to be able to get the drawing more or less right. It’s good to develop a decent pattern and design — to have a composition. It’s good to find colours that work well and to get the relationship between light and shade. It’s a good feeling to work on something that talks to you, something to which you can give a new spin. It’s good to honour what you have come to know and still surprise yourself. It’s good to be able to add elements of personal choice — like elegance, refinement, paucity, or exaggeration. It’s good to make something that looks uniquely yours. It’s good to do work that is worth signing and then go and have a drink. It’s good to think about everything you have yet to learn and to think about the next one you may perhaps make. It’s good to be engaged in dignified labour like this.
The man down the quay just kicked over his easel.


“”Bowl of Pansies”
pastel by Laura Coombs Hills

Best regards,


PS: “Painting will prevail because its inevitable zones of discomfort, bleeding and pain are sometimes overcome by a high feeling of joy and accomplishment.” (Joe Blodgett)

Esoterica: It’s a balance between pushing the limits of your capability and doing those things that satisfy and keep you at it. Those of us who struggle daily find that some projects are more difficult than others. It’s good to remember that painting the figure defeated Cezanne — he did better when he stuck to his apples.

This letter was originally published as “Levels of achievement” on September 27, 2002.


The audio letters are now ready to give as a gift!
The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Give yourself room to fail and fight like hell to achieve.” (Irwin Greenberg)



  1. what a great and inspiring letter; it allows one to make fun of oneself, always a good thing.

    Just saw the Munch show at the Met Breuer. It’s astonishing how Munch’s extreme suffering runs through his paintings. I loved looking at his “self scrutinies”, the name he gave to his many self portraits. a great show.

  2. Thank you as always for the perfect timing of this letter…. Home again after 5 weeks at an artist retreat /studio in Mexico [ San Miguel en Allende] ….. gaining inspiration from being out of my art arena in Vancouver, talking to a wide variety of artists, experienced and new and taking a time out to play, experiment, study and think about this new year and what I might do with it …… Robert’s words are definitely playing to that inspiration…


    I blogged about my experience and artists while there ….. http://www.robintimms.com click on travel SMA for artists that are interested … attached some images of art and artists and other images of SMeA .

    • I’m in San Miguel de Allende right now, a whole month to be an artistic sponge. My Air BnB is the perfect studio space. I enjoyed the letter too, everything we paint won’t be worth hanging but the aactual process of painting is profound.

      • Loved this article. Itching to travel again. susan, I want to go there to smda. Can you tell me about your experience?

  3. Jamuna Snitkin on

    thank you to Robert and Sara for illustrating these letters with such deeply satisfying pictures of many artists I have never seen before.

  4. This is a beautiful re-posted article of Robert’s. He imparts so many fine and encouraging words so eloquently. As a realist contemporary painter myself, I especially appreciate the paintings of Laura Coombs Hills shown here. The idea by some “experts” that “painting is now dead” is farcical. Roberts’ words are powerful and I thank him for that.

  5. Enjoyed this letter it certainly portrays the same frustrations or delights we all have when painting. Some days the work just flows and other days we struggle and such is life! Just glad I love painting and enjoy time-outs to read these musings. Loved the paintings submitted with the article, beautiful, delicate and alive!

  6. Thank you for sharing this, it was very interesting and fun. I seem to remember that Monet once threw his painting, paints, and himself into a canal. Perhaps it is a French thing.
    The idea that painting is dead, would probably come from a non painter. A bit like The Beatles were not good and that guitar bands were on their way out. Shame about that.
    Thanks again

  7. Four new painting students will arrive at my studio tomorrow. If painting was dead then they’d be satisfied looking at their photos. They are so excited to pick up a brush. And I’m thrilled to share what agony and joy the process of painting!

    • Interesting synopsis about how we all approach the art of panting! God did not create us all the same but every body has something unique.

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