Of geese and swans


Dear Artist,

Horace Walpole once remarked of Sir Joshua Reynolds, “All his own geese are swans, as the swans of others are geese.”


“The Threatened Swan” ca.1650
oil painting by
Jan Asselijn (1610-1652)

I’ve heard variations of this idea from some of my artist friends. There have even been times, perish the thought, when I’ve caught myself being like that. In most cases it’s got something to do with the ongoing problem that we ourselves just never seem to have enough swans. Sometimes there’s nothing but ducks.

The trick to getting more swans is to see your own geese for what they are. It takes clarity of vision. It’s a function of looking and seeing. The patron saint of mediocrity awaits with his veil in every studio. The seasoned eye is better able to spot his movements. When the mind is elevated and informed it stands a chance of avoiding his spell. Trouble is, the guy has to be re-fought every time you crack out a new canvas or full-sheet. Good news: He can often be held at bay by potent antidotes:


“Taunting the Geese”
oil painting by
Herbert William Weekes (1841-1914)

Stop, look and listen.
Take pains to take pains.
Aim for the above and beyond.
Keep your betters for counsel.
Give yourself a rest or a run.
Constantly ask: “What could be?”
Lash out at all forms of laziness.
Believe in yourself, but not too much.
When all else fails: follow directions.
Go back to school — if only for a minute.
Put “process” beyond other considerations.
Know that “good enough” is not good enough.
Before you start out, get your swans in a row.

If the best of your vision eludes you, and your dreams can’t be grasped today, be philosophic, know that defeat is often temporary. Never let disappointment spoil the hunt. Tomorrow will be another day.


“The Disputed Gate”
oil painting by
Herbert William Weekes (1841-1914)

Best regards,


PS: “I’d rather be a could-be if I cannot be an are;
Because a could-be is a maybe who is reaching for a star.
I’d rather be a has-been than a might-have-been, by far;
For a might-have-been has never been, but a has was once an are.” (Milton Berle)

Esoterica: Every professional was once an amateur. Ongoing professionalism is based on an apprentice attitude. In the range of creative aspiration, more is attainable when the artist has a student mind. A wide-eyed student stands a better chance of flying with the swans.

This letter was originally published as “Of geese and swans” on September 13, 2002.


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.

“The painter goes through states of fullness and evaluation. That is the whole secret of art.” (Pablo Picasso)