Absolute beginner


Dear Artist,

A subscriber who wishes to remain anonymous wrote, “I can’t help wanting to begin again. It was in the beginning that I had the most fun, but now that I’m a professional with an audience and known style I’m not sure how.”


“Boats on the Beach”
oil on canvas, 1909
by Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923)

Thanks, Anonymous. Your email arrived while I was tying a bowline for an 80-year-old sailing captain. He watched from under a black wool fisherman’s cap, his eyes calm and crinkling upward. Not yet a sailor, I fed the line through and under itself, while a kind of mental untying occurred inside — a smooth pridelessness — and I surrendered to my vast unknowns.

Art is a lifer’s pursuit, and there’s something to keeping a beginner’s edge, even if you have to manufacture it from time to time. You’re an evolving, exploratory force of creativity — which means honouring a compulsion to re-start. True beginners are simply experts who know better.


“Girl With Sailboat”
by Edmund C. Tarbell (1862–1938)

How to begin again?
Pay attention to what has always come naturally.
Remember your earliest art dreams.
Require the privacy, time and space to explore without obligation.
Imagine impossible paintings not yet painted.
Ask yourself what you want to communicate. You may find that the beginner and the expert are one and the same.

In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, philosopher Matthew B. Crawford tells the story of his transcendence from conceptual think-tank guy to a student of engine repair. He says that engaging with the physical obstacles of being a beginner is how we’re drawn out of ourselves and toward our own greatness. It’s also, he says, how we experience the real and magnificent. Being a novice produces a sense of purpose. To Crawford, it’s the meaning of life, because the treasure is in the earning — think parenting, auto mechanics, playing an instrument, sailing. Painting then, — its difficulty and its renewable resource of infinite possibilities — is ideal.


“Children Sailing Their Boats In The Luxembourg Gardens”
oil on canvas, 1913
by Paul Michel Dupuy (1869-1949)



PS: “When I started out, there were a lot of things I knew I couldn’t do, and a lot of things I only found out I couldn’t do by going and doing it. And no one was watching, and nobody cared.” (Neil Gaiman)

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” (Shunryu Suzuki)

Esoterica: Permission to fail is one of great pleasures of being a beginner. In greenness, humility and modest expectations we stay open to the basics, anticipating difficulty and making room for surprise. Like lovers getting familiar, soon enough we’ll be lulled into the belief that we know what we’re doing, and it’ll be time to begin again.



  1. It is uncanny how these letters seem like you are reading my mind! I am a beginner! A beginner with the restraint of an adult not the ease of a child. I feel like my drawing skill is developed much more so than my painting., I get a paralyzed sensation when I need to start the painting part. I still think I’m colouring.

    • Try painting with painting knives instead of brushes ! They are wonderfully unpredictable, especially when first trying them, and could even reduce the need for drawing most of those “colouring book lines” we all dread. I propose that ALL beginners be handed a knife or two, and be forbidden to touch a brush– then to be turned loose to play and learn.

    • Linda Burchill on

      Thanks exactly how I feel. These topics seem to just come by at the exact time I am needing to work through something in particular. Your dad is alive and well; you have absorbed his gift for the nuance. It heals. Thank you, Sara, for carrying on your dad’s soul-sharing and adding your own softness to them. When I read one of your “keys,” I feel more peaceful after I absorb it.

    • Ah Muriel…..How I know that feeling! But remember how freeing it was to color outside the lines? Feel free to do that. You can alway ‘cut’ back in where you need to, but you may find some of the outside the lines are the most beautiful areas of your painting. And maybe don’t dray so much on your painting. Just mass in/scribble in the area with a brush instead.

    • Yes, i have lost the hunger, and with it, the determination and direction. On one hand, being a beginner humbles you, but, it can kill your artistic oomph. I take it a day at a time, with the demands of illnesses . I have diabetes 2, and hypothyroidism, and i feel they make my creativity disappear. But, i try and go everyday, because my art rescues my sanity. So i say, thank you for reminding all of us. We need it.

  2. Nancy Ericksen on

    Wonderful message, it usually is….but I want to say I appreciate the sidebar with a sampling of great paintings. Just like me who buys an art book, looks at the pictures but doesn’t read the text or captions…..except I do read the text here.

  3. I have kept some of my eary works. Or at least photos of them. I am constantly amazed at the quality, freedom and daring of those works. True, they were not necessarily executed perfectly but they showed a creativity, looseness of execution that has sadly changed with time and increased ability.
    The more I learn. about painting, the more my skill level increases, the more I struggle to keep my knowledge from hindering my instinctive creativity. We tend to want to show our knowledge and ability in our work.
    Oddly, if we can keep our naïveté in our work, the truth is, the work shows more skill and ability and quality.

  4. Pamela Pooma Bruno on

    My Mother was an oil painter and didn’t allow us to use water color , so I began painting in oils at age four. At the age of twelve, I was blessed with an extraordinary art teacher that embraced my situation. She introduced me to many new beginnings. Sometimes simply changing your medium can be a refreshing beginning .

  5. A fun way to throw off a known style and try something unique, as mentioned in an earlier letter, is to create under a new name that no one knows you by. It brings out the beginner again.

    • I’ve tried this, but it really never worked well. After painting watercolors for a living for six decades I thought being somebody different would be fun and freeing. I used the name I’ve used here (part of my real given name) but unknown by everybody. I mounted an entire show, all acrylics on canvas in a new “family” style. They really were different, but maybe not so hot. I’ve thought about doing more and the “new me” might get better and also known. Also, keeping the new-you a secret is not easy. Finding a new outlet where you’re not known is the answer.

  6. Quote at the top of my blogspot:

    “A man learns to skate by staggering around making a fool of
    himself: indeed he progresses in all things by making a fool of
    himself.” –George Bernard Shaw

    And I read something recently from a well-known artist who made some changes and his work went to hell for awhile–wish I could find that quote again or remember who it was–

    Really-what do we have to lose except habits?

  7. great letter Sara. In the beginning we paint for a lot of reasons , money and deadlines are not among them . we are allowed to still make mistakes as a professional . part of the fun . back to the beginning and no pressure , just painting for the enjoyment of what if . it’s like hanging on to our childhood innocence

  8. I think that this wish to feel the excitement of something new, keeps me trying new techniques and also keeps me doing an enjoyable thing for me, teaching. When I am explaining how things work to my students, I have to keep seeing what I am doing in different ways and talking about what painting is about in different ways to communicate with students, who all hear and see in different ways. Painters Keys is a big help, giving me ideas and language to do both the new type of painting/art making and reaching my students.

  9. Zen suggests Beginner’s Mind is optimum- because it allows for us to be more in the present- the moment- the NOW. The assumption is that that’s where creation comes from- the infinite and eternal Here/Now. For a ‘painter’ whose work happens fast- say in a matter of hours- being fully in the moment facilitates inspired work. But nothing comes from nothing if you aren’t plugged into your own inspiration- which some refer to as your MUSE… even though muses are often just a projection of one’s ideal mate. And (primarily male) ‘artist’s’ (in the past) presented their muses as almost universally female. Mine isn’t. But neither is it male- as I’m an abstract artist. So geometry- patterning and tessellations are more likely to be my muse- the things that inspire me.

    So while I can appreciate being a beginner- never will I manifest as much work as Robert Genn did- because my work often takes months- not hours. So I don’t run around like a headless chicken looking for the next beginning- as I already have literally dozens of pieces in various stages of completion. And I’m always finishing something- as each completion births the next beginning- or middle- or construction project- or cutting-out phase- or ‘just sitting in a chair while trying to envision something new’ period.

    I believe in Self Mastery- and I’ve spent 60+ years getting there. But Self Mastery is Self Acknowledged and Self Accepted- leading to a state of gratitude and Self Recognized Graduation. And it’s not a place of beginners. And since I’ve self-recognized that I’ve had an uncountable number of other lifetimes- beginning isn’t something I’m much interested in or focused on. Why?

    Because I’m focused on Right Work. Right Livelihood. Right Inspiration. Right Awareness. Right Understanding. Right Healing. Right Energy. Right Timing. Right Interaction. Right Relationship. Right Manifestation. Right ART- including the money-for-work-accomplished part. And these are all things beginners are rarely focused on.

    I just cal it Self Mastery.

    • everything we do in life is an opportunity to practice spiritual beliefs. How we approach a painting is no exception. To give up the results of our actions is one of the hardest. Also non identification or non attachment is another. So many things from the way we brush our teeth to how we even think about art is most likely a condition. Maybe the only place we are truly free is in the mindful awareness moment to moment. It helps plenty to live in eternity.

    • Simply, Self Mastery is meant to afford us the opportunity to lay down the outer and free the inner, spiritual self to guide and direct us. Self mastery is simply a tool to prepare us as clear channels for the Highest Nature to work through freely.
      Children are open to inspiration and it is learned out of them. Always a beginner is a good mode of opening ourselves to greater inspiration and innovation.

  10. NonnyKor Kudel on

    back in the mid 70 ‘s, I was experimenting with quilting/sewing….. And my mantra became: I didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so I went ahead and did it……. Holds true to this day…. The child/beginner still rejoices in that which is outta the box! And thanx, Missy, for your great descriptions…. I’m so picturing the crinkly-eyed old man of the sea……..

  11. I feel fortunate that Nature gives us Impermanence and Change. I can’t imagine the feeling of having to be and to stay in the same state of being all the time. I embrace Change, for this gives me the opportunity to forgive, to make amends, to change my circumstances, to get out from uninspired living, to start anew, and to enjoy new experience every time. This is true in arts too. Impermanence and Change give me the opportunity to start again and experience creation all over again. But starting again doesn’t mean to start from ground zero, it means to start from wherever one is at the time. Thank You.

  12. Sara, Thank you for more great information, and so beautifully written as always! This post should be read by all teachers of the arts painting and the tenets repeated to all beginners. When I get frustrated trying to master a new element or technique I try to get past beating myself up by thinking that if I were learning a new classical violin concerto I wouldn’t be so hard on myself. And it’s truly true because I don’t play violin at all (!) so it allows me to honor the newness. Somehow that helps ;)

  13. Mary Manning on

    Sara, This piece really hit a home run for me. I’m taking a watercolor workshop this summer and it’s as if I’ve gone to the beach to splash and play in the ocean as we did as children.

    I’ve also invested in Chinese brushes and plan to put them to good use as summer continues. Beginning anything for me always holds an incredible excitement, the beginner’s mind of Zen so appealing. As a child, I always felt old; now I feel like aging wine in a new bottle — improving and beginning each day.

  14. One of the greatest ways I have kept my enthusiasm is by teaching others….It also keeps my “juices” going to learn more and share more and with each new student I remember how exciting and scary it was to begin as a new painter – not even being really sure which end of the brush you use!I have earned more since I started to teach 30 years go than I ever knew prior to that time.I thank all my students for that.

    • That’s “learned more” not “earned more” …although there is a little bit of that too. forgive the terrible typing.

  15. I have been painting full time for the last four years (part time for numerous years before that) and I like to think of myself as an “advanced beginner”. It keeps that sense of excitement and discovery going-but with a calming effect of some confidence in myself. It works for me.

  16. Such good advice. To think back to childhood art dreams, and to remember what comes naturally. The most difficult is to require privacy to explore. I paint for a living and sometimes my explorations seem like wasted canvas. I have to stop that, because that’s the only way that I’ve grown.

  17. Thank you, Sara! I appreciate your advice on paying particular attention to what comes naturally. The commonalities found in my work were noticed by an artist friend of mine. She saw lines of all sorts were consistently reappearing in my work. It must have been naturally there for me to paint lines without having the awareness of trying to accomplish this goal. Funny, up until my artist friend noticed my lines, I never thought I had any style. It took another pair of eyes to see past my own limitations. I’ve been painting and teaching for several years but every new beginning helps to disclose my discovery of who I am as an artist. I still love learning, thanks for your wonderful site, Sara!

  18. Awesome article! I’m actually starting my art career all over again after a 25-year hiatus. ‘Tis so exciting to begin one’s art journey all over again. I’ve the unfair advantage of being older and a bit wiser (well, artistically anyway!) but still young enough to embrace the thrill of the unknown. Here’s to being an “Absolute Beginner” again!

  19. Hi Sara, thanks for all your efforts inspiring us. I would hate to start again and in fact it would be impossible because I have enjoyed where I have been. I look at what I am doing and think what could this become, what if I did this or that or how would this odd use of paint look (and usually just try it). And of course it is often a very bad idea. But the good ones lead to other places. I am on a fantastic journey and I have slowly moved a very long way in a direction that seems to simply have revealed itself over time. And if they can see you are on a journey I have been amazed how far people will come with you and how they will engage with it. But if you appear to lunge from place to place seemingly lost I fear you would be on your own.

  20. Hi Sara. It is always a pleasure to receive your Letter and your Dad’s. I, too, often play the game of ‘who wrote it ‘ – but I know when he does and she does :-) .

    Today the word ‘fail’ appeared, as in, “permission to fail”. Semantics maybe or possibly ‘ignorance is bliss’ or even denial, but some years ago I removed the word ‘fail’ from my vocabulary as it applies to me, my art, and my life. And sincerely so, not just giving lip service to it. That’s not to say that sometimes things don’t go according to the original plan (failed) but it truly is about a positive understanding and internalization of one’s feeling(s).

    The word ‘ fail’ leaves us with a ‘down’ feeling, something not accomplished or achieved, perhaps something to be ashamed of even. Once these emotions and accompanying (self) judgements are removed and relegated to the ethers in the akashic records of time, it leaves us with a true freshness, a sense of excitement, and an enormous freedom akin to being a beginner – in art or any area of life. A feeling of ‘I can never get it wrong’. And now when I hear or see that ‘F’ word, I have to stop and wonder what it means because it is a word that I no longer understand or relate to. Life/art is simply a spectrum, an evoluton………………. ….. ……… ……… …..

    • Verna,

      My thought is that if you pick up a brush or another painting tool on any given day and apply paint to canvas, you have not failed. To me, if there’s such a thing a failed day, it’s the one I’ve thought about creativity but didn’t give it a shot.

      I, too, thank you, Sara, for continuing your father’s generous sharing. You’ll probably never know how much it has meant to so many.

      • Mary Miller-McNutt on

        Your site inspires me to keep on trying. Thank you for continuing what your Dad started. It means so much to us all.

  21. Perfect timing! Tomorrow I begin a week of volunteer teaching with a children’s art camp in Ajijic, MX. Rather than choose the acrylic, oil or watercolour class, I chose Tapachin Pods. They are long tree pods approximately 40cms long, then turned into works of art with the charm and imagination of these delightful, and abundantly talented Mexican children… guess who’s teaching whom? It’s just what I need to venture into unknown territory, and who better to teach me than children. Yes, I’ll be making yet another breakthrough, diving in to a pool of imagination. And learning to have fun at the same time.

  22. I have found that on some days, I paint in such a way that I do not know how I am painting. I have a few paintings that seemed to have painted themselves. I did them in a single session. It was great fun and amazing since I did not know how they really happened. Maybe I was in the Zen spot and did not realize it. I did do some preliminary drawing in charcoal. These were portraits. I seem to have to have some sort of frame to start with. Not detailed. Did not like the ones where I just started painting. Maybe starting again is doing it without thinking things through. At the end of those sessions, I looked at the painting and asked,
    Who painted that?!

  23. I’ve discovered painting a similar subject too many times leads to one’s loosing that beginner’s excitement. So, for me, mixing up either subjects or approaches to a familiar subject or trying new materials, helps kick start my enthusiasm.. Sometimes, just getting away from the studio jumpstarts my excitement, as well as just taking a break from painting, (but not too long), helps me start with a new vigor.

  24. Bev Searle-Freeman on

    Thank you Sarah. This one resonates with me. I am gallery-free for the time being and have been thoroughly enjoying the “free spiritedness” of creating for the sake of creating … creating for my own inquisitive self … creating for the sheer joy of trying something new … it’s a marvellous journey … such is “beginner’s excitement” :) xox

  25. Pingback: Kim Manley Ort | Topics | Revise

  26. Pingback: Kim Manley Ort | Topics | Beginners Mind | To Revise is to See Again

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