Alone and together


Dear Artist,

While taking a turn in the garden yesterday, I discovered the tiny, pricked egg of a song sparrow in the grass. Too small to have been made by the chick, the pinhole must have come from another, predator bird in search of a smoothie. “Hopefully his siblings had success,” said a friend, when I sent her the image. With all of us in our individual rooms, the now all-day polyphony of happy birds in the garden tells me she’s right.

Sound of Silence, 1978 Lithograph 25 1/8 x 35 5/16 inches by Charles White (1918 - 1979)

Sound of Silence, 1978
25 1/8 x 35 5/16 inches
by Charles White (1918 – 1979)

Just a few minutes on the Internet took my IRL (In Real Life) find and deep dove it into an education of the eggs and nests of Southern California. Our marvelous learning tool is not just an encyclopedia of information, but also now the principle medium of connection for learning. I checked in with an artist friend in New York who also happens to teach first grade. “Is the future of learning online?” I asked. “Young children need eye contact and social communication,” she lamented, “but we’re figuring out how to engage and excite them in new ways, and will meet them where they are when this is over.”

I thought about painting — a solo act that often happens within the confines of a sanctuary or alone in a field, your plein-air partner on the other side of the lake or an instructor momentarily vanished — all for the benefit of your privacy-requiring imagination to properly explore. And yet, we need to learn in all kinds of ways — including by watching our mentors. Stumbling around in the dark, alone forever will take us only so far. Communities like masters programs, painting clubs and workshops produce artists that speak to the value of their tribe and the experiences gained in the presence of a collective. And so, what to do while we wait to be together?



Charles White teaching life drawing at the South Side Community Center in Chicago, circa 1940. Holger Cahill papers photo, 1910-1993 (Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art)

Charles White teaching life drawing at the South Side Community Center in Chicago, circa 1940.
Holger Cahill papers photo, 1910-1993 (Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

PS: “What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: Curious and teachable.” (Roger Ebert)

Esoterica: Here are a few ideas: Revisit your old friends in your art book library and re-ignite the origins of your inspiration. Trade images of works in progress with a trusted fellow traveler. Focus on skill building and learning over sales and marketing. Give something away: The friend of a friend was feeling blue. My friend, who lives far away, asked if I might have something he could buy to give her, to bring comfort while she isolated alone in her new home. I told him to choose something, and made it a gift. Perhaps, like here, a tidal wave of kindness in the form of small, homemade things is appearing on your doorstep: lemon cake, oranges from a neighbour’s tree, a book, soup. The answer to how an artist can reciprocate these acts of love has forever been in the studio. We can all, always let someone, somewhere, know they are not alone.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Aristotle)

I wish each and every one of you well during this global health crisis and encourage you to flatten the curve by staying at home with your creative materials. I hope our Painter’s Keys community can be a source of friendship and creative inspiration during this time and always.
In friendship, Sara 

Charles White in Los Angeles

Charles White in Los Angeles

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“An artist must bear a special responsibility. He must be accountable for the content of his work. And that work should reflect a deep, abiding concern for humanity.” (Charles White)



  1. Mary Brewster on

    I have been doing a museum visiting class where we have been transcribing works of various artists and then using that as a jump off point for our own work. Last week the featured artist was Bruegel the elder. Diving deep into his work was like taking a refreshing journey through space and time. This activity has been a godsend during social isolation and limited travel. Breugel is highly recommended!

    • Rebecca Briley on

      I am interested in what you are saying. Could you elaborate? I’m a painter , a longtime reader of Sara and Robert Genn. Feeling in limbo. Just walking to my little studio seems to take too much effort

  2. Sara, I love that you gave your friend so he could give to his friend! My mind is also turning to giving. While I make giving a practice in normal times, I’m feeling ever more inclined in these times. I paint regularly with 9 friends every Thursday, we now meet on Thursdays on zoom. We are coping and hoping the end is in sight. I’m becoming impatient at my age.

  3. What beautiful note Sarah. I love the ideas you suggest. It is definitely a time of reassessing and finding meaningful ways to connect. I did open up my online Independent Study Skill Building oil painting class for free at the beginning of this pandemic as my way of supporting artists in being curious and learning. There are 200 seats and 110 are now full just from my small network. I have the free class open to new free registrations until the end of May. But if this goes on, I just might extend it. The class has a public Facebook group for those that want to share work or ask questions or just to be in a community about oil painting. It is different than my in person group classes for sure (which were 6 or 8 or 12 students at a time) but the Independent Study Skill Building online class feeds our need to work alone independently and still have community just the same. Since I have a small gallery and have been introducing three emerging artist to the represented work this year, I have been stretching my skills and imagination to be able to share work in new ways beyond visiting a physical space with this pandemic. So, long with my own painting practice, extra home responsibilities for all of our meal preparation and cleaning and yard work, I am coming to terms with this new way of living and growing and thriving in place. It hasn’t been easy. Some days I am just flat out exhausted. Yet, I am thrilled to be alive, healthy and to have a brushes, paints, canvases and an easel to stand in front of while looking out over the valley amongst the fir trees. I miss my family. I miss my grown children and grandchildren especially. I wonder if I will ever see my parents again in this life time. I miss the casual ease of hugs in the village and friends and acquaintances stopping by at our table in the local bakery to visit. However, I am alive and healthy to do the missing.

    • Is it possible to find out about your free online class? Where do I go? BTW I live in New Zealand. Great idea learning to work without physical and geographic resrictions

      • Hello Tim from New Zealand. And yes, it is an advantage to have these classes available from anywhere with an internet connection. I believe since you managed to register that you found the class. For others though it is on my website and you need only click on my name and then the tab/page for the Beauty Of Oils Art Classes With Terrill Welch. Thanks for asking and welcome aboard Tim. :)

  4. A good book about the lives of various artists is also a way to find inspiration, and to learn intimate details that reveal the sources of their inspiration. It doesn’t matter if I like or dislike their work, I always find a well written biography enlightening, expanding and sustaining.

  5. Just sent a few pieces out via USPS to friend and offspring to cheer them! Many artists do not have the time to create. Now is that time and here on the west coast in the Redwoods is the perfect place.
    Thank you for continuing on with this bright spot of creativity.

  6. Today’s letter touches a chord here. I have been wanting to step back from my work as a digital collage artist and get back to painting and drawing. I was supposed to be on a barge in Amsterdam now doing just that but of course all my travels for the year are canceled. After a month in despair I have finally pivoted to pencil and paper, reframing quarantine as self-guided retreat, and am taking up classical drawing in a way that could never be possible without these oceans of silence and lack of distraction. (IF you turn off the news, which can obliterate an entire day).
    Old and languishing friendships from 20-30 years ago have emerged with lovely opportunities for collaboration, healing, creativity. In the midst of the wreckage there is a lot of wonder.

    I made a promise to myself to draw every day and I’m using #the100DayProject as my anchor in that. The power of witness we can find in social media can be a pact that keeps the spirit strong. The name of my project is #100DaysOfTheSpaceBetween. Looking through that lens and how to work with it gets me up every morning. May we all find a way to build our resilience in our creative paths during this time.

  7. My two man opening for March 29, 2020 was cancelled. The church held my work, based upon the Prayer of St. Francis, safely behind closed doors. I presented the show online to groups of friends and collectors, gave some explanations of why I did the work and how. I even threw in some related imagery which was not in the original show. From now on, I’m putting all of my shows online. It’s a different and newer thing.

  8. I agree, now is the time to give back. This week, an online friend, who just took up dyeing yarn, started a new page and posting pics. I fell in love with a batch called Monet’s Garden. I often can’t afford to buy local artisan work as much as I like, and it’s even more dicey when not knowing if any of my planned summer events will pan out, but I made an exception because it felt like the right thing to do and bought to skeins. We had many lovely message exchanges, and I pre-paid, even though we didn’t know when or how I’d receive them. Turns out I was her first sale. So glad I listened to my inner voice, to be an encouraging and supportive voice, in a time like this.

  9. So many good suggestions. Here’s a couple more:

    Every day at 3 PM (EST), Eric Rhoads, the publisher of Plein Air magazine, airs online on FaceBook a FREE 1-2 hr. video from one of his over 400 artist videos which he sells. Yesterday, I watched Albert Handell, a master oil painter & pastellist, sketch and paint a tree in oil, then listened to an interview about his career. This was about 1 hr. 45 minutes of pure joy for me. To subscribe:

    Another FaceBook group is AbandonedArt group. They create art with the intention of giving their art away by either hiding art where someone will accidentally find it and contact the artist via FaceBook, or they just remain anonymous with no feedback. Amazing art has been freely gifted to the public, from hand-made jewelry to large pottery pieces, left outside in parks, etc. I’m sure this is more appreciated now than ever before!

  10. “And so, what to do while we wait to be together?”

    Are we not all examples of the Phoenix, a mythological bird who obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor? Whether it be art or relationships. In the latter case, a marriage of 52 years can become stale and methodical. Today my husband and I are finishing a 14 day Quarantine in our home in Alberta, having returned from a truncated visit to the US. And this isolation has been a gift like none other. With ‘no sports’ and more ‘no sports’, we actually spend the evenings together in the same room, glass of wine in hand, wood fireplace burning, conversation lively at times. We agree to watch something on the tellie that is of interest to both of us (although I do like play-off NHL hockey and the Raptors). Last night, I watched a show called Made You Look. It was about art fraud and quite interesting – hubby intermittently engaged but at least we were in the same room.

    Alas alack, I suppose that when this ‘special time’ is all over, we will revert to our individual TVs and pick up where we left off, sports dominating his interests and almost anything else dominating mine. Pity. Carpe diem.

    May you be well.


  11. Thank you, Sara–we are truly alone and together, as you say, for the time being. But as Verna mentioned , we can try new things to try to be together. I decided to share a painting and a quotation daily on my Facebook, hopefully to inspire folks in these times, partly inspired by what you do, and the kind of hope you can impart with yours and your dad’s letters. I committed to a post a day during the California Lock-down, under the title “#BEAUTYUNITESUS.” It can be found here, for those who love painting, beauty, and inspiration: Thank you for all the inspiration you bring, Sara, to the art world and beyond.

  12. Indeed, the internet is a source of comfort for those who are alone and do not like it. We are spending much more time playing cards with our son who lives 3000 kms away and our daughter who lives fifteen minutes away. I have taken advantage of the new parameters around submissions knowing I need not ship anything. I love showing off my larger work. And information. The net is a wealth of information. As well, I share encouragement within the groups of artist collectives to which I belong. Means more internet meetings, of course. Nonetheless, I maintain my studio hours within the new electronic routine . Thank you for your wonderful newsletter. Always interesting and encouraging.

  13. Sharon Stein on

    Thank you Sarah for your story of the gift ..such an opportunity has just come to me as of yesterday…she was interested in buying a painting for her son. She has some good-sized issues in her life at the moment and cannot afford to buy the painting. Your story hit me like a ton of bricks….thank you for the “Message” I better get out the paints! After all the gifts I have received over the years from your newsletter, this is a great time and opportunity to pay it forward.

  14. I would like to share with you what our two little grade school age neighbor girls did for lifting spirits during this challenging time. My husband and I go for a walk in our neighborhood every day. Two days ago we walked by the girls’ house to see a pile of fiftyish small rocks all painted in beautiful colors. Each rock had an uplifting word or two. The rocks sat in front of a sign which read: Please take one of these rocks and put it in a neighbors’ yard when you walk by their house. We noticed that we had two rocks in our garden. Aha! Now we knew from whence they came. This little act of painting, messaging and thinking about our neighbors made us really appreciate these two creative little souls!

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Featured Workshop

5-Day Art Retreat in Kawartha Highlands July 31 to August 5, 2020
July 31, 2020 to August 5, 2020

Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, Wolf Lake, Site 301This retreat is an homage to early pioneers of plein air painting. We canoe-in and camp, paddling every day to our painting locations. This is a self-catered trip. We provide the canoes, life jackets and instruction. You bring your own provisions, tents, etc. The scenery in Kawartha Highlands is fantastic. Bald rock faces, sparkling lakes, majestic trees. Every direction you turn is another painting. Your instructor, Keith Thirgood, has been camping and canoeing all his life, and teaching artists his own unique approach to painting for over 12 years. Learn how to find order in the chaos, control your colours and create paintings that work. Learn modern colour theory, values, shapes and lines, what makes for a good painting.
If you need advice on the camping portion of the retreat, we have you supported. Even brand new canoeists have no trouble with this gentle adventure. This retreat is suitable for beginners wanting to learn to paint in a fun, outdoor location, as well as more experienced studio artists who want to try plein air, plus artists who are looking to loosen up and paint in a more post-impressionist style. To find out more and register, please visit Over the Farm #2
original pastel 15 x 15 inches

Featured Artist

Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.