Art under pressure


Dear Artist,

“Never underestimate the power of a little pressure,” my Dad would say. Professionally, it’s the antithesis of the trope of infinite hours to luxuriate in slow creative germination. Rather than asking if your output is better with or without pressure, consider it instead an integral part of the creative process. You can even manufacture it for yourself.

The Gelaners, 1857 Oil on canvas 32.8 x 43.3 inches by Jean-François Millet (1814–1875)

The Gleaners, 1857
Oil on canvas
32.8 x 43.3 inches
by Jean-François Millet (1814–1875)

In January, 1969, Paul McCartney presented an ambitious idea to the other Beatles; to write 14 new songs in two weeks and perform them live on TV. They brainstormed venues, George briefly quit, they invited in some brilliant guest players, assembled in the basement of Apple Records and ground out some of the most inspired and innovative work of their 213-song collaboration. If you need reminding, the Beatles were together for only 8 years.

The pressure, which included the time constraint, the heartbreak of collapsing friendships, imposing drug use, the imminent break up of the band and its accompanying difficult-at-times, summoning of desire was just, for them, par for the musical-genius-in-process course. Already accustomed to a metabolism of prolificacy and improvisation, two weeks was all they needed. It was, perhaps even, like the grasping of a dusk, all that was possible.

A Woman Baking Bread, 1854 Oil on canvas 21.6 x 18.1 inches by Jean-François Millet

A Woman Baking Bread, 1854
Oil on canvas
21.6 x 18.1 inches
by Jean-François Millet

In music rehearsal, players often intuitively come to a point in practice where they stop, in anticipation of avoiding the condition of being “over-rehearsed.” Magic must be saved for the stage. In painting, I’ve become aware of a technical and energetic hill that’s climbed and then summited. In show prep, for example, the back can be broken of the lion’s share of the show, then a short period at the end allotted for deeper experimentation, the freshest work, and applying new knowledge, skills and confidence gained during all the previous paintings. “I’m really quite simple,” wrote George Harrison. “I plant flowers and watch them grow. I stay at home and watch the river flow.”



Hunting BIrds at Night, 1874 Oil on canvas 29.1 x 36.6 inches by Jean-François Millet

Hunting Birds at Night, 1874
Oil on canvas
29.1 x 36.6 inches
by Jean-François Millet

PS: “You’ve got to carry on until you get there.” (George Harrison)

“All we’ve got is us.” (John Lennon)

Esoterica: In my minds’ eye, my Dad is glued to his depression-era secretary’s chair, nose to easel, his water bucket muddy with paint. I’m there now, too — and on a first-name basis with my own racing metabolism and built-up tolerance for an intensity of pressures; pressure to develop, pressure to grow, to perform magic, to refine, to create and deliver what I want to be exceptional. On January 30, 1969, the Beatles performed for 42 minutes on the rooftop of Apple Records, before the police broke up the show. The performance was so inspired, several cuts from its recording would end up on their final album, Let it Be, released a month after they broke up the following year. “The best bit of us — always has been and always will be –,” said Paul McCartney, “is when we’re backs-against-the-wall and we’ve been rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing.” It was, simply, from where they summoned their genius. “Genius,” wrote Henry Willard Austin, “that power which dazzles mortal eyes, is oft but perseverance in disguise.”

Director Peter Jackson’s three-part, nearly-eight-hour tribute to creativity, “The Beatles: Get Back,” is available to stream on Disney +.

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  1. Thank you for such wonderful post, as always! So lovely to see you talking about this documentary about The Beatles. My personal favorite band. :) I watched every episode as they rolled them out each day, anticipating each of the next installments. I find myself STILL reflecting on them every day. Such a roller coaster of emotions. Thank you for the terrific quotes as well! Always enjoy something to put into my pocket. Have a great weekend all!

  2. Dear dear brilliant Sara,

    You CAN write! Brilliantly, overflowing with insights, ….what a great piece this is. Please collect your writings and publish them. I bought your father’s book and could NOT believe how insightful, knowledgeable, personable, keenly intelligent, and outright brilliant his letters were. You are just as good Sara. Thank you for your brilliant thinking and equally brilliant writing.
    I truly love you and your Dad. You both have made my life much richer.
    Nancy Oppenheimer

  3. Great post as always Sara and your dad was a wise painter. I like my pressure to come in waves with low tides to walk the beaches in life in between. Studio and gallery life isn’t always so accommodating and there are often more waves than beaches. But I manage. Self-imposed pressure is a useful key I think for unlocking creative doors. I currently have five medium to large commissions to complete by early next year. The art collectors have purchased them by size and a general idea of the subject and then they leave me alone to order the custom canvases and get to work. They are not fussed about the timeline but I am. The work is mostly paid for already. I want it done and out the door so I can get going on the 30 – 40 pantings for 2022. In particularly, I am want to continue working on my new Red Line Series that is combining the beauty of our landscape with a strong reminder about climate change. It is an ambitious concept requiring some new approaches. I will keep building ideas while do the commissions and sometimes, like this week, a larger painting will demand that I do it now! This combination of working will strengthen the commission paintings and the work for the new series because both will hold the shared tension and excitement during the many hours of standing in front of the easel. All this is happening while I change the gallery venue during the next six to eight months and develop a new business model for a potential new location and refine what I was doing for the one concept that is for sure going ahead. It is an exciting time for sure and I am often buzzing with ideas, writing notes, tossing notions out in favour of others and all the while painting! I believe a big part of creating art under pressure is made possible through our willingness to take risk and work with what is not perfect and embrace what is unfamiliar. It is in these places that we seem to create something that we at first could not have imagined. All the best as always! Terrill :)

  4. Hello Sara, your letter has my heart racing. Such a wonderful story. Thank you.

    Very hesitantly, I showed the first 10 of my 100 paintings your Dad tasked me with to a group of women I’ve now known for 25 years. Then, one of them said, “You’re going to have your first show in my airplane hangar. “ Eyes wide in a kind of shock, all I could think of was, I’d better do 30 more big ones. “In Plane Sight” debuted two years later.

    Interestingly, some of my most favourite paintings were the little, spontaneous, no-holds-barred abstracts I painted in the hurried space of time before having to fly out the door to pick up my young girls from school. They only happened because I was loathe to waste the bits of paint left in the jars and on my palette.

    Warm regards. Cindy

  5. “it’s the antithesis of the trope of infinite hours to luxuriate in slow creative germination”
    What does this even mean?

    • That where one artist will put forth the thesis that the best work is done with an unlimited amount of time in which to do it, another (like Paul McCartney) will state the opposite (the antithesis): that the best work is spurred on by a deadline.

  6. I can’t imagine a world without the Beatles and their music, but there’s an excellent movie called “Yesterday” (Netflix has it), where such a world does exist. Set in present day, the earth experiences a shock wave that creates a parallel universe where the Beatles never came together to create music. Only one person is spared this “amnesia” and it’s what he does with his memory of the Beatles’ music, and a special surprise ending that will leave you saying: “Oh, wow…” (Better have some tissues handy).

  7. Well written, Sara,
    You’ve taken some of the more salient points of “Get Back” and applied them so wonderfully to our shared artistry!
    I thoroughly enjoy your posts and look forward to them.

  8. Ah, The Beatles, you touched the depths of my child and adult heart once again, Sara. Understanding we artists all have a kinship to The Beatles is not only a blessing, but also reassurance that no matter what pressures we feel, it’s worth it. Thank you, Sara!!

  9. Thanks for a nice letter Sara.

    “I feel the older I get, the more I’m learning to handle life. Being on this quest for a long time, it’s all about finding yourself”. Ringo Starr

  10. Your narrative about the pressure the Beatles were under misses a few key elements which greatly contributed to their performance of a batch of strong, fresh material. McCartney knew full well what the band was capable of. When asked for a song to accompany the title of their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, they had provided the producers with the completed song of the same name the very next day! So, writing and rehearsing 14 songs in as many days was not really an impossibility. They began working in a cavernous film studio with lousy acoustics and an ‘industrial’ vibe which they all hated. They relocated themselves, along with all their gear, to the familiar surroundings of the basement of their very own large house. Apple Records in the heart of London. Along the way, they abandoned the plan to perform on television to a potentially massive audience from a well-equipped studio. Instead, they simply opted for playing a live set on the roof of their own house. It would be the first time they had played live anywhere since 1966. Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It was very much the prospect of playing live again that drove them to overcome any of the self-imposed pressure they were under. They began as a live band. They ended as a live band.

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  23rd Psalm, 2019
30 x 24 inches

Featured Artist

I grew up on a farm in Ohio, and that experience gave me a love of nature and the seasons and a deep belief in personal independence, as well as a love of experimentation. These have been the foundations of my work as a painter. I believe that learning in art or any subject is lifelong, and that the most important lessons we learn are through our personal interests and experimentation. After my husband’s death in 2018, I visited Israel the next year, and was inspired by the amazing landscape colors, and especially the old city of Jerusalem, with its crumbling walls, and its deep religious importance. I found my way out of grief by painting the Eight Gates of the old city.


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