The artist’s ego

Dear Artist, Recently, Alan Soffer of Wallingford, PA wrote, “I’m currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. He speaks of understanding and observing the ego as a way of finding truth in one’s life. As an artist who seems to be able to step back and observe, what’s your take on ego?”

Eckhart Tolle
author of The Power of Now and A New Earth

Thanks, Alan. Eckhart Tolle gives us a noble insight into how the world might be a better place with the widespread diminishment of ego. He’s really talking about the kind of ego exhibited by some politicians, pundits and prima donnas, not the nice kind of ego that a lot of us artists have. In our game, ego is necessary, and as far as the wider community is concerned, it’s mostly harmless. It’s been my observation that artists with big egos who don’t take themselves too seriously do the more professional work. It’s also been my observation that those with big egos who take themselves seriously become narcissists, reduce themselves to yanking the chains of the wealthy, and produce substandard work. This is complicated by the observation that egotistical narcissists may be easier to promote. You may be able to think of a few prominent names in this latter category. It seems an undeniable fact that the accomplished and accomplishing of this world are often exhibitionistic and competitive. These personality traits help to hone their capabilities. Their habitual hard work is driven by what I like to call “ego force.” Ego force propels the worker to improve. Ego force brings the worker back and back again to his work. Ego force is the spark plug of artistic vision. Ego force is also key to one of the artist’s greatest needs: the art of letting go. In humility, we all need to be in charge of our higher vision. This is part of the spiritual truth that Tolle is talking about. In the meantime, we artists work daily in a state of blessed mystery, driven by our equally mysterious egos. It’s a conundrum. Artists may not always be big, but they need never be small. “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” (Lao Tzu) Best regards, Robert PS: “You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold. That is how important you are!” (Eckhart Tolle) Esoterica: In the time of our immaturity, the ego is an antidote for felt inadequacy. With the coming of life’s greater trials, humility steadily tempers the initial flare. To be truthful, some artists contrive to stay immature: “All my compatriots are asses compared to me.” (Paul Cezanne) “When I paint, the ocean roars. Others merely paddle in their bath.” (Salvador Dali) Bravado aside, ego must still prevail: “For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)   Alan Soffer

Militarized / Demilitarized
encaustic collage on board
32 x 32 inches


“Glaucous III”
encaustic painting
24 x 24 inches


“Impulsive V”
encaustic collage on board
24 x 24 inches


“Linear II”
encaustic on board
31 x 40 Inches


“Manse in the forest”
acrylic on canvas
60 x 48 inches


encaustic on board
33 x 48 inches

                Artists who fool themselves by Wyn Easton, Raleigh, NC, USA  

“Heavily Wooded”
oil painting, 14 x 18 inches
by Wyn Easton

I’m driven to work and study to be the best I can be. Some of that drive is directed at being better than those around me. When I complained to a gallery owner that my paintings were not selling, she said, “Make your paintings the best I have and they will sell.” I get that. There is another situation where ego can stand and stop us short. I think you have written about it before. I’m thinking about when an artist sees their work as great, but they are fooling themselves. Their ego won’t let them see any flaws. I also see ego in pricing. Some artists put ridiculous prices on their work. I can think of nothing else but ego that could be driving high prices for mediocre work. In these cases maybe we should seek an honest critique and not the opinion of our ego. There is 1 comment for Artists who fool themselves by Wyn Easton
From: Rose — Oct 11, 2013

My favored season is fall.When I look at your painting,I say,hmmmm,just like when I eat good food…

  Accessing the ‘Creative Process’ by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA  

“The Reflecting Pool Revisited”
watercolour painting
by Jeanne Long

Whatever the ego is in actuality, it appears that getting it out of the way allows a higher force to flow through an individual entity. That higher force is the Creative Process. Egos may put forth work that is admired by the masses, but the Creative Process puts forth a product that touches the universal in the species. This product is much rarer, but much more important to the welfare of the species. The ego has a penchant for entertaining while the Creative Process edifies and enlightens. Seeing through the ego instead of letting it be in charge is the first important step to allowing the Creative Process to flow. There are many pitfalls while traveling this “razor’s edge” path of ego detection, but it is well worth the trip. There is 1 comment for Accessing the ‘Creative Process’ by Jeanne Long
From: Sandy Donn — Oct 11, 2013

A beautiful painting Jeanne.

  Robert Genn’s ego by Jim Gahl, Walnut Creek, CA, USA  

“Harvest II”
acrylic painting on board
by Alan Soffer

I read your email and thoroughly enjoyed your comments. Actually I laughed out loud at your response? I guess you don’t see that’s it’s your own ego that has produced the laundry list that says one needs an ego? Your comments lead me to the conclusion that you don’t really understand Tolle. Mis-information, man! Mr. Soffer seems to be on a path of discovery. If he is gullible enough to look at you as an expert in matters of the ego, he just tripped on the boulder your words conveniently dropped in his way. So how’s your ego, alive and well nourished by your loyal following, going to explain away my words of challenge? Long live Robert Genn’s ego! There are 7 comments for Robert Genn’s ego by Jim Gahl
From: Wes Giesbrecht — Oct 10, 2013

All forms of so-called spiritual leadership are the biggest ego trips of all. From the Dali Lama to Eckart Tolle, from the priest to the shaman. from the minister to the the witch doctor. All of them want the rest of us to believe that they are somehow ‘above it all’ and all of them make my skin crawl.

From: Gavin Logan — Oct 11, 2013

Hey Jim, Get a life! Without pressing his own ego, Robert Genn has helped thousands of artists build quality in their art and get an understanding of how the art world works. A careful study of these letters will show you remarkable inside knowledge, opinion and insight.

From: Jim Oberst — Oct 11, 2013

Robert Genn is a gem. Doesn’t seem egotistical to me. Regarding the general topic, two artists whom I revere seem to have (act like they have) very big egos. It doesn’t seem to hurt their work, but I don’t know that it helps it, either.

From: Rana Toobeero — Oct 11, 2013

I suppose jealousy exists in all professions

From: Hugo — Oct 11, 2013

One who lives in an ego-house should not lob ego challenges.

From: Anonymous — Oct 11, 2013

…snort…I guess that’s one way to get published…people like Jim Gahl bore me…they have nothing of their own to say, but just piggy-back on anything of others they can glibly denigrate without any effort to add value.

From: Anonymous — Oct 15, 2013

Trolls like Mr. Gahl make me cringe. Nothing of value to say. Just lobbing stones at someone they feel jealous of for some reason. Smirking and deriding Robert’s “misunderstanding” of Mr. Tolle’s words, thereby implying that naturally Mr. Gahl (as opposed to Robert) fully understands and integrates this understanding into his life and words. Now we’re really talking EGO. Anyone who pretends to understand the nature of ego and is then SMUG about it, has not even begun to scratch the surface. Stella

  Gender differences in ego by Elizabeth Stuart, Invermere, BC, Canada  

Elizabeth Deering working on a mural for the WPA Federal Art Project, 1939

Regarding ‘The Artist’s Ego,’ do you believe there is a gender difference in who becomes famous in the art world? If so, I believe the answer may be male artists and their ego’s pushing them further. Our local painting group has had this discussion and wonders why we recognize so many more male artists than female ones, even though the vast majority of painting workshops are filled with females. (RG note) Thanks, Elizabeth. There are parallels in other professions: Most women cook but most of the famous cooks are men. The good news is that things are changing. These days there are more famous female cooks and painters than at any time in history. The long-anticipated rise in female egos may have something to do with it. There is 1 comment for Gender differences in ego by Elizabeth Stuart
From: Alan Croce — Oct 13, 2013

It’s the opposite in the world of models. Most women can name the four or five top models in the western world (I can’t, I’m a guy) and the top one this year was paid $44 million. The best a male model can get is about $500g’s.

  Advantages of the ‘big shot’ by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

If the last generation was the ‘me’ generation, this new one is the ‘look at me’ generation. Narcissism is running amok. Life is like one beer commercial with sexy people strutting and preening and admiring themselves. My uncle once owned a male peacock that did his mating display to himself into the shiny hubcaps of a Volkswagen van. There are lots of these sorts of peacocks nowadays in both genders. Artists have complex goals for what they hope to achieve. Many want to become ‘big shots’ that are fawned over and can command huge prices for their paintings. I must say there are advantages to being a big shot, not that I have any personal experience to draw upon. Last year an art group contacted me about doing a workshop for them. Details of the class content and my fees were exchanged and deemed satisfactory by the contact person. After a week or two went by, the woman notified me that she was sorry but someone else was chosen for the job. It made me mad. I told the woman that it was not customary to ‘interview’ workshop instructors in that manner in the workshop business. I believe someone in the group decided I was not ‘big shot enough’ to appear before their group. I paint because the challenge interests me. Painting to become a big shot or to please someone else would not have held my interest for thirty-five years. A solid ego is a good thing. Like the mast of an old sailing ship, it enables us to stay afloat through rough seas and whipping winds or the long boring periods when no breeze blows at all. We all have a vision of the person we want to be. I want to be serious and striving but also free to look at myself and my efforts with amusement and acceptance. There are 2 comments for Advantages of the ‘big shot’ by Paul deMarrais
From: Reggie Sabiston — Oct 11, 2013

Paul, I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said. How very disappointing for you to have been interviewed for teaching a workshop and then declined. Shame on this group. The big shot may win out, but at least you see it for what it is. Ego is necessary for achieving goals, but too much can be blinding and can do more harm than good. Not enough can hold one back. Finding balance is key.

From: Mary Jean Mailloux — Oct 11, 2013

very well put. A certain amount of ego is a necessary thing. it’s what makes us do the right thing. Get up on those mornings when its less than wonderful to face the world. Balanced with humility an ego can be our best attribute. I know I’ve had to use mine more than once.

  Cruise ship art by Christine Turner  

Princess cruises stage regular Art Auctions

I just returned from a cruise through the Panama Canal. I believe the work of some of the egotists you referred to were up for auction on the ship. I always wish the cruise lines would forget about the bottom line and promote the work of unknowns whose work is excellent. Do you have an opinion about the practice of selling art on cruise ships? (RG note) Thanks, Christine. I wrote about it in 2004, Cruise ship art, after a similar experience. I just reread the piece and I’m afraid nothing much has changed.   Ego, the ultimate self-help tool by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Evening on water”
acrylic painting, 24 x 18 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

This is a great letter, especially for “the rest of us” who tend to keep our thoughts in the natural world. I have on many occasions been helped and even saved by the ego. I think of ego as the ultimate self-help tool which gets us through challenges and impossible situations. For me, it always felt insufficient to make decisions solely based on past experiences, or what I learned from my limited environment. To get truly inspired, I need that extra ingredient of taking a leap – even a very small one. I think that ego drives us to take that leap, even when there is nothing that can justify our hope that we shall succeed. The healthy ego expects us to become better people for ourselves and for others. It helps us add value to the pot. Unfortunately, many infamous egomaniacs, that you well described in your letter, have made the ego altogether extremely unpopular. When a greedy ego starts affecting other people, it’s a sure sign that it is taking itself too seriously. There are 2 comments for Ego, the ultimate self-help tool by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Sally Delap-John — Oct 11, 2013

What a fabulous painting, Tatjana. I find you are often the voice of reason, and I find your work captivating.

From: Jan Ross — Oct 14, 2013

I enjoyed your comments, but even more, your wonderful painting! You’ve captured this scene with a minimal amount of detail, but it clearly expresses your thoughts. Beautiful!

  The downfall of authenticity by Vita Sims, Washington, DC, USA  

watercolour painting
by Vita Sims

I am struck by your words and they resonate with me: “We artists work daily in a state of blessed mystery, driven by our equally mysterious egos. It’s a conundrum.” It is a mysterious process. Art making soothes my soul and brings peace, but not always. Because there is a struggle to be authentic to my inner vision I don’t think of the ego as having a say in this. Though I can see it must. The pitfalls where ego might also dominate would be in decisions to make art that is more saleable, palatable to the masses; to focus on an income-driven process. This would be the downfall of authenticity and art that transcends.   There are 2 comments for The downfall of authenticity by Vita Sims
From: Mary Jean Mailloux — Oct 11, 2013

I really like this little piece. Very charming!

From: Sarah — Oct 11, 2013

Ditto that.

  What to do with the plaque by Deanna Schrell, Ketchum, ID, USA  

“Galena Overlook”
original painting, 18 x 22 inches
by Deanna Schrell

I won an award for one of my paintings and received a small plaque. I was wondering if when I sold the painting the plaque would go with it or do I keep it? (RG note) Thanks, Deanna. I would err on the side of sharing. Your customer would likely be proud of that plaque and it would add to the work’s provenance. One seldom loses when one gives. There are 2 comments for What to do with the plaque by Deanna Schrell
From: Edward Abela — Oct 11, 2013

I prefer the route of keeping the plaque but attaching a photocopy on the back of the painting.

From: Anonymous — Oct 11, 2013

It would be a shame to separate the original winning painting from it’s original plaque…


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The artist’s ego

From: Susan Holland — Oct 07, 2013

First of all, Alan Soffer, your encaustics are just beautiful..strong, which is hard for encaustics to be, it seems to me. Second of all, say hello to Wallingford PA…it’s exactly where I grew up..on Brookside Road! Now..about egos. I do like what Robert is saying about “we artists work daily in a state of blessed mystery, driven by our equally mysterious egos. ” We say we are driven, or inspired, but the rider on that driven or inspired horse is our ego, and let it not be blasphemed against! I love that we are granted that place of mystery where we can be the maker of art.. that we can seek mastery without making apologies. Admit it…we really admire that result that we see in the morning, the times we say to ourselves…”how did I DO that? It’s really nice!” A gift. Given to the artist and given out of the artist.

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 07, 2013

Interestingly we need the ego to search for truth in our work while we need to put aside ego to accept the truth within ourselves.

From: mary ann laing — Oct 07, 2013

I ponder this a lot, thank you, Robert. The learning curve of artistic growth is a complicated one, difficult enough to take an honest look at our own work and accept it, nevermind at ourselves and accept who we must be to support the validity of our work. After many years of plugging away at my art, I have come to understand it makes no difference whatsoever to buyers what kind of person I am. If they want my art, they’ll buy it, trying to prove I am of an appropriate image as an artist will not effect the artwork. Self examination is a scary process on all kinds of levels. I admit I don’t enjoy trying to convince anyone I am talented, I hope my art convinces them of that.

From: Dane Layton — Oct 08, 2013
From: Lucas B Johnstone — Oct 08, 2013
From: Patricia Awapara — Oct 08, 2013
From: Jackie Knott — Oct 08, 2013

We tend to have public egos and private ones. The ego we project to others in a social setting is often different than our friends and families are familiar with; not that either is false or the real one, it simply may be more appropriate. It’s funny how some large egos in the art world play to their audience, as if the public expects it. I wonder at some quotes whether the artist really meant it or was simply trying to get a reaction – but it is repeated and recorded, isn’t it? Those of us with quieter personalities have to lift our ego in public or fade into the woodwork … the meek may inherit the earth but a reserved personality rarely sells a painting. In the privacy of our studios the ego must rise and manifest itself. Possibly that is where the true ego is.

From: Julia — Oct 08, 2013

My ego makes me who i am. I am glad it is rather socially acceptable ego, but without it i would dissolve into the universe. I think it is time for that after i will be dead, in the meantime i want my ego to maniftest itself in my art. To show it’s individual view of the world, to rise it’s voice and express me.

From: Mona Stratos — Oct 08, 2013

I think we are just the power to perceive. Everything exists within that consciousness but is not the power. THAT does not judge, qualify, separate, think, feel, or have any attributes in and off ITSELF. It just IS. Everything else is a conditioned response from childhood or prior lives. In other words, it is all ego. Deflated or inflated, it is not really us. It is just a temporal attachment to an identity. We, in reality, are more unknown than known. To me, mystery is far more appealing to some limited idea of perfection.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Oct 08, 2013

I love my ego, it helps me to put negative remarks into perspective and soothes me when I don’t sell well, except however it occasionally lies to me and prevents me from seeing where I am falling short. This is when I need to push it aside and see with the eyes of a critic not an adoring fan.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Oct 08, 2013
From: Merina Rael — Oct 08, 2013
From: Nancy Codd — Oct 08, 2013

Thanks for the Ego boost, I really needed that.

From: Louise Waters — Oct 08, 2013

At NSCAD I developed an Ego switch to turn off and on when required. Leaving the ego at the front door can be useful when honing observational skills and trying to absorb the scene, feeling or lesson to be learned. Turning on the Ego switch for me happens while returning home or to work where life outside of NSCAD can be very critical, overbearing and competitive. In other words, a healthy developed ego can help with the unending criticism and rebuffs while working on challenging projects.

From: Sarah Kerr — Oct 08, 2013

Oh my! I have NO ego and am not competitive ! Maybe this is cause for my lack of confidence in painting and golf. Confident in most aspects of my life. How does one develop an ego?

From: Ian Semple — Oct 08, 2013
From: Eleanor Blair — Oct 08, 2013

The artist’s ego lives in that moment between having an idea, and getting to work. All of my knowledge, my talent, my will power, and the best of circumstances amount to nothing if I don’t find the courage to make the leap across that chasm between thinking and doing.

From: Robert B. — Oct 09, 2013

Dear Robert, Been reading your articles and can you tell us artists, how someone like you with how should I say it? With, not much talent is able to sell his pieces of art so high? Your skill is not very evident and I can say much more but as someone who is not a skilled artist can you write some articles on how you pushed your work? I mean, you had to start out selling your art for next to nothing, since the quality is not there. Just read your article on Ego and you will do your bla bla and try to explain how you are so gifted but let;s face it, your work does not show it. If anything it is mediocre. Can you tell us how you got in the art galleries and how you eventually had your prices raised to where they are now? Now, that would be interesting reading. Help us Robert, since we paint for a dual thing. We need to create and we need to pay our bills. Write something use full for a change. Thanks

From: Kathy — Oct 09, 2013

Mr. Genn has been writing about his experiences for years. Robert B. must be illiterate (among other issues).

From: Ray Goodwin — Oct 09, 2013

One can only guess at how bad “Robert B”‘s work must be.

From: Falcon — Oct 09, 2013

To Robert B. You share the same name, but that’s where all commonality ends. If you can look at a Robert Genn painting and not feel anything or see anything, then you’re looking up the wrong tree. Try taking up some other pastime, like reading the Classics or collecting stamps. Creativity may not be your thing.

From: Ping — Oct 10, 2013

Robert B is not a Robert Genn 2 B

From: Steve Lawrence — Oct 10, 2013

Ego is a meaningless term, creativity and the artistic drive comes from within, not on a neon sign. I offer what Patricia wrote “…an idea might be connected to landscape and nature as a metaphor for inner states and feelings and looking at lot’s of artists over the centuries who have done that in different ways.” And further, “… I think that the full range of the human experience is the business of art and in return art intensifies our experience of being alive in all its vitality. {Patricia Dobrin)

From: Thierry Keruzoré — Oct 10, 2013

Indeed, when painting, we go to a better place.

From: Karin Richter — Oct 10, 2013

It seems to me that most art that is being recognized in this modern age is “angst”-driven, created out of a need to unburden oneself of one’s dark childhood or working through personal trauma. We all have baggage but I choose to create art that is (hopefully) uplifting, appreciating and seeing the beauty around me. Where do artists like myself fit in? I often feel less of an artist, guilty almost that I don’t produce work that has a social commentary….

From: Jim Bains — Oct 10, 2013

No ego, no art

From: Peter Wm. Brown — Oct 10, 2013

Ego is one of those words that, like all other words, was just made up. A good example of this is the word, “instinct.” Define “instinct.” (It is actually, something an animal does that we cannot understand or explain.) So, we call it an “instinct” and that makes us sound intelligent, but in truth it doesn’t really mean very much. We have all been told we have an ego, a super ego and a subconscious. These are merely old made up words of dubious value. Freud was a coke fiend and saw himself, predictabley, as God’s gift to wealthy women, whose main problem was likely an over-tight corset. Make art! Be happy. Take care of children and people in need.

From: Leeann — Oct 11, 2013

Loved your 365 day list but I could have digested it better one day at a time. :-)

From: BiLL HiRR — Oct 11, 2013

DefiniteLy fooD foR ThoughT = WonderfuL….

From: Barbara Dodsworth — Oct 11, 2013

There is a big difference between having an ego and being egotistical, like having a self and being selfish. To make art is a very individual experience, a way of calling out to others in a kind of wilderness, and you need a strong sense of self for that. Great art happens when that voice is heard by others and the messages are powerful ones. Robert’s paintings are wonderful but his philosophical messages are rich and provocative as well.

From: Harold Letz — Oct 11, 2013

Great list of words!! I have a couple to add: Overblended, and Skritchy-Scratchy. I am terribly guilty of both — but trying to improve.

From: Deborah Reeves — Oct 11, 2013

I love the quote you used, but I believe it is more like “how do I know what I think ’til I SEE what I say”!

From: Didi martin — Oct 11, 2013

I was reading your list of keys. Could you please elaborate on “painterly senility”. My biggest fear is growing too old to improve my painting.

From: Shawn a — Oct 11, 2013
From: linda lashbrook — Oct 11, 2013

We should all speak less and think before we speak. So then, we will know what we are going to say about . Less stream of conscious babble…. Sometimes is seems like having an opinion is more important to us than really believing in what we say.

From: Brett Curtsey — Oct 11, 2013

Of all the artist’s I know, I have the best control over my ego. Better’n all of ’em, bar none!

From: Dick Hillier — Oct 11, 2013

I am wonderfully in control of my ego–of course I am a wonderful person.

From: Tina Bos — Oct 11, 2013

If ego is defined as your consciousness of your own identity and appropriate pride in one self, then I think any artist that creates gives something of themselves for others to see, feel, hear. As individuals, we all view the world differently and we let others see it through our expressions, be it art, music , writing. Most artists are never recognized until they die and then suddenly someone takes note that there will never be another creation from that person and so their works, good or bad, seem to get valued. Look through the history of people like Emily Carr. When I paint I forget my troubles and just am immersed in the project at hand. The good or bad of it may not be realized until I am gone but I feel I might have left something of myself behind in what I create. I am in awe of the art that is in this world to enjoy, from the cave paintings to the masterpieces I enjoy viewing it all. When I viewed the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the art in the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi in Florence, the many churches and castles throughout Europe, you really get a sense of just how much art exists in the world. My art may never be recognized but that is okay with my ego because most of those artists before me never knew in their lifetime how great their works would become.

From: Sarah Atkins — Oct 12, 2013

…….and you have a wonderful sense of humor, too, Dick Hiller.

From: valerie norberry vanorden — Oct 12, 2013

In your list of Keys, I did not see the word planes. I was introduced to that concept at U of M in Ann Arbor, in an Art course, and I have to admit I still do not understand planes, as in art.

From: marjolaine robert — Oct 13, 2013

I think that what motivates people to achieve something and to put a lot of energy in it is not necessarily ego but this unconditional confidence that make you trust in the creativity.

  Featured Workshop: Julian Merrow-Smith 101113_robert-genn Julian Merrow-Smith Workshops Held in Provence, France   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa  

Harbor Rhythms

oil painting, 11 x 14 inches by David Lussier, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Robert Toth of Salisbury, NC, USA, who wrote, “Man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”