Dear Artist,

A design school graduate who recently visited asked, “Would you like an assistant? I want to get back to painting after working in product design during the week. Can I come over Saturdays?”


“The spots”
by Damien Hirst, painted by assistants
“Anything to not make a decision. Getting other people to make decisions is a good way to not make decisions.” (Damien Hirst)

The value of a studio assistant is measured in a special kind of commitment to art. While all of mine have been artists, none have worked on my paintings. Instead, what’s created is a shared vision executed by way of vital, less brushy responsibilities. Still, there’s a tiny curiosity about what I might learn by taking on my recent visitor.

For easel time, I’m with the Impressionists in favouring the purity of producing work alone. Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt had help, though, and the current production realm of contemporary art — designed to meet high demands and maximize profits — has once again elevated some studio elves to the height of factory efficiency, with out-sourcing trumping the private toil of a single-hearted imagining. With the allure of mentoring, experience-building and connectivity, assisting promises to reap its own professional tangents, too.

So if painting’s what you really want to do, you can work for an artist who doesn’t do his own. Lauren Child, now a children’s writer and illustrator, once churned out Damien Hirsts alone in a room in South London. Jeff Koons admits to never picking up a brush, leaving the projecting, tracing, cutting, pasting, drawing and filling-in to a revolving team of skilled MFAs. If you live in India, you can work for New York-based Alexander Gorlizki. Did I mention, he’s in New York while his paintings are being produced in Jaipur?


“The Wish”
fine art photograph
by Sam Kaczur

Factories aside, an assistant’s job requires less brushwork and more work-work. Stretching, priming, packing and shipping, editing, arranging, computing, delivering, bookkeeping, photographing, archiving, sorting, emailing, scheduling, filing, banking, posting, phoning, filling the bird feeder, vacuuming the staples, cuddling the dog — the assistant provides an enormous benefit by pulling on a second set of oars. If done for too long, assisting may interfere with or even snuff out your own personal, creative action. In measured doses it can propel, align, inform, inspire and unfurl a blossoming artist into his next incarnation.


“A Brush With Time”
mixed media
by Judi Birnberg



PS: “Pretty much all I did was paint spots. I have no idea how many spot paintings I did, we kept no record, but we were pretty quick. There’s not that much to think about apart from how quickly you can do it, and the colours, which were meant to be random so we could choose them.” (Lauren Child, former assistant to Damien Hirst)

Esoterica: Writer Graham T. Beck estimates that 30,000 people graduated with MFAs in 2005, and he says this creates a new kind of workforce. “Artists’ assistants are the junior members of the creative class, the chorus at openings, and the raw material of future stars. Their role is part of a long tradition, but it also reflects a professionalizing of the art world that’s anathema to what many look back on as the good old days. It’s a sensible step towards becoming a self-supporting artist, but it pivots on a nepotism that makes “sensible next steps” seem absurd. The job revolves around an artist’s singular personality all the while proving that singularity is a myth. It is a paradoxical position that bespeaks much about the current art world, its rules, and the pitched field of competition these days.” (Graham T. Beck)


“Whiskey in the Grass”
acrylic on panel”
8 x 10 inches
by Shawn A. Jackson

In this, the week of my birthday, I want to say thank you to the artist-assistants I inherited from my father one year ago, who continue to work with love and a commitment to their art, and ours: Painter’s Keys Editor-in-Chief Shawn Jackson, Social Media Co-ordinator and all-things-graphic-and-technical Sam Kaczur, Editor Judith Birnberg, Studio and Archive Assistant Sarah Garland and Bookkeeper Marilyn McFadyen Hurd, thank you. To the greatest studio assistants of all: Emily and Dorothy, the Airedales, and Sarah’s Yorkie, Sophie — the wags are priceless.

“No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were.As well as if a manor of thy friend’s Or of thine own were: Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)


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Featured Workshop: Carla O’Connor
Carla O'Connor Workshops The next workshop is being held in Coupeville, Whidbey Island, Washington, USA from August 24th to August 28th 2015.
Carla O’Connor Workshops
The next workshop is being held in Coupeville, Whidbey Island, Washington, USA from August 24th to August 28th 2015.
The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.






Untitled by Lisa Chakrabarti, Greater Los Angeles area, USA


Chinese ink and watercolour on Ma paper, dry mounted
Lisa Chakrabarti, Greater Los Angeles area, USA




  1. I, too, would like to add my thanks to the “assistants” who support The Painter’s Keys. This is a wonderful, inspiring, unifying treasure to artists around the world, and has brought me a world of knowledge, expertise, and one person, on another continent, who has become a friend (though we have never met.) Thank you.

  2. What an opportune time to be reading this letter. I’ve had two weeks of agony over a blown knee and it’s led me to thinking of what would happen to my art career if I couldn’t manage the physical aspect of it. The lifting, hauling, stretching, standing for hours, etc. As my body gets creakier and saggier, it is a reality I have to face. Right now in the studio, there’s a pile of empty stretchers, unmatted watercolours, frames that need repairs. An assistant sounds like a great idea if I can find a way to pay for him/her.

  3. Yes with all the above mentioned list to do an assistant is necessary if you are to continue to create, (which I prefer to do myself). But the how to pay for one is a quandary, living out in the country and with little excess income from painting it seems an intern would be best. But I would feel bad not paying one. Suggestions anyone?

  4. Happy birthday, Sara. My best studio assistants–OK, my only studio assistants– have been my papillons Tiziano (Tizzy) Vecellio, R.I.P., and now Buddy. True, they can’t stretch canvas, but they put in long hours, never complaining, always loving me and my work. I can stretch my own damn canvas.

  5. Thank you Sara and thank you to the Painter’s Keys assistants for their efforts. You didn’t mention the day that your birthday comes on so may that day be very special to you and to your twin brother! I love all that you do!

  6. Happy Birthday, Sara, and thank you for this column. May I say the Internet and interactions with artists appearing on FB and other sources have been a source of virtual assistance to me in recent years.

  7. I am so grateful for the assistance I have had. I have always allowed studio assistants to work on their own art for a part of the time they were with me. It seemed important for them to have a direction in their lives, they were most happy with that option.

  8. I love that you thanks your studio assistants personnally. Of course we have long known that this letter could not come out without them. I hope they see how much their work is appreciated. Happy Birthday Sara. Have a good one.

  9. What an interesting letter Sara: it never occurred to me (I live in a bubble I guess) that assistants were such an integral part of the production of many artists. I can see myself loving the assisting of my 4 legged friend, other than that, I tend to work alone and enjoy that experience. Sending my very best wishes for your birthday and the year to follow …

  10. I commented on FB yesterday that if I could afford an assistant I’d be completing a lot more of the more than 40 pieces I’ve built that are not yet finished. But there are things I could get help with that have nothing to do with the CREATION of my ART work. Damien Hirst disgusts me- as does Jeff Koons. Sorry.

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