Dear Artist,

When asked recently about plans for my work in 2020, I found myself struggling for words. I wanted to please the person who had asked, but I simply didn’t know the answer. How does one predict the future of the most powerful and mysterious, unfolding force of one’s life? While the nuances, challenges and pleasures are all-consuming, they remain impossible to plan or describe before they appear. Even the process is in flux. And while many artists find talking aloud useful for keeping them on track, for me, there’s a kind of guilt when I do it — as though I’ve somehow betrayed the gift of my Hero’s Quest. My Quest only reveals herself to me when I pick up my brush.

Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973 Acrylic on canvas 103 1/2 x 112 1/2 inches by Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973
Acrylic on canvas
103 1/2 x 112 1/2 inches
by Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

After this latest bout of uneasiness, it dawned on me that it probably has something to do with fear. Self-doubt is unpleasant — it’s why some people avoid making New Year’s resolutions. “Vulnerability is not weakness,” wrote Brené Brown in her 2015 manifesto Daring Greatly. “I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives.” And so I won’t ask you about your plans for your work in 2020. Instead, I’ll invite you to ponder with me some ideas for creative development, with a preference for behavioral tweaking over sweeping productivity goals, which may or may not advance your ideas or growth. Instead, habits, developed over time I’ve noticed, can change outcomes and determine the course of a life. Here are a few ideas, which are implemented by practicing:

Into October, 1983 Acrylic on canvas 71 1/4 x 133 1/2 inches by Helen Frankenthaler

Into October, 1983
Acrylic on canvas
71 1/4 x 133 1/2 inches
by Helen Frankenthaler

Instead of a painting a day, what about every day for painting?

Experiment more. Try adding or omitting one stage in your existing process.

Three hours in the morning, first.

Change your ground colour for two months.

Cut your palette in half.

Leave paintings 10% unfinished as a gift to yourself for the following day, with the idea that you’ll decide if it’s actually already finished, tomorrow.

Stronger design.

Better, more specific titles.

One neat area.

Two mysterious areas.

Three material areas — surface quality, edgemanship and brushwork, because you are making a painting.

Be a more powerful translator of that which you are celebrating.

Cloud Burst, 2002 Acrylic on canvas 79 1/4 x 68 1/4 inches by Helen Frankenthaler

Cloud Burst, 2002
Acrylic on canvas
79 1/4 x 68 1/4 inches
by Helen Frankenthaler



PS: “I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” (Brené Brown)

Esoterica: Earlier this month, while dreamily wading through the low tide at St. Kilda Beach, an artist friend pointed out what she felt might be a good habit. “You are regularly creating opportunities for happiness,” she said. I accepted her observation as true.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” (Brené Brown)

Helen Frankenthaler in her studio in Darien, Connecticut, 2003 Suzanne DeChillo photo

Helen Frankenthaler in her studio in Darien, Connecticut, 2003
Suzanne DeChillo photo

Wishing each and every one of you happy holidays and the very best for 2020. Thank-you for your continued friendship. With gratitude, Sara

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” (Émile Coué)



  1. Somehow talking about future ideas or directions tends to kill the process. Yes, I have an idea. You just have to wait for the results. Me too. Not sure where it is going to go. And it is OK living in the unknown as long as we can trust in something greater than ourselves. Thank you Sara for being honest.

    • This a great help to the indecision of your work in progress. The ideas to change your methods and refresh are helpful. Being an amateur painter your letters are hope to keep trying. I have forwarded this letter to 3 friends who are entering the art world… Cheers for the New Year and thank you for your insights.

  2. I like how you think Sarah! I set intentions rather than resolutions. I often strengthen my courage by looking back as well. This year, I reviewed my landscape paintings from the past decade and chose 20 out of over 300, which then I used to develop a video introduction to the work and put a new post up on my website. At the same time, I have nine, large and very large, custom made canvases waiting for me in the winter studio. I shall start tomorrow or late today putting on the grounds. I do have a project outlined to start 2020. Arbutus Trees And Life Itself Painting Project is a 3-5 Year adventure and I am just about ready to begin. So this year will likely be putting one foot (or brushstroke) ahead of the other. In this way, I shall get somewhere… just maybe not the “somewhere” that I imagined in the beginning. Whatever happens, it shall all be good and turn out as it should.

    Happy New Year and all the best of 2020 everyone!

  3. Excellent! I can relate to your uneasiness with sharing plans, and I appreciate the ideas you shared. Not only do I intend to try at least some of them, I’m going to share this blog on Facebook so fellow artists who may not be on your list yet can benefit as well. Happy New Year and happy creating, Sara.

  4. Sara, Thank you for this! I struggle with productivity while trying to create the best work that I can do. Perhaps, it will get easier with time. Making time daily to paint and cultivating mystery in my work struck me as the most important to work at first. Best wishes to you in 2020.

  5. This is my first time ever response. Your letter really spoke to me but I predominantly paint with watercolors and it’s difficult to put many of your points to practice. Taking the liberty of freedom in my work has been a long time goal.

  6. Sara,
    Thank you for this lovely end of year letter. I enjoyed your suggestions for making progress in this life of art that we are on. I thank our Creator everyday for being able to pursue this art of creating that we are blessed with. May you have a wonderful year ahead, and I look forward to your continued letters that light up my days.

  7. Rachel Bushnell on

    Ahhh . . .
    It feels as if a gentle breeze has blown into my mind –
    new beginnings . . .
    fresh hope . . .
    I’ll be printing off your points in some nice font and putting them on my drafting table.
    Here’s to new,
    Thank you, Sara.

  8. Sara, I found your letter both reassuring and challenging at the same time. Your dad used to talk about how one brushstroke tells you what the next one should be, and I`ve tried to follow that guidance. Now I have your list of “what ifs” to explore as the New Year begins. Thank you for your letters, and the information, support, and challenge that they offer. Happy New Year!

  9. Thank you Sara for sharing these thoughts of truth and inspiration. I feel you always share with your heart, and my heart and head always are inspired by you. Happy New Year, keep writing!!!

  10. “Wading along the shores” of a New Year is certain to bring opportunities for happiness if we just pick up that brush and dance with it, as we have been known to do. I agree, the opportunities start there, but do require courage at times, and a place to be intimate with our muse. I too have found wiggling toes in the ocean can invite painting. Thanks for the letter and things to ponder for 2020 – May it bring happy art our way :)

  11. My studio looks like Helen Frankenthaler’s if Francis Bacon worked in it for two or three months. But waaay smaller.

  12. The choice of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings were a perfect accompaniment to the article. They seemed to show what could happen if Sara’s advice words was followed precisely. I hadn’t kept up with Helen’s work since the big pour paintings of the 70s and I was happy to see her work still growing and evolving.

  13. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your unselfish gift of these letters, Sara. You touch more souls than you can know. Love and Best Wishes in the New One

  14. The fundamentals of creativity operate in the (eternal present) moment and in talking to other people about intentions or ideas, I find that the conversation where I articulate them, then becomes the moment that I make them in words. I can go into it, visualise, get excited about it as though doing it, playing, with the eye darting around the windowless box of the imagination, the ideas can grow, change and morph under scrutiny. And that’s the creating done, I have made it in my mind with my thoughts and spelled it out in words, except it is altogether a poorer mode of expression, not always authentic despite genuine attempt for it, because there is no physicality or material contributing to the conversation. There is just too much thinking involved, thinking that is laced with critical judgement, categorisation, desire and ambition, baggage best left for unpacking when the creative journey is underway, not before. Creating is the honey, and even articulating an idea, is a creative act. I don’t find the need or the drive to do IT twice. Once I noticed this propensity, I stopped talking about intentions or ideas or plans for my work with anyone else, so that I can have this “conversation” where it matters, with whom it matters and with what it matters. .

    • I agree. When I talk about what I plan to do… I never do it… because the talking about it ruined the creation of it!
      I can only talk about it after it is finished!
      Crazy but True!

    • sandra mac diarmid on

      your generosity is lovely and along with your painting/art innovations
      I suggest we all strive to be as generous a person as Sara.. I see your dad smiling… happy new year…

  15. I really enjoy the images you send out together with the text. this time the image I enjoyed most was Helen in her studio, where smaller studies seem to inspire her to make bigger work. I’ve never seen a small Frakenthaler before now.

  16. I love the turning of the year as it becomes a quiet place for reflection on my state of being and my productivity. I turn to the fresh page of 2020 and imagine what I would like to achieve, and what I can practically do about it. I appreciate the reluctance to respond to inquiries about work intentions for the coming year – to discuss my plan with others is to weaken the muse, so I tell people about one idea I’d like to chase, and privately write down my list of goals for my art making, my travels, my person, for the new year. Then I turn to the seed catalog!
    One of the most productive changes incorporated 2 years ago, was to rise at 5am and work in the studio – no coffee, no exercise, no kitchen chores, no computer – for the first hours of the day, My work tripled, my confidence grew, and my painting evolves. I am able to plan and create more work for outlets, sell more of it, and have reinstate classes in the studio. In short, it put my art on the front burner, seriously. Thank you, Sara, for addressing a wide range of topics on Painter’s Keys. You encourage me as I go!

  17. Thank you Sara! These suggestions get more and more inspiring towards the end and the last one blew me away. The list is copied and taped to the studio wall now.

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Featured Workshop

Up to the Mark: 2.5 Day Abstract Intensive with Emphasis on Mark Making in Santa Fe, NM with Julie Schumer and James Koskinas
May 1, 2020 to May 3, 2020


Experience beautiful early spring in Santa Fe, NM.  Develop your own unique marks and painting vocabulary in this 2 1/2 day abstract acrylic workshop.


We will work on paper, and for those who like, unstretched canvas, using conventional and unconventional mark making tools and drawing media.  Via guided exercises you will practice a variety of marks and learn how to create a work rich with history and depth through the process of layering these marks with acrylic paint.


This class is suitable for beginning and intermediate painters.  Cost is $595.00  Materials list provided one month prior to the workshop or can be provided at an additional cost of $100.00 Morning, 1994
Acrylic on canvas
34 x 30 inches
Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Featured Artist

Robert’s technique includes a tradition of strong design with patterns of color and form, with a pervasive sense of personal style. Grand themes are transposed onto small panels and larger canvases in a manner similar to members of the Group of Seven. Most of Robert’s work is in acrylic. He has also done considerable work in oils, watercolour, and silk screen printing.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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