Can I do this?


Dear Artist,

Plodding through the New York Times Sunday crossword is a tiny perfect illustration of the notion that the only way to get better at anything is to keep going. Like a dancer in cement shoes, I tinker in a blind trust that the answers will come in a bolt of inspiration, my ineptitude crumbling away, mid-jeté. “Inspiration,” wrote Elizabeth Gilbert, “needs to find you working.”

This is your country don't let the big men take it away from you, Kern County, California, 1938–1938 Gelatin silver print 12 7/8 x 12 1/2 inches by Dorothea Lange (1895–1965)

Kern County, California, 1938
Gelatin silver print
12 7/8 x 12 1/2 inches
by Dorothea Lange (1895–1965)

Are you working? In art, we are students of infinite potential. If you’re wondering if you can keep going — if there’s still any meaning to your quest in the midst of a global re-org, consider the desire to make progress reason enough to continue. The pursuit of expression is worthy of your dedication. The first order of business is applying paint. Here are a few ideas:

If your life is a series of creative acts, pay attention to them. Consider the most casual moments of invention opportunities to practice a kind of care reserved for transplants and the hybridizing of trees. You want, afterall, your inventions to take. “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well;” wrote Philip Dormer Stanhope, “and nothing can be done well without attention.”

Grow your vocabulary. “Sometimes you need an axe and sometimes you need a scalpel,” says writer Joshua Fields Millburn. How’s your toolbox? Building up a range of techniques and understanding of the visual world gives you choice of expression. Now that you’ve got a bunch of $20 words, you can master how not to use them.

Eliminate the jumbled and superfluous. Even the most maximalist works of art are successful when they polish up for clarity. Pointless daubing is the same as filling a conversation with meaningless chatter. Did poet Suzanne Buffam write her 2016 collection A Pillow Book exclusively at night while her family slept, or does it only feel that way because it was written for the sleepless?

On the Road to Los Angeles, California. 1937 Gelatin silver print 8 1⁄16 × 7 3⁄4 inches by Dorothea Lange

On the Road to Los Angeles, California. 1937
Gelatin silver print
8 1⁄16 × 7 3⁄4 inches
by Dorothea Lange



PS: “Because painting is so easy to do and yet so difficult to do well, it encourages humility in the human soul. It’s an apprenticeship, a studenthood that can be stretched into a lifelong education. It thrives on democratic ideals and freedom of expression, individualism, pioneering spirit. It permits a quiet corner of private struggle and joy. You don’t need to follow someone else’s path.” (Robert Genn)

Esoterica: Like Suzanne, grasp the object of your devotion. Who are you painting for? It helps to feel love while you’re working. Art is just a conduit for loving the world. “Work,” wrote Kahlil Gibran, “is love made visible.”

One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco. 1942 Gelatin silver print, 13 1/8 x 9 13/16 inches by Dorothea Lange

One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco. 1942
Gelatin silver print
13 1/8 x 9 13/16 inches
by Dorothea Lange

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 

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“Try to pick a profession in which you enjoy even the most mundane, tedious parts. Then you will always be happy.” (Will Shortz, Editor of the New York Times crossword)



  1. Thank you so much for your letters. They mean the world to me. Such beautiful thoughts and suggestions.

  2. Sara, this is a pithy post! I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ illustration of inspiration as an energy looking for someone to express through. It’s so true – if you don’t paint it, someone else will. I love the quote from Robert Genn, he had a way of speaking about art, process and content that invites us to enter and imbibe. I never felt excluded by his writings, but always one of the gang. You are proving to write in a similar way! Thank you, I always feel edified reading these Painters’ Keys.

  3. Ah… a breath of fresh air from Painter’s Keys today, oxygen for the slowly waking, me and to know we have a purpose…squeeze out the paint and be humble – Yes it teaches many things…and is an example of a big Yes to be human as I do believe “all of life is a succession of creative acts” – let us go to them with fortitude and courage. I’m squeezing out new colours. Thank you Sara

  4. Well said! Beautiful thoughts and words, and very timely to spearhead me back on the road to my practice of making arts and to write. Thank You, Sara, for the reminder of why we make arts or write. I will never be confused again about why I chose this preoccupation. It is for, “freedom of expression, individualism, pioneering spirit.” Namaste.

  5. “If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well.”

    Not necessarily.

    Sometimes, the edict to do a thing well leads to over-thinking, perfectionism and procrastination.

    “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth getting it done”.

    • Right! Having had that expression pounded into me from an early age, one of the most freeing things I have ever read was a line from Tracy Kidder’s 1981 book, “The Soul of a New Machine”: “Not everything worth doing is worth doing well.” Sometimes the quick and dirty solution is good enough and does the job. This also describes my path as an artist, starting from trying to make “perfect” art, gradually learning that I was squeezing the life out of my art in the process, and slowly learning to appreciate looseness, expression, and feeling. There is a lot of art in this world that is technically excellent, skillful, “well done”, but somehow lifeless. There is also the point that whose standard of “well done” are you using? If it’s someone else’s, it’s probably strangling your art. I believe that’s what Philip Guston meant when he said, “ When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you – your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics… and one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.”

      • This conversation is very nourishing. Thank you. I too often struggle with the training to do everything well and how this affects my art practice is that as a colored pencil artist I am easily, quickly enrolled in creating the perfect strokes, layering of colors, luminosity of the completed image. During this time of re-setting our world and everything in it I have been doing a lot more experimenting with mark-making, exploring different media and subject matter, and allowing myself the freedom to create quick sketches without judging them as “finished work.” In this I am finding some new distinctions of expression that I expect with eventually inform my other work in the future.

    • Linda Bolhuis on

      Thank you Andalusia, that “ worth doing well” has always bothered me, “ worth getting it done “ “sometimes acts as more of a motivation .

  6. I’m a Medical Professional striving to reinvent into an artist. I love to see the body and flora thru the microscope but my heart and energies are ready for something different. I am still in the lab and working tirelessly on the “front” testing for Covid19. I came near to being out of Med prior to the pandemic. Accepting that I am where and doing what my Creator desires keeps my sanity intact. My ex husband once asked me (while I was venting about my work) “why would anyone go into that line of work?” Well now here it is dear, to save humanity! The older I get the more I understand that life is full of irony!

  7. Sorry to nitpick, but it was Pablo Picasso who said “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working,” long before Elizabeth Gilbert.

    • Mary Manning on

      Thank you, Debra Gash. Picasso freed something within me, allowing art to appear in surprising and unexpected ways.

  8. I love your term “global re-org”! For me this has definitely been a period for re-prioritization. The dire predictions of no or low sales seems to have set me free from a desire to please potential buyers and simply explore new territory. It’s led me to the basement storage slots to find early paintings (preferably unvarnished) that I am willing to sacrifice to new explorations and “ugly” paintings. I’m painting for me and the Muse again and it feels very good to be showing up at the easel to see what wants to be painted today. Some of the ugly ones are actually quite beautiful! I trust some of these will leave my studio to live elsewhere at some point. Thanks for the reminders!

  9. Great note Sarah! I am working and working in a meaningful way, I think. Each stage of everyday life and work seems to take double the energy though because little is routine. Not getting canvas. Not getting paints and certainly not getting groceries. However, I continue to stand before the easel and give it my best. A medium-sized European commission was finished this week and the edges are now dry on a large seascape that sold recently. The large art shipping box has arrived and I should be able to get the painting in the mail for another province middle of next week. The renovations on my new gallery room are just about complete and I will be able to make arrangements to gather up the work that I have selected from other local painters to show along with my own soon. But it is likely to be a virtual video show with detailed online viewing for the first while. I keep telling myself. I can do this. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes though, I just want to sit down and cry and not be brave and courageous at all. Then I go make tea. I go for a longer than usual hike on the trails beside the sea. Just for a few hours, I stop asking anything of myself. After this, I seem to be able to squeeze out the paint again and continue. This weekend, I am going to go plein air painting… because I have a safe place to do so and I can. No great reasoning. No lofty intention – just for the pure pleasure of it all during these extraordinary times. All the best everyone. Stay safe and be well.

  10. Barbara Belyea on

    The long-rehearsed question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” has a similar answer: “practice, practice.” Inspiration comes once in a while and only when we are ready for it. But “practice” includes cross-training — painters away from their easels, writers away from their desks. I think “practice” is the cultivation of awareness everywhere and always, a permanent state of mind. I’m a writer, so always aware of how things are written. As a sad example, I have to point to one of the statements above: “Eliminate the jumbled and superfluous. Even the most maximalist works of art are successful when they polish up for clarity.” Following this advice produces a revised statement: “Stick to the point. Even maximalist art succeeds only when polished for clarity.”

  11. Kathy Taylor on

    Thank you, Sara! Everything you put in this letter is so inspirational.!! And at a much-needed time. Thanks, again. And God bless!

  12. Sara, I beg to differ with you….painting is NOT easy; never was and never will be. It is, however, joyful, creative and full of love. It is done by a thinking human being but it is never easy!

  13. John Francis on

    “Grow your vocabulary.”?

    Meanwhile, it seems these days many people’s vocabulary is actually shrinking. Politicians, journalists, broadcasters, advertisers and ‘corporate spokesperson’ all seem to have all adopted a small ‘cluster’ of generic terms and phrases and words that get applied to everything, no matter the topic. Impact. Epic. Iconic. Loved ones. Friends and family.

    We hear of “growing the Economy”. Small business owners are encouraged to “grow your restaurant”. How do you ‘grow’ a restaurant? Or an Economy. You can’t. When you ‘grow something, it usually begins with planting or seeding.
    If you ‘grow’ as an Artist, it can come about for different reasons. Developing skills. Self-realization. Encouragement.

    I guess what Sara meant to say was: Develop your vocabulary. Find more words to illuminate meaning, not less.

  14. Terry Zoeller on

    Thank you Sarah. I’m doing a year long course obviously on line now in South Africa and it’s been so good to force me into the studio even if I feel hopeless and inept. Somehow the time and work spent there is so not wasted and brings progress and a spark of joy every now and then, hard won but there all the same. Thanks for your kindness and compassion.

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Featured Workshop

Ireland Plein Air
June 7, 2020 to June 16, 2020


Join award-winning Plein air painter Sharon Rusch Shaver as she conducts her next exciting workshop to the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland. Painting daily in your chosen medium: oil; watercolor; pastel; pen and ink artists as well as photographers will find plenty of inspiration where the sea defines the life and creates excitement on this amazing Island. Daily demonstrations and one-on-one help will be provided for those wanting to learn how to work quickly capturing that changing light and color in their paintings.

Delicious chef prepared gourmet meals and a well-appointed ensuite rooms, as well as all ground transfers are included. All-inclusive* 9 nights accommodation, transfers, meals, and instruction. Go to:

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Sharon Rusch Shaver Islet
acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 inches

Featured Artist

Shawn’s paintings evoke the feelings of the West Coast, its shores and islands, ponds and lakes.


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