Dear Artist,

Every few days someone asks me to send a personalized checklist of things they need to do and think about while they’re painting. As everyone’s creative concept is really quite different, this is a tough order. Even though I may have looked at the work, their continued flourishing depends on a unique vision and a sense of individual entitlement. We are all specialists of some sort, and specialization demands we make our own checklists. In our game there’s no silver bullet, no one size fits all.


“Capturing the Moment” 1906
oil painting by
Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923)

Here’s a word for your own checklist — and how to make one. Checklists are not recipes. They’re self-generated lists of thoughts and ideas that just might add strength, value and importance to the work. Based on what one knows about the better works of others, the vastness of human potential, and one’s own personal ideals, it’s an elevated to-do list.

Contemplation is the key. The artist arrests herself at any stage in a work’s progress. Short notes clarify processes and indicate directions with further potential. It’s a temporary sidestep from the “zone.” For those with this kind of intuition, it’s a self-taught facility to be both in the flow and observing the flow. Practitioners can have the eerie feeling of watching themselves work.

Before anyone phones those guys in the white coats, here are some examples from my current list:


oil painting by Joaquin Sorolla

Paint with your eyes
Think what things might become
Let the brush talk
Be in love with change
Find the elegance
See the big picture
Make it a pattern
Identify the extraordinary
Don’t get gauche
Keep it fresh at all costs
Take your time

This stuff is all about a personal search for truth within one’s own vision. Getting there is half the fun. If it were a recipe, everyone’s truth might be the same. Only you can make your checklist and join the search for your own truth. Start your checklist now.


“Types of La Mancha” 1912
oil painting by Joaquin Sorolla

Best regards,


PS: “Between truth and the search for truth, I choose the second.” (Bernard Berenson)

Esoterica: When I was much more immature I used to hand out checklists with abandon. Several years ago a friend made me aware of a long-lost checklist that I’d dropped off before the Internet Age. “I’ve used it every day,” she told me. It reads, “Compositional integrity, sound craftsmanship, colour sensitivity, creative interest, design control, gestural momentum, artistic flair, expressive intensity, professional touch, surface quality, intellectual depth, visual distinction, technical challenge and artistic audacity.”

This letter was originally published as “Checklist” on June 8, 2007.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“My only ambition was to create an honest picture that would interpret nature as she really is, as she ought to be seen.” (Joaquin Sorolla)



  1. Oh thank you thank you again!! Just what I needed this morning…well, maybe all mornings. Love the quotes and images too. So inspiring. And yes, thank you again.

  2. So true, when I think back, my check list three years ago was totally different to mine of today. Thank you for reminding me to trust my own judgement and look inside fire guidance. Thank you Sara.

  3. Robert’s checklist has been etched in my mind for many years now. But it takes years to grasp those concepts and I am yet to figure out some of them. But, still, it’s a journey like no other and I am grateful for its every day.

  4. Perhaps way off the topic…but could you explore the sad state of artists “of a certain age” who are now experiencing the onset of cataracts? It seemed an unlikely boon to Monet (perhaps not to him personally but to future critics and collectors) that he was afflicted with double cataracts and so had an altered kind of vision for the later part of his painting life …resulting in the “breakthrough” the impressionist movement embraced.

    • Hi Vivian~ I have been an artist my whole life, and just had the cataracts removed in the past two months. When the first one was done, I lifted the eye patch and thought the dr had put in a BLUE lens!! The difference was amazing – from fuzzy yellow to crystal clear! My new lenses have been corrected so I can see distance 20/20. Still need mid and close up glasses, but it’s a miracle to see again, and be able to drive at night. My artwork and my world are bright and clear, now.
      So, my theory is that Monet’s brain and hand knew what to do all the time… and he may have had no idea how beautiful his paintings were. The vision of softness was inside him.

      • thanksomuch! YOUR REPORT OF LENS REPLACEMENT was a huge help! HUGE.

        First sighting of them on me recently but “nothing to do yet – you are fine” – and going by the easy senior diet helps and good vitamins, even an IMPROVEMENT. And I am 70 today. Painters will paint till they die, and so I hope you like mine, since I will be doing them even longer than painters before me.

        I think Matisse said, “Aging eyes? easy…paint BIGGER pictures ! ”

        “Good eyes run in the family” . I hope so – they found YOU sarah and company!

  5. Thank you for this, Robert and Sarah. This is like opening a secret door! I work with ideas in my abstract paintings but I’ve never made “a list” or written things down. I do do simple drawings sometimes and simple sketches, but this is like providing our work with our own koan, and our own inspiration instead of hoping for the best, which I’ve been known to do. This is very exciting!!

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Featured Workshop

to Over the Farm #2
original pastel 15 x 15 inches

Featured Artist

Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.

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