Dear Artist,

Three types of clutter invade painting: too many design elements, tightness and over-stroking. Cull compositional elements or zoom in to simplify and strengthen design. Try to focus on the features that, when combined, excite you most. Tightness is a product of fear — fear of getting into a colour mess or losing control of the composition. It creeps in with insidious ease when using a too-small or same-size brush throughout, and when over-rendering, over-detailing, over-focusing or hanging onto things. Instead, look for opportunities for obfuscation, mystery, paucity, joy and other painterly moments. Over-stroking diminishes the value of the strokes that count. Stroking for its own sake feels automatic and soothing, but it violates the freshness and perfection of original marks.


“Sumi-e is painting what is not there.”
Chiura Obata (1885 – 1975)
Japanese American artist and teacher

This overall clutter denies a painting its magic and “painting-ness.” Can you create with less? Is there space to rest and contemplate? Here are a few ideas:  

Live on fewer strokes.
Leave your strokes alone.
Mix, then stroke.
Mix mid-stroke.
Let your strokes tell the story.  

In Japanese tidiness-guru Marie Kondo’s handbook The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she prescribes a way of life based on the principle of  tokimeku, which means “flutter,” “throb,” or “palpitate.” She instructs would-be-tidy people to handle their possessions individually and ask, “Does this spark joy?” “If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it,” writes Kondo. “This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.” “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”


Brush painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799)



PS: “Clutter has only two possible causes: too much effort is required to put things away or it is unclear where things belong.” (Marie Kondo)  

Esoterica: Kondo says the process of assessing how you feel about your things is really about examining your inner self and is a rite of passage to a new life. In painting, study in-person the work of an artist you admire. Can you get your nose up to an original stroke? Can you feel its freshness? Is there mixing in there? In the presence of these strokes, do you feel a-flutter? As a little girl in Japan, Kondo loved tidying up and yearned for an imaginary job at school called “book shelf manager.” Later, she spent five years as an attendant maiden at a Shinto shrine. One day, she had an epiphany about her first love. “Identifying the things that make you happy: that is the work of tidying.”


Charcoal sketch
by Casey Baugh
contemporary artist, New York City

Named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2015, Marie Kondo has become a global tidying sensation. If you’d like her to come to your house to help find joy sparkers, there’s a 3-month waiting list.

“Have you ever had the experience where you thought what you were doing was a good thing but later learned that it had hurt someone? At the time, you were totally unconcerned, oblivious to the other person’s feelings. This is somewhat similar to the way many of us treat our socks.” (Marie Kondo)





  1. Funny. This week alone I got 3 boxes of art books and a bunch of frames (from someone moving out of town) which I’m forwarding to a professor friend (I kept 4 books and 1 frame) while she brought me multiple boxes of CDs (from a friend who had passed) thinking I could more easily sell them after going through them (which is true) but I don’t have any room for them to begin with! And on top of that I was given an entire roll of batting (something I needed desperately as I was out of it and couldn’t afford to buy any) but which I have no place to put. Not to mention bags of colored thread another friend has been collecting and donating to me in the last few weeks. A couple of months ago my neighbors gave me an office chair (useful but in the way) and I got paint from 2 people which I used what I needed but now have multiple half-filled cans I’ve no room for. But no- I don’t need Ms Kondo’s help… I just need a much larger space- which I can’t afford either…

    • You are rich in friends. Look at all these people thinking of you, taking the time to collect thread for you, bringing you supplies in support of your art which is, itself, a gift.

    • Really do read the book she mentions above, “the life changing magic of tidying up.” You may not be as bad off for space as you belief yourself to be right now. It’s a whole new approach and I guarantee this book can help (I realize that’s an outlandish claim, and I stick by it). Good luck.

    • Yes Bruce I know what you are talking about. I seem to have the same problem with people giving me frames or paint. As LILLI said we have friends and glad of them. But my space is getting overcrowded so I will pass on. I found the most grateful for receiving any art supplies are elementary school teachers. Their budget is does not exist – so and idea for you. Think I will start packing up a box now.

      • However much space one has, it will be full. I am resigned to living and working in one crowded area. I’d like it to be otherwise, and I go through my stuff every January paring down, and still I have an overly-full studio space, paintings lining the wall of my one hallway, and tools or other things ready to carry over the stairs to store in basement or take outdoors to work as soon as the weather clears again. I find other homes for what people give me that I cannot use; lots of it goes quickly at various thrift shops. Each seems to have its specialty for getting certain items to new homes. As one friend said to me, “Keep the sentiment, chuck the thing” regarding things I’m only keeping for sentimental reasons. One of the best presents I’ve ever had! No space needed to store it. I give it to you. We do not all need – or require – the same level of sparseness in our dwelling; shipshape though full is my goal. And people first, your friends and neighbours and your own survival/health first, not someone else’s idea of how you yourself “should” live. Sounds like you are on the right track! Start that project so you use up the batting you have no space to store.

        • I’ll take the devil’s advocate to make the conversation not seem like Zen. Ha! Clutter is the primordial soup of creation. Why avoid it? Look at the mess God created. We spend the rest of our lives re-engineering all the shortcomings down to minimizing the number of brushstrokes. How often to I gaze into a maze only to see apparitions that I must draw! OK, I don’t always draw them but virtually I make virtual chef d’oeuvres of them. Until the time comes to paint them and they fall apart.

    • Okay less is more oftentimes. But we can blithely, or cavalierly, or easily say that when there is so much wonderful, used but still useful, interesting with potential stuff available! and someone must handle it! I sometimes amass stuff which will serve me now, and when time passes and I no longer need it, someone else will. It is like tides redistributing sand…

      • I liked your reference to tides redistributing sands. I think the times we live in have a lot to do with our attitudes on “stuff,” bringing different meaning to different generations. Dad, was a depression kid. He saved everything, saying “Someone might have use of this someday”. I fall between wanting a lack of clutter but, having a hard time parting with stuff. Remembering the cycles of life, we may soon wish we still had some of our clutter.

  2. To stroke or not to stroke

    Paintings like women should be priced
    according to the number of strokes
    it took to paint or gratify.

    Starting with minimalism and a single
    brush stroke each should be priced
    at a $1,000.00 accounting for the

    length of experience of the artist.
    Also the painting with the most strokes
    who use a single hair should also be

    priced at $1,000.00 per stroke.
    Now let’s find stroke-counter

  3. Love it! I’ve spent a good bit of time in the last few months observing (and memorizing?!) the brushstrokes of the likes of Sargent and Sorolla. Their technique of combining accuracy and economy hasn’t quite translated to my own paintings…yet. But I hold it in my minds eye as a goal.
    Now, I can add to that your observation, “when over-rendering, over-detailing, over-focusing or hanging onto things. Instead, look for opportunities for obfuscation, mystery, paucity, joy and other painterly moments.”
    Excellent advice!
    In closing, I must confess to having a complex relationship with my socks. sigh.

  4. Interesting to see you highlighting Kondo’s book… I came across it a couple of weeks ago… It does inspire and give courage to release “unjoyful” items.

  5. This is just the solemn reminder I require at this stage of my life. I’ve been occupied with down-sizing for a couple of years now. It’s dragged out by my ability to ignore that which I don’t really care to deal with. De-cluttering is so needed. If I got the job done, I’d have more time to paint and more focus to paint. Clutter just weighs one down. Interesting to understand the same concept carries over into painting.
    Love your thoughtful newsletter! Many thanks.

    • Well said, and exactly my situation,too.
      I bought Marie’s book yesterday and it looks most helpful. Tidy by category, not by location has unlocked my block! Can this be applied to parts of a painting? Humm.

    • I second that! Sayaka was one of my design teachers. Her eye for seeing the potential beauty in everyday “junk” that we unthinkingly accumulate and discard always amazes and delights while making one think about all that accumulating and discarding.

  6. Luella Gilchrist on

    Firstly Alex should be beaten with a full garbage bag.
    I have always despised overly neatness, and thought I liked living in a certain amount of chaos. Then I read the tidy book while on a sailing trip where there was nothing to do all day at sea. ( 35 ft sailboat). That book was an eye opener, and has altered how I feel about and handle many things. But I never related it to painting before your newsletter, and now I know what is the problem with my painting from a few days ago….the strokes were not giving me pleasure, so I added more and got more and more frustrated. I will apply your philosophy and make sure every stroke is loved or at least appreciated. Just like rolling my socks? Thanks for your insight.

  7. On a recent visit to The Frick Collection, I admired James McNeill Whistler’s full length portraits – the works are powerful and beautiful despite some unjoyful passages where the master made visible corrections in the outline of the figures. On the other hand, Frans Halls’ works are flawless – every single stroke is a flutter in my heart. I admired Whistler from distance and Halls up close. Both masters did it for me.

  8. Despite being a confessed sock roller, I also read and appreciated Kondo’s book. I have applied her principles to organizing my studio, but I love how you have applied them to painting. I am all for more mystery on the canvas but less in the closet!

  9. Steve Clement on

    I am always troubled when wise people, especially those who are competent artists, make assumptions and statements that reflect only a relatively small portion of the entire history of art but which are nonetheless presented as absolute truth. Sara, a delightful artist and writer whom I wish I could someday meet, has done that here. She writes as if the only artists of note throughout history painted as she describes above, with bravura brushstrokes and a minimum of detail in most of the work. The joy of art is not found in following someone else’s prescription for how (or even why) to paint, but in pursuing one’s own path; and that guarantees the style will vary both over time and between persons and various art movements. Some great artists indeed painted as she describes, and some painted exactly the opposite. Often, both groups and every subset in between spoke vociferously against one another. How silly! How closed-minded! And how sad for the world if all art were to follow the same prescribed path!

    • Thank you for being a voice of balance. My sentiments exactly. Certainly less is more at times, but I would hate to lose some of the threads in art history such as Hudson River School paintings that go against that grain.

      However, oppressive clutter in a home or studio or life may need some focus and mitigation!

      • Maybe the point being made is that detail for the sake of detail should not (or need not) be the goal. Speaking for myself, my paintings have a lot of detail because I love digging into the nitty gritty, but I try not to be a slave to it. I have to fight against getting caught up in details for the sake of accuracy and losing track of the over riding effect I want the painting to have. That’s when it can become clutter.

        Most successful paintings (those that feel successful to ME, anyway) have some lost edges and quiet passages serving as balance and helping establish the center of interest. Too many details can tend pull in too many directions creating a kind of visual clutter. Depends on your definition of clutter, but in this case, it would be extraneous elements that don’t necessarily add to the message or impact of the painting.

    • Marvin Humphrey on

      Yes. Perhaps Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, Robert Campin, Hans Holbein, Caravaggio, and many other precisionist painters up to more modern times (Rene Magritte, Richard Estes, David Ligare) wouldn’t “fit in”.

  10. Hi Sara, Well said about living on less strokes! That is exactly what I am trying to accomplish in the 37 stroke paintings that I have been video taping. Thanks to you and your dad for pointing these things out in your workshops, I am working through limiting my strokes. Though these exercises do not necessarily make a finished painting they do help in the way I work through my paintings. It is essential to practice this limiting and simplifyification and I hope that my videos will encourage people to try to this method of “De-Cluttering”. My 37 stroke videos can be viewed on my youtube channel, Jane Appleby Art, or on my website under videos. Check the latest 37 Stroke Painting of Bear Face at: and more to come each week. Try it yourself – I think you’ll like it! Thank you Sara for reminding us again to “KISS”…keep it simple sister :)

  11. After two years, moving furniture, thousands of books and clothes from Las Vegas and Reno to Utah, we are becoming comfortable with ourselves. My husband is neat to a fault. I work in absolute chaos and relish every moment. So we compromise: Space in the basement for me to work and in an upstairs office. Larry organizes the books, the food and the rest of the house and what I am learning about organizing myself before beginning a project is a new perspective.

  12. For years I have been the recipient of huge black garbage bags of fabric and fabric-like items that people couldn’t bare to get rid of. So I kept it all thinking someday maybe I will use this or that. The shelves broke from the weight, the neat piles tumbled into unmanageable messes. I started the downsizing-because-I-won’t-ever-be-this-young-again. I have thrown out, unexamined the last three garbage bags that were left to me. I ‘donated’ several other bags full to a school, I neatened and culled the herd on the shelves of anything I didn’t like or think I would actually in real life use. I am STILL overwhelmed, but determined, because I know that the Final Cleanup will be by my kids and will end right into the dumpster. I want a simpler art life, I want a clear work table. And I DO NOT want to actually seriously contemplate hanging stuff from the rafters like I was camping and there were bears after it- Bruce, have you gotten that far gone yet? . I want to get back to worrying about economy of strokes!

    • I too continue to be the recipient of things nobody wants- that they can’t throw away. What has amazed me more than anything are small rolls- leftover from cutting something out- where the idiot couldn’t even realize and throw in the trash strips too narrow to do anything with. Simply unbelievable. I had to downsize everything when I moved full-time into my studio. Then I had to just be the conduit for at least 50% of what I was getting- keeping some but relocating most to someone else who could use it. Myself? I’m good at organizing. And I don’t like ‘clutter’ while I’m ok with creative chaos- but know when it needs to be cleaned up. Regularly. But right now I’m just kind of overwhelmed- and can’t find the energy to do the clean-up work- mostly because I’m still burned out from my most recent work phase- which has lasted for most of the last 5 years. And I seem to be expanding without me doing anything- while my studio is not…

  13. Paul Joseph Schleitwiler, FCM on

    Re ” She instructs would-be-tidy people to handle their possessions individually and ask, “Does this spark joy?” “If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it,” writes Kondo. “This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.” “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.””
    While this might apply to deciding what you put into or take out of a painting and does not work in real life.
    As example, someone may not enjoy cooking or vacuuming or yard work. But pots and pans, dishes and silverware, vacuum and garden tools are necessary to eat in and to keep house . Most people cannot afford to hire servants to do those things that must be done.
    My feeling is that the throwaway culture is urban, where one may purchase necessities locally and easily, and middle income or higher, who can afford to buy as needed.
    Anti-clutter serves urban dwellers with limited space. Rural and third world have space but limited resources.
    God bless you always, all ways,

  14. Wonderful article,Sara! I agree, less of everything in painting is much fresher looking than overworked brushstrokes .

    Personally, my space is cluttered and I typically make room in my studio as needed. I get resentful when I declutter for an extended period of time as I feel it wastes my valuable painting time. Balance is what I’m looking for.

  15. My mind danced through your article, Sara. To this point, and to that insight. And I felt so grateful for it.

    Through all my many years of looking at paintings, it has always been the ones with the bold and deliberate brushstrokes that I found exhilarating. But, ah, to be able to be brave to do it. But that is the master.

  16. Dear Sara,
    Just love your ‘new’ ‘letters’. Really interesting and fun. Well done. (PS: I loved receiving your Dads letters too)

  17. Pingback: ‘enough of that’ | Anita H. Lehmann, Artist

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