Dear Artist,

In times of reasonable painting I often ask myself where my confidence comes from. Why is it that some days this goddess merely appears, seemingly unbidden, while other days I have to work hard to get a glimpse of her? What are the conditions that bring this goddess to our easels?


“Nature Forms, Gaspé” 1932
oil painting by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

I’m pretty sure that in art as in love, it’s the little things that mean a lot. Don’t, for example, have outstanding issues with spouses, dealers, friends. I’ve found it vital to sit or stand at the easel, guilt free. A feeling of trust is valuable — not just trust that you can do it, but trust in yourself as a person. Funnily, or perhaps not funnily, I think that ordinary cleanliness is related. I never underestimate a good tub.


“Waterfall No. 3 Iao Valley” 1939
oil on canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe

I’ve not made a scientific, actuarial account of these matters, but there is some anecdotal evidence that I can pass on. Confidence often arises in the morning after a day of change — doing something different from the normal studio activity. Socializing or felicitous friendship, another kind of satisfaction, gives elan to the brush. You feel worthwhile. Constant working can bring visual boredom and a jaded attitude. Pictorial scale, size of support as well as ambition are also important — being in tune with what you may be good for on a particular day. I don’t know whether this is common or not, but I find if I take a bite out of several beginnings, early on, there’s a feeling of hope, and I can be more focussed and confident for my day. Also, a project of set, or series, which involves some additional concentration, can go a long way toward closing out destructive impedimenta. Simultaneity also creates energy — the kind of feeling you get when listening to Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition — a physical striding between pictures that keeps the goddess flirting. On sunny days, moving outdoors for drying, long-view and life-love also adds a generosity of spirit that reinforces confidence.


“Grey Blue & Black – Pink Circle” 1929
oil on canvas 36 × 48 inches (91.4 × 121.9 cm)
by Georgia O’Keeffe

In my case I know for sure that confidence has a lot to do with momentum. My goddess is attracted and kept interested by action. When I’m lethargic, distracted, or talking too much, she gets bored with me — and wanders off — perhaps to service someone else.

Best regards,


PS: “Confidence is that feeling by which the mind embarks on great and honorable courses with a sure hope and trust in itself.” (Cicero) “Confidence is the hinge on the door to success.” (Mary O’Hare Dumas)


Esoterica: Use anything that builds a feeling of personal power. It helps if you know what you’re doing. The glow of heroism provided by certain music, even over-squeezing and unlimited supports make their contribution. Then, in a larger way there are the senses of “professional time,” paradise-studio, conscious love-in-the-stroke, and the feeling of righteousness, however tenuous.

This letter was originally published as “Confidence” on August 1, 2003.

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.

“I get out my work and have a show for myself before I have it publicly. I make up my own mind about it — how good or bad or indifferent it is. After that the critics can write what they please.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)



  1. ” It helps to know what you’re doing”….. I was in tune with Robert’s words on confidence [ much needed today] until the esoterica …. I’m working on my first 48 x 48 Sara ….. and I’m at that stage of questions, issues, how not to do something that will destroy or overwork the sensation I am trying to convey ….. I liked that Georgia O’Keefe’s work is shown here ….. reading her letters and her story awhile ago , I was reminded of just how not confident she was and how she destroyed almost all of her early sketches and work so no one would see ” how bad they were” [ her words] …… but thank you for this much needed letter on confidence ….. I’m heading down to my studio now with my morning coffee……

  2. Confidence may be just innocence in the beginning, but as a seasoned painter, I get confidence from knowing that what I do (or don’t do) in my painting will get certain results. In other words, experience brings confidence. You know what you are going to get when you do something. Still, there are off days when nothing works, it seems. Then you come back to it another day and may be able to make something positive out of your errors. (Learning still, with a willingness to accept new things.)

    Teaching young people, privately, in my studio, I see them making bold strokes, not knowing what the result will be, making errors and then trying again. I’m glad I did that a long time ago, because now I can show those young people what works and what doesn’t. Their gratefulness at success gives me satisfaction and gives them confidence.

    • Jill, I agree that confidence grows with experience. Practice, practice, practice… I’m confident with ink pen and wash. Now I’m trying to learn watercolor. Not much confidence, yet. Seems anything is likely to happen. : )

  3. Often I think, “Now, is it Robert or Sara writing that?” Then I admit I can’t tell
    It was true today.
    Two statements I especially liked just now, and wondered “Robert or Sara?”
    –“Funnily,p or perhaps not funnily, I think that ordinary cleanliness is related. I never underestimate a good tub.”
    — and the one about what gives “elan to the brush.”

  4. Thought is power. Thoughts of fear of rejection, jealousy of other artists, and anger at your current situation are not confidence building. We must always dream our wildest dreams and picture them in the minutest detail and as clearly as we can. As artists, we have the gift of creating our thoughts more quickly. This amazing innate ability can take all of us to the highest heights or the lowest lows of life. What do I really want? Your dream is as unique as you are. Don’t question it’s validity. Stop wondering if it is possible. If you share your dream too soon, it will wither. It should lift you higher every time you think of it. Dream. Picture it, touch, smell, taste and hear it with your mind. Dream some more. Always dream.

    • Pauline Hughes on

      Thank you so much Sara,n and Thank you to Sharon Rusch Shaver today all who take their precious time to give voice to their encouraging and beautiful thoughts I appreciate this more than I can say

  5. I’m a quilter, not a painter. I enjoy each letter I read, Sara, and thank you for keeping them coming to all of us.
    I love Georgia O’Keefe’s commnets on confidence, and find they ring true for those of us who work with fabric and needles, whether hand or machine. And Robert’s comment about ‘the tub’ … he must have read the Singer Sewing Book in the nineteen forties, in which the author writes that one ought never begin sewing until all the dishes are done, and she herself is dressed attractively in case someone might come to the door, or her husband come home early from work!

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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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