Deliberate subtraction


Dear Artist,

Recently, I quietly conducted a personal experiment in streamlining my art life. Like a big purge, after almost three decades of living a philosophy of multi-tracking, flexibility and expansiveness, I narrowed the scope and range of my activities to see if it would intensify what was most creatively meaningful and satisfying. The process came with terror, guilt and a fear of loss and failure.

Fête, 1989 screenprint on paper 53 x 76 cm by Bridget Riley (b.1931)

Fête, 1989
screenprint on paper
53 x 76 cm
by Bridget Riley (b.1931)

According to Silicon Valley leadership consultant and author Greg McKeown, the key to living a fulfilled life is identifying our own highest point of contribution. In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg lays out a plan for finding our vital calling and cutting out the rest. Clearing obstacles, says McKeown, fosters our best work and enriches personal connections. For an artist, his system feels both obvious and a warm nudge to protect and advance creativity. If the goal is to live at our highest expression, here are a few ideas:

Focus: For artists, especially in the beginning, it can be easy to believe that any opportunity is worth exploring. Working is good and builds skills and knowledge while honing a voice, but unsteered, it can also dilute purpose and the potential for mastery. “We are not born focusing,” my dad would tell me. “It’s an acquired skill that requires initial effort and constant upgrading.”

Cantus Firmus, 1972-3 acrylic on canvas 241.3 x 215.9 cm by Bridget Riley

Cantus Firmus, 1972-3
acrylic on canvas
241.3 x 215.9 cm
by Bridget Riley

Streamline: “Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend,” writes McKeown about his own lack of social and professional discipline. He suggests getting good at “no,” its secret power percolating in our beliefs about what is actually of value. You might need to do some forensics on what gets your attention. Ask yourself where your calling — art — sits on the totem pole. After a bit of practice, you can expedite time-consuming deliberations and speed up the process.

Edit: If you don’t prioritize your life,” writes Greg, “someone else will.” He says that what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. In being your own editor, you get to design your life as you would any composition — to serve and work for its best purpose. “An editor is not merely someone who says no to things. A three-year-old can do that,” writes McKeown. “Nor does an editor simply eliminate; in fact, in a way, an editor actually adds. What I mean is that a good editor is someone who uses deliberate subtraction to actually add life to the ideas, setting, plot and characters.”



D, 1968 screenprint on paper 75.6 x 74.9 cm by Bridget Riley

D, 1968
screenprint on paper
75.6 x 74.9 cm
by Bridget Riley

PS: “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” (Greg McKeown)

Esoterica: Less, but better: Now fill up your consciously designed life with more of what brings you the most satisfaction. In art, this can be both terrifying and electrifying. Ask yourself, “What can be?” A lovingly constructed routine will cement habits for future effortlessness. “Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life,” writes Greg. “Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ they ask, ‘What do I want to go big on?’”

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.

“Focusing isn’t just an optical activity, it is also a mental one.” (Bridget Riley)



  1. I like this question – ‘What do I want to go big on?’

    Yesterday, I sold a small painting sketch in the gallery by special appointment. They were leaving you see, before I would open today. What fun we had looking at small painting sketches of local places that the family had discovered and viewing the larger paintings on the wall. An hour later, they left with this small painting sketch under their arm, followed up by a photo with the painter. (They have no idea how rare a photograph of the painter is – but we shall not tell them will we!?) Sometimes, this life as a gallery owner and painter can only be described as magical – mostly because of those moments we connect with others in play.

    This is one of the things I want to go big on – encouraging lasting connections to our natural landscapes. It is, I believe, a continued development of our understanding and appreciation of our natural world that will give us any hope of changing our human ways of exploitation. It is my commitment while painting the landscapes I love to then find ways to engage others in their protection. This I am going really Big on!

  2. Hi Sara~My copy of The Letters arrived this week and I couldn’t be happier to once again have your Dad’s voice in my head. And thank you for your voice in this letter…I can appreciate your courage (and your fear) in culling 3 decades of accumulating. I may be ready to follow your lead. It’s easy to get drunk on supplies and techniques but I’m convinced it’s not good for my process.

    p.s. You might enjoy (if you haven’t already listened to it) Tim Ferriss’ interview with Greg McKeown:

  3. The large screen Mac is a good foil for the last Bridget Riley black square. Very dimensional. Where is the audience in the plot to remove items from our work? The creator and the viewer exist in the person at the easel, or with the spray paint or corps de ballet. We can eliminate the old work, after documentation, and feel new. The ground is always moving, and it is a beautiful thing. Thanks, Sara

  4. “Identifying my highest point of contribution” … that says it all.. I’ve spread myself far and wide, exploring, painting every living thing, being curious and studying with too many teachers.. I have just finished 20 years of teaching oil painting, and this concept will be my guiding light to decide how to spend the last passage of my life. Sara, you and your dad have always tapped into the ‘collective consciousness in the artistic realms’, and hit me square in the face when I needed it!
    Let the purging of ‘what isn’t necessary ‘ now begin!
    I appreciate you so much. (-:

  5. Very, very interesting and thought-provoking article, Sara. Thank you! And the art you’ve chosen to illustrate it bring to mind other masters of their style like Carlos Cruz-Diez and Rita Letendre, whose work also provide answers to the question “what do I want to go big on?”

  6. Sandra Donohue on

    Definitely “bang on!” This one has come at a relevant time for me, as I have had to step down from a lot of volunteer positions. After over a year I am still haunted by guilt, but working on getting over that. I really appreciate the work of those who are filling my shoes, even if things aren’t done ‘my way.’

  7. This article is chock-full of things I want to be able to draw up when I need it–and explains why I focus on the intersection of art and human needs. I must read this book.

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