Dear Artist,

Among the emails that came in after my letter about Low Self-Esteem, Ralph Giannattasio of Wyndmoor, PA wrote: “I don’t believe I have LSE (if you listened to my wife she’d tell you I suffer from the opposite) but when it comes to my artwork I’m a real apologist. If art-LSE were painful I’d be rolling around on the floor in agony. Julia Child’s motto was ‘Never Apologize’ and I believe I need to adopt that motto with my artwork. What do you think?”

Thanks, Ralph. Don’t move too fast on that one. I’ve noticed a lot of really fine artists openly denigrate their own work. They’re not doing it to attract compliments, either. It seems to me it’s part of the stabilizing act we need for creative progress. It can even be false and self-delusionary, but it just might be a smart ploy.

Evolved artists compartmentalize their confidence. They tend to be audacious at the primary easel and critical at the secondary easel. Allowing themselves the satisfaction of dissatisfaction, they stealthily check their efforts for the quality they seek.

We all know of perfectly incompetent artists who never apologize for anything. This, too, is a form of self-delusion that sends a lot of substandard work out and about.

The real art is to develop the skills to vet your art prior to its completion. Clarifying and isolating elements in the work that may need revising — and doing so verbally — is not a bad thing, even in front of others.

The first trick is to identify those elements that are fixable and those that are not. The second trick is to know how to fix the bad stuff without losing the audacity you had in the first place. The third trick is to know it’s all an illusion, and with the help of your devious creative mind you have once more done the best you can under the circumstances. The fourth trick is to avoid the trap of perfectionism. At some point you must abandon all your façades and get on with the next project, no matter what your wife says.

Best regards,


PS: “Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings. If I were once to settle down and be satisfied with the surface of life, with its divisions and its clichés, it would be time to call in the undertaker… So, then, this dissatisfaction which sometimes used to worry me and has certainly, I know, worried others, has helped me in fact to move freely and even gaily with the stream of life.” (Thomas Merton)

Esoterica: Dissatisfaction is a significant key to quality. “Art,” said the American sculptor John Chamberlain, “is basically made by dissatisfied people who are willing to find some means to relieve the dissatisfaction.” In the midst of dissatisfaction ways are found. Without dissatisfaction it is swiftly possible to fall in love with your own mediocrity. Utter dissatisfaction can be liberating. “If the wine is not good,” said Michelangelo, “then throw it out.”


Be kind to yourself
by Bonny Current, Wolcott, CT, USA

I can’t say I am ever completely satisfied with a painting. I don’t think that is a negative thing — since I am always looking to see what I might do differently if I were to do it again. I am easily bored, so I never do a painting again — but I may do the same subject many times. Mostly I am looking at my work from a technical view — how could I improve the light effects or contrast, what would lead the eye better, how can I make the best impact or convey that mood better. I am also careful to notice the things I think are successful because that is important too. It is the way I would critique a student — so I need to be as kind to myself!


Don’t denigrate to customers
by Carole Böggemann Peirson, Townsend, VA, USA


“Morning Dew”
original painting
by Carole Böggemann Peirson

Your best painting will always be the NEXT one and beauty is in the eye of the beholder… so when talking to (potential) customers, why take away from the beauty that was just created? You can discuss possible improvements with your artist-peers and actually make the world a bit more beautiful for everyone else!


There is 1 comment for Don’t denigrate to customers by Carole Böggemann Peirson

From: catherine robertson — Sep 30, 2009

Carole, Just had to tell you how beautiful your painting is. Before I barely looked at it at all, I felt the soft, cool dewy grass and could smell the fresh, new morning. You’ve captured it all, and it really come through, even though I’m not seeing the origianl. Thank you for the peaceful, soft, morning stroll through the wet grass and the cool, fresh air!


Impossibility of the goal
by John Crowther, Los Angeles, CA, USA


original cartoon
by John Crowther

I see it slightly differently. I personally define Art as the metaphors with which we share our unique experience of life with others. Because experience is fleeting, and because metaphors are always imperfect, we are incapable of achieving our ultimate goal. We artists must a priori always remain dissatisfied. I’ll never forget Alec Guinness as the artist Gully Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth gazing wearily at a mural he’d labored on long and hard. As he took what would be his last look at it he sighed and muttered sadly, “It’s not what I had in mind.”

There are 2 comments for Impossibility of the goal by John Crowther

From: Sandra Bos — Sep 29, 2009

I love this cartoon…a little silly..a little laughter, BOY, WHAT A RELIEF!!


From: Rami Scully — Sep 29, 2009

How wonderful to find someone who remembers so lovingly the film, The Horse’s Mouth! And your cartoon has just become a favorite of mine, as well.


They get what they get
by Ellen Margaret Hendricks, Smackover, AR, USA

I am not a fine artist, however, but a sign artist. There aren’t very many of us left since computers were invented and began to take over our profession. But I stick with it because I know I’m good at it, and I don’t know what else to do at this point in my life. That said, I want to comment about “Never apologize.” I do not. If a customer points out a flaw in the paint or some other minor human defect, I tell him that is part of the charm of hand painting. What I really want to say is, “If you want perfection, get a sticker.” But I don’t because it’s rude. I do preliminary sketches for a fee, and if they don’t want a sketch, then they get what they get. I am a perfectionist and take pride in my work, and they have plenty of pix to look at for my style. I also require half the money up front, and I tell them when to expect their order.


The tyranny of the ‘next’ painting
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Facing the Future”
egg tempera, 22 x 28 inches
by Brigitte Nowak

Your letter brings to mind a comment made by Canadian artist Ken Danby, during a course I took with him at the University of Guelph. One of my classmates asked him during a slide show of his work, “Which is the best painting you’ve ever done?” His response, given after careful thought, has stayed with me: “The next one.” In order to improve, both technically and aesthetically, we constantly try and hit the high notes, when our ideas, subject, interpretation and skill of execution join together in a successful conclusion (whether that be a performance, painting, poem, etc.). For most of us, this rarely happens. In the hundreds of images I’ve created over the years, there are, maybe, half a dozen or so that have the magic I always seek to achieve. I’d like to think that it is this striving for magic that separates the artists among us from those people who live their lives in a more mundane fashion. But other professions also have these magic moments: a gymnast’s perfect routine, the moment when a scientist’s theory finally bears fruit, when a teacher sees a student’s eyes light up with understanding of a difficult concept, when a parent connects with a child… I agree with you, and with the “tricks” you enumerate for success, but think that in the third trick you should have suggested that your readers do “the best you can under the circumstances”: there should be no “making do” in the work we create.

There are 2 comments for The tyranny of the ‘next’ painting by Brigitte Nowak

From: Carol — Sep 28, 2009

What a beautiful seascape!


From: Reggie Sabiston — Sep 28, 2009

Beautiful painting…and I totally agree with you.


Accept the compliment
by Angela Lynch, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Between the dunes”
acrylic painting
by Angela Lynch

Maybe the flip side to always apologizing is knowing when to accept a compliment graciously. We’ve all heard it and done it ourselves: someone pays us/our art… a compliment, and we immediately pop out with all the things that are “wrong” with us/it. I’ve always felt that a compliment is given honestly (you can tell when it’s a suck-up) and that expression of honesty is a way a person can tell you, without getting ridiculed or put down, how they feel. It is given genuinely. As recipients of compliments, we should learn to recognize how and why it is given, and from where, and just say “Thank you.”

There is 1 comment for Accept the compliment by Angela Lynch

From: Julia McLernon — Oct 01, 2009

Here, here!

It’s time to bring an end to the misery of false modesty and self-deprecation. You could not have put it more elegantly; a simple “Thank you” is all that is required.


Not sure if approval is sincere
by Margo Goodman, Revelstoke, BC, Canada


“Woodenhead park”
pen and ink drawing
by Margo Goodman

The style I have developed in my painting has been a struggle, as I felt the need to “classify” the style for many years. This past two years I have eliminated this need and just create and the rest be damned. If ‘others’ don’t like it that is their problem. I have a difficult time when people say ‘I like this.’ I always think, Really? Are you sure? Myself, I am very satisfied with a finished painting. If I am not it will not proceed out into public until I am satisfied. Sometimes this can take several weeks to months of staring at it to figure why I am not satisfied. So there is this doubt that others can connect with my art. What is that all about? Also I never apologize for my art. After all it is a part of ME, and one should not have to apologize for putting their soul on canvas.


Dangers of self-denigration
by Rick Rogers, St. Albert, AB, Canada


original painting
by Rick Rogers

I agree that an artist will benefit greatly from the ability to self-critique, problem solve, and accept imperfection. However, open denigration of your own work is a great way to either prove to prospective buyers that it isn’t very good, or appear disingenuous. Worse, repetitively doing so may even convince you that your work is less than worthwhile. It’s hard enough to promote and effectively price your work so that it will sell, without putting out negative messages. Julia was right; don’t apologize for your work. Critique it privately; sell its positive aspects publicly.

There is 1 comment for Dangers of self-denigration by Rick Rogers

From: Janet Toney — Oct 06, 2009

“Critique it privately; sell its positive aspects publicly.”

Perfect. Thanks for reminding me of something I used to know and do!


Miles Davis apology?
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic


wood sculpture
by Norman Ridenour

Towards the end of his life Miles Davis, the jazzman who owed no one an apology for his life’s work, was interviewed in an eight part series on NPR. Towards the end the interviewer said, “Miles, you have performed around the world thousands of times, you must have often come away from an evening feeling like you did good work.” Miles, long pause and then in his gravel laden voice, “Yes, three times.” When we are happy with what we do it is time to stop. As Merton said in your quote, we have died. Too bad, but most people never live.

There is 1 comment for Miles Davis apology? by Norman Ridenour

From: don — Sep 29, 2009

Thanks Norman for reminding me about that quote from Miles Davis. I remember listening to the intersview and that comment has lingered with me for good reason…..love your work, by the way….


Drawn to the growth process
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA


“Dream House”
acrylic painting
by Rose Moon

I’m taking an advanced plein air oil painting class at a local community college that was lucky enough to bring in a master painter. I’ve been painting off and on most of my adult life, but I knew I needed this class. I was reminded of a Zen story where the master poured tea into a student’s cup until it was over flowing and spilling on the floor. The teacher said “How can I teach you when your cup is already full.” I’m glad I remembered that story. It’s a very challenging place to be. I know who the master is, but it’s hard for me to let go of so many things that no longer serve me.

I was really scared the first couple of classes, but now I’m getting more relaxed and amazing things are starting to happen. Some students are now complaining and some have lost confidence and may not come back. Other students are willing to take risks, make mistakes, and ask questions. We are drawn to the growth process, and we are learning to speak honestly about our attempts. Now I sound arrogant about being humble.

There is 1 comment for Drawn to the growth process by Rose Moon

From: Janet Toney — Oct 06, 2009

I LOVE this painting. It has beautiful colors, to compliment to whimsy! Glad I had time today to roam around Roberts letters!



Faith in the face of rejection
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada


“Dragon memories”
acrylic painting
by Karen R. Phinney

There’s the flip side of the self-denigration thing. A few years ago, I read Depths of Glory by Irving Stone, about the Impressionist artist Pissarro. At the time I was struggling (and have off and on since!) with the whole concept of whether I had it, was wasting my time, etc. This book opened my eyes to the Impressionist brotherhood. They were rejected by the Salon of the day in Paris, looked down upon and treated scornfully, yet they believed in what they were doing. They had faith that they were on a path that was legitimate and valid and stuck with it despite the derision. They also supported each other, painting together on occasion and drinking together where they would endlessly debate technique, etc. It takes guts, it takes confidence, and faith in yourself. I think at the time it lifted me out of the pit of self-pity and despair I was feeling as an artist. I am no impressionist, but I do have a sense that what I am doing has merit and I will continue to pursue it and improve, too. Believe in yourself and what you are doing, no matter what. You can always improve, but you need to have that faith in the journey being worth it all. Not easy sometimes, especially when it comes to sales!




First Light 2

acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
by L. Diane Johnson


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Claudio Ghirardo of Mississauga, ON, Canada, who wrote, “As an artist, you need to be absolutely honest with yourself and the work you do.”

And also Wendy Dumas of Colorado Springs, CO, USA, who wrote, “You have a way of reminding me that, as an artist, I am more in control of my environment than I have ever been. Your thoughts always inspire me in one way or another, but I too often catch them on the run when what I need to do is take them in like fine wine.”

And also Ann Marlar who wrote, “An artist friend of mine once told me ‘If you always strive for perfection you will always be disappointed.’ This thought has made my love and life of painting, collage etc. much more enjoyable. I paint with abandonment and fun, yes fun. If others do not like my creative endeavors then I just continue creating with love and enjoyment.”

And also Gail Nash of NC, USA, who wrote, “I never apologize to anyone — especially someone interested in buying.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Dissatisfaction



From: Lisa Mozzini-McDill — Sep 25, 2009

What a relief! There is hope for us, the dissatisfied. My painting friend Joan often says she would not recognize me if I were not grumbling about my painting. I have often worried that I was putting many off with my dissatisfaction. It is just that I can see how the painting could be so much better. If only it could always come out the way I see it in my head at the start. It is a rare painting I finish and feel happy about. I probably still need to keep my grumbling to myself and not distract my painting partners! You are so right about knowing how to fix the bad without ruining the freshness and confident start. I have ruined paintings reaching for perfection and instead made an overworked mess. Another reason I find plein air painting so freeing! Less time to fuss. Thanks for another good read!


From: Jack James, London — Sep 25, 2009

Grumbling and whining, grumbling and whining. That’s what we do. The thing is some of us start to believe we can’t do it, others know it’s just part of the ploy. Right on Robert.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Sep 25, 2009

I am never ever afraid of a blank canvas and I am usually ecstatic to put the first marks on it. Looking back, I have put some real dogs in shows and it never occurred to me to apologize. I just feel that the painting was what I could do at that point, it was an achievement for me. I don’t think anybody expects me to be perfect. I am very audacious at the primary easel and am getting more and more critical at the secondary – but I don’t see all that as very important. I will get better and progress regardless if someone sees my bad paintings or not. I suppose this would make me a HEP, but I don’t feel that I am one. I don’t feel “happy” about everything – quite contrary, I see lot of mistakes and shortcoming and I am dissatisfied a lot, but that’s just not all that important to me. The journey is important, the learning process, and the sheer opportunity to be an artist…being faithful to my art, whether anyone likes it or not.

I noticed that artists who critique other artist’s work often try to figure out if the person is LSE or if she/he has a bloated ego. That seems to affect the critique. I am always aware of that and when I receive a critique I am trying to figure out if there was any such connotation to it. The best critiques for me are the straightforward ones which just simply state what doesn’t work well in my work. If there is something extraordinarily well done, it doesn’t hurt to hear that too.

From: Frances Stilwell — Sep 25, 2009

The difference between perfect and adequate is sometimes hard to identify. Is the question what communicates to the artist or is it what communicates to another person (with good eyes)?

From: Keith — Sep 25, 2009

I know I have felt dissatisfaction many times, but in my better mind I see it as having the privilege to have a voice to say something. As I see the world I come to realize the scope of that voice, and the work is kind of an editor telling me I could have said this, or I should have said that. Sometimes it is saying too much, but in this frame of mind I find Art most enlightening. I haven’t been saying much lately, but it does not mean I am conceding the humble privilege. Thanks as always for the voice you give us to consider these issues. I find great meaning in the process.

From: David Glover — Sep 25, 2009

I learned early on to keep my own dissatisfaction to myself. When buyers were looking over my pieces I used to make excuses for this or that in the painting which of course confused them. When I shut up about it I find that they would often select the very pieces that I was least happy with. So what do I know?

Our artistic dissatisfaction is the engine that drives you on to continually make improvements in your work. They may not be noticeable to others from one painting to the next but its a culmlative thing. Over the course of a year you should have noticeably shown growth as a painter. There are very few paintings in my archive that I would be 100% happy with today.

From: Sandy Bonney — Sep 25, 2009

I find myself quite satisfied with my work . . . right after it’s finished. However, if I see it several months or years later, I notice areas that I should have done differently. Those who commissioned the portraits never seem to agree and I can seldom make changes. Since my clients all want their piece yesterday, I do not have the luxury of turning it to the wall for a couple months and going back to make changes. So I end up being both satisfied then dissatisfied with the same work. This may be a good thing, since I file away what I should have done and try not to make the same ‘mistakes’ again.

From: philis raskind — Sep 25, 2009

My dearest friend and mentor for 35 years was the world renown artist, Paul Cadmus, until his death in 1999 at the age of 95. I learned much from Paul as a person who was quick to express his own humility. If someone praised his work he always said thank you so much. He wasn’t grateful (he didn’t have to be!) but he was polite.

I could go on and on about him but the above will do for now. I am the executrix of his estate along with my husband, Jon F. Anderson, who is the executor of same. During the last few years I’ve been archiving Paul’s copious letters, photos, etc. Some day soon they will find a home perhaps in the Smithsonian Museum or Yale’s Bienake library.


From: michelle madalena — Sep 25, 2009

I felt like you understand why I work so hard to just do what I do. People hate me and well so what? I am fighting every second even when I close my eyes to sleep. Life is hard and it doesn’t stop just because I am sleeping. It goes on with the freedom of entering noises and voices into my ungaurded conscience and there begins

the comlexity of seeing images talking and moving my limbs as if I were alive.

The images are quite interesting and their effect lasts long after you can no longer see the colour image in your mind. Arguing this doesn’t really make any sense anymore than admitting this connection because then we can not stop there can you.?

Simply understand and move on like quietly walking in the dark.

From: Jill Stefani Wagner — Sep 25, 2009

I too, am constantly second guessing myself at the easel. I have a great idea for a painting in my mind. I begin the sketch full of hope. But at each stage, I think to myself, “this is definitely not working.” However, I keep at it out of pure stubbornness and hope. Little by little the image seems to come around and at the end of the process, I usually have something that I am quite proud of. Its not perfect though, so I am always learning and attempting to better the previous painting. This is my 27th RiverStone pastel painting and I don’t think I am quite there yet. Oh, well, tomorrow is another day!

From: Paul deMarrais — Sep 25, 2009

Every painting is a tightrope balancing act on so many different fronts. It’s like when a painting is ‘done’. A painting is never done,yet we have made a decision to call it quits and to move on the next project. Artists are called to make many of these arbitrary decisions. I tend to favor leaving my paintings a bit loose, rather than overworking and killing my mediums freshness. Some might see that as a failure and feel I should have worked further. I am never satisfied with any of my paintings but have learned to view it as each painting is taking me on a journey towards discovery and improvement. It’s always ‘the next one” that might be good. I don’t let my dissatisfaction cripple me. Artists need to learn how to take a compliment. I remember being mentored with this skill. I was told not to follow a compliment of my work by getting critical of it. Just say ‘thank you. I am glad you like the painting” and keep my critique to myself. It is easier on me and also values your viewer as well. Let them enjoy your painting. This involves a concept I think is critical for the artist…..ego management. We all know artists who lack ego balance. They seem egomaniacal or suicidally depressed. The trick is to find balance. This is no easy feat and takes constant practice. A show I have going now has been a dismal failure as far as sales. Naturally I am disappointed. I thought the show was attractive, well hung and the pricing was very realistic. I thought I would sell alot paintings. I didn’t. I can’t be paralyzed with grief, lose all confidence in my abilities, blame all sorts of people and other factors for the poor results. I need to go through the emotions I am likely to feel and then pick myself and my paintings up and move on. I have to learn something from the experience and I am sure i will. I’m part of another show in a couple weeks and am making paintings for that show. It’s not easy to put your paintings up on the wall for the public to judge. There are many things that aren’t easy about an artistic career. You have to learn to deal with both success and failure.

From: Jack Dickerson — Sep 25, 2009

All artists, without exception, and all people, MUST get it into their heads that we ALL are simply a work in progress. I advise my students to be very careful with negative self criticsm, and to embrace constructive self criticism. And not to apologize uneccessarily and often about their work. And I advise myself that as well. Be very very careful that you void competitive posturing which may result in self put downs. An artist’s life is a life’s process. We improve slowly at times, quickly at times, and other times maybe we “seem” to take a step backwards. Go with that flow. Accept it. Look for the problems in your/our work. Try to learn how to learn from them and fix them. It all takes time.. like anything else worth doing well.

From: Eleanor Livesly — Sep 25, 2009

My dissatisfaction show up thusly: when I paint again, it’s not primarily to paint something else, it’s to get it right. It shows up as a sort of psychic itch. I read elsewhere on these posts a remark from someone who said she/he would probably quit when it came out perfectly. I have that feeling sometimes myself, but am consoled that I’m not very close.

From: Caroline Trippe — Sep 28, 2009

Dissatisfaction is a characteristic of a questing mind. It has to do with making choices, exploring possibilities. There may always be the question, even when you’ve done something you like, as well as you can at the time: But what if I’d done it this way instead? So maybe that will be answered in the next painting.

From: David Benjamin — Sep 29, 2009

Why apologize? You have done your best and, although you might not be totally satisfied with the result, the viewer might not like your product you owe him/her only what he/she sees.

From: deborah — Sep 29, 2009

I have come to feel that my paintings have a ‘teenage’ awkward stage. If I can work through it, get beyond it, I have something rather grown up and valuable.

From: RJoeH — Sep 29, 2009

Please, Anyone, define for me the “primary easel” and

the “secondary easel.” Are these somethings that I

should have learned in the art schools which I never had

the nerve to attend?

From: Bob — Sep 30, 2009

primary easel is the one on which you paint. Secondary is the one where you put your work in progres to just look at and analyze.

From: Claire Hall — Oct 09, 2009

I tend to overcritize my own work too much. I realize we must examine our work carefully to see where, perhaps, we are lacking in our skills or are not following through with the elements principles that make a painting work. But, sometimes I am too critical and that can be disturbing. Your advice is worthy of saving to critique my next painting.



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