Dear Artist,

Yesterday I visited an energetic fellow who has produced his first ten paintings during the past three weeks. At his request I gave him my dollar crit — my best, most thoughtful, encouraging and circumspect. Every artist is different, I told myself — the best a crit guy can do is to be empathetic. As I drove away I remembered how I might have saved him a lifetime of trouble by just telling him a few particular things that he was not to do. I’ve often thought this. But I dislike the word “don’t.” I don’t like to use it. Down deep I think there shouldn’t be a “don’t” left in the world. In some ways, in art, there isn’t. So, at the risk of sounding authoritative, I’ll just whisper the word:


​Leonardo da Vinci’s study for a flying machine

Don’t do watercolours on cheap paper.
Don’t use fugitive inks.
Don’t put your brush in your mouth — or smoke.
Don’t think it’s going to get easier.
Don’t lock yourself into anything.
Don’t try to sell your work right away.
Don’t sweat the small stuff; go for the big picture.
Don’t worry when somebody says your work is not so hot.
Don’t worry when somebody says your work is great.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Don’t be afraid to do something over and over.
Don’t listen too much to perceived authority.
Don’t be afraid to listen to your own intelligence.
Don’t try to please anybody except yourself.
Don’t be either too vain or too modest.
Don’t talk about what you’re going to do.
Don’t be afraid to look at other people’s stuff.
Don’t think you’re an undiscovered genius.
As well as “don’t,” don’t use the word “can’t,” “won’t,” and “shouldn’t.”
Don’t give up.


​Study drawing for a helicopter or “Aerial screw”
by Leonardo da Vinci

Best regards,


PS: “Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.” (Leonardo Da Vinci)

Esoterica: Now that’s done, here’s this: By eliminating the “d” word and its partners from your vocabulary you can put a positive spin on yourself and those around you. Informed optimism is the flood that lifts and carries seemingly impossible projects.

This letter was originally published as “Don’t” on August 21, 2001.

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J. Gelb is a noteworthy source of Leonardo insights.

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