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:
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.
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.
My favourite Robert letter… and my favourite “Don’t try to please anybody except yourself.” Do try to learn every day and get better… experiment… go down some of those dead ends … there might be something there …
One more think… Do have a Plan B…
I though it was don’t have a plan B………….
Without meteorology to pay the bills as a Plan B I would be eating roots and berries – a paleo diet – maybe not a bad thing :>))
And I think a plan C D E ETC
After my time, so far, of over 8 decades and at least 7 of them painting mostly watercolors I think Robert’s list is right on. I’m like a lot of folks, especially his family, I’m sorry Robert is gone. Sarah, that’s not a put-down. You’re doing great. We, like you, really miss your Dad!!
Don’t give up
Excellent addition to an already great list!
Thank you, the most important “Don’t” of them all!
Dear Painter’s Keys ;
Above all else I have valued Robert’s direct advice such as the advice in this letter. It keeps me on track and I carry his words with me …. thank you .
It is a perfect list. The best thing about a list of “Don’ts” is you can always point them out without every using the word “don’t”. Next time why not ——–? How do you think it would look if——-? etc, etc.
Really strong. Regardless of which world your particular “art” lands in acting, painting, comedy – this is a strong and insightful list. Thanks for sharing it as always….
Hitting home for me. I have been a floral artist for 20 some odd years and fortunate have sold many works of art. I find at this time in my life I push too hard to paint a masterpiece to sell not to fully enjoy the experience. The pressure is on me and has stopped me to find only that subject to go onto the white canvas . I tell artists or others who are afraid to fail by messing up a canvas to go with the flow and be free. Splash move colours and surprise your inner self. Thank you Steven Wolk Canadian Artist August 4th 2015
great letter reminding us of some hidden traps . believe in yourself and DO . your next painting will be your best . I agree with the “don’ts , but I must admit to putting brushes in my mouth
and dipping them in my Starbucks!
This may have been written in 2001 but it is as on target today as it will be tomorrow and twenty years down the line!
An invigorating list! Thanks Robert.
Thanks for sharing, Sarah! I needed this list today! I lOVE IT! Especially ‘Please yourself, Don”t give up, Don’t take yourself too seriously’!
Thank you so much for this life-changing insight.
This summer instead of trying to paint “masterpieces,” I started working with what terrifies me most — losing control of paint, water, and abandoning myself to letting go. The effects are already showing themselves in studio work.
Great letter, I am pleased it was a repost as I did not get it the first time around. Which reminds me……do you know when the Painters Keys book will be available again?
Thanks for asking, Muriel…we’re working on a new distribution system for books…will let you know just as soon as it’s up and running. Thanks for your patience! Sara
This one just might get printed in large font and pinned to my easel. Thanks for reposting it, Sara. Though I miss your dad’s words, I thoroughly enjoy your letters. Keep ’em coming!
New to painting, art and the Keys. This “don’t” list is so timely for me….. Think I will print and post for myself. Thank you.
Welcome to the Keys, D!
Oh, Pearls of wisdom for my birthday – exactly what I need. :-) Thank You. “Down deep I think there shouldn’t be a “don’t” left in the world.” I agree and I also think there is no need for should or shouldn’t. Take all that away from existence, and we’ll all be happy campers while we are here. :-) Peace and love!
A valuable list, to be sure! What a thoughtful man! I am sorry I didn’t get to meet Mr. Genn or take a class with him.
Timely – I really needed that. and… (Thanks for keeping him alive in our hearts, Sara.)
These letters are so appreciated. Thanks for continuing after losing your dad.
Painting is lonely sometimes but connections are inspiring.
Such a positive letter, despite all the don’ts. These are things I needed to be told and my work improved exponentially afterwards as a result.
As an Art Teacher, I’ve always tried to put the positive spin on student’s work.
The don’t statement that hits home for me is: Don’t talk about what you’re going to do! Yikes, I’ve run into issues of sharing too much with other artists because it is in my Teacher nature to do so. Lesson learned…..now I know! Thanks for the wonderful ‘don’t’ list!
I have learned never to tell people what I’m about to do – somehow it’s like dispersing the creative energy and after a while I just don’t do what I said I was going to do, making me into a jolly old liar and feeling pretty silly. So now I just shut up and do what I want to do and tell people afterwards!
unlike life, in art, to quote neitsche, “nothing is true and everything is permitted.” i would add : but be careful because there is a dangerous quality in ecstasy.
Thank you Sara. I am new to your emails and I apologize for having no idea of your Father’s passing. You have my condolences. I can tell you he sounded very much alive to me as I read his letter.
Thank you again. Pam
I WOULD ADD THAT DON’T BELIEVE ALL FAMOUS ARTISTS ARE GENIUSES SO THERE’S NO USE IN EVEN TRYING.
This is everything the searching artist needs to know.It should be pinned on the wall of every studio
Haha – ‘ Dont’ has never worried me. I usually ‘do’ especially if I’ve been told not to!!!!
Great letter by the way!
Thank you for the words of wisdom. Thanks for keeping Robert alive through his words. And thanks for all you do.
The Painter’s Keys are a blessing to all of us.