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.



  1. 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 …

  2. 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!!

  3. 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 .

    • Raymond Mosier on

      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.

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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’!

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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!

  10. 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!

  11. 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… I know! Thanks for the wonderful ‘don’t’ list!

  12. 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!

  13. 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

  14. Jane Braithwaite on

    Haha – ‘ Dont’ has never worried me. I usually ‘do’ especially if I’ve been told not to!!!!

  15. Mary Miller-McNutt on

    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.

    Mary Miller-McNutt

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