Dear Artist,

Last night, I dreamt about being part of a group of friends who, one by one, were consumed by a giant python. Before anything permanently terrible happened, the python spit us out and everyone survived. This morning, I went to Google and, according to Carl Jung, the snake dream was a kind of subconscious, impending transformation. As soon as I read this, I felt my skin loosen and start to peel.


Wandjina with Serpents — Dreamtime is a term devised by early anthropologists to refer to a religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs.

“Dreams,” wrote Jung, “are the guiding words of the soul. Why should I henceforth not love my dreams and not make their riddling images into objects of my daily consideration?” Like Jung, I wondered how I might harness these nocturnal pictures and if their vividness could have something to do with my day job. Do artists make good dreamers?


Carnarvon Gorge Rock Art, Queensland, Australia

When researchers at the University of Iowa tracked the sleep of 193 students over several months, they noticed that most people remembered their dreams about half the time. The students were asked to fill out a questionnaire to describe their personality traits, record what time they went to bed and woke up and if they’d had alcohol or caffeine within 4 hours of bedtime. Contrary to popular belief, luxuriously long sleeps of premium quality didn’t much affect dream recall. The best dreamers — those with regular, colourful recall and complex details — were also wanton daydreamers with absorbed inner lives. These raging fantasizers also reeked with poor and irregular sleep habits.


Gwion Gwion figures — Bradshaw rock art, Western Australia

“There is a fundamental continuity between how people experience the world during the day and at night,” concluded University of Iowa Professor of Psychology David Watson. “People who are prone to daydreaming and fantasy have less of a barrier between states of sleep and wakefulness and seem to more easily pass between them.”



PS: “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.” (Maya Angelou)


Nourlangie Rock Art, Kakadu National Park
Northern Territory, Australia

Esoterica: Painting, like creative writing, is at times inappropriately corralled into one of two exclusive camps: reality or fantasy. If you find yourself restricted by one or the other, why not, as an exercise, awaken to borrowing from the other side? In the movies it’s called “day for night” — a cinematic technique where you shoot to simulate a night scene while filming in daylight. At the easel, might we steal from our dreams to colour, reorganize and transform the day? “Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world, for I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame!” (William Butler Yeats)


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory.” (J. R. R. Tolkien)



  1. Great letter. I’ve found that when I’m in a heavy dream period, usually due to some anxiety like going on a trip or being out of money, my productivity drops. I can’t concentrate, jump from project to project, etc. But once that issue is resolved, I use the recurring ideas that came up in the dreams to get the painting started. I’m only seeing now, how intertwined the two processes are.

  2. Good one. Recently I have found more frequent connection between things I am working on and what transpires at night. I don’t recall having seen research on the duration of “long” evolving dreams. Maybe a half second, or more, but I almost seem to be able to have a say in the dream if only a passing nudge to see something better. As a child I had nightmares. Now its more fun. Thanks, Sara

  3. I often ask upon waking, “Who are all those people and who’s painting was that?” My dreams are mostly full of strange art and strange people. The people are not ones I really know, and love. The art I see in dreams is always huge, in my face, non-objective. Again, not what I really know, and dedicate my time to. I sometimes wonder what that means.

  4. “It’s truly ironic that I’m losing sleep in order to pursue my dreams.”

    I just wrote this to a friend’s articulate plea for the plight of black-skinned humans, and it seems relevant to dreaming, which is a vital activity only accessible in the dark of sleep … one that occupies us (if not our awareness) for a third of our lives.

    “As one who spends his time painting, I can only contribute a personal observation. That maybe the core issue is with the colour itself, or rather our inherited, entrenched attitudes toward “dark”. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard (and often from a judgemental voice within me) that a painting is “too dark”, meant in a variety of ways.

    Until “dark” no longer engenders automatic dismissal, experienced as threatening, until it is no longer associated with “menacing”, “void”, “lifeless”,”useless” and “unproductive”; ultimately until we bravely engage in a courageous process of discovery of the non-manifest, and face the fear of death that haunts us, and society, no real inroads will be made; and the author’s dream will remain just that.”

  5. For several months. dreaming and reality have blended, interwoven, and fed reality and art. Sometimes at night, when I think I am awake, the most vivid visions appear. Then during the day, birds, animals, people bring messages feeding both art and life. Sara, this article helps enormously, as I keep living and creating in such chaotic times. We need more!

  6. Anita Williams on

    This was great! I am a bit of an insomniac, but I hadc the luxury of taking a sabbatical to work on my painting EVERY DAY. I sat quietly, to breathe, to meditate, to daydream before I started painting. Really interesting things happened in my art!’

  7. I am at the present working with the arts in a remote Indigenous community in the heart of the Gibson Desert in central Australia so was interested in your choice of rock art. Ours is similar in style but different to the Northern Territory. I have been painting a mural along with the community members 40m long and 3m high on the side of the store which is now finished and am now assisting with the spinifex paper project – they make paper from the spinifex grass and then paint on it with sand and paint. They still do these type of paintings that are drawn on rocks but on canvas as most of the elders here grew up as children wandering the desert as nomads. However slowly as the older people pass away the younger generation are losing a lot of these cultural interests and values. They do much less hunting and gathering. The arts though has proven to be a wonderful bridge for this rapid inevitable cultural change.

  8. I was interrupted in making a comment and just wanted to add one more thing – about dreaming out here amongst Indigenous people in the desert. Of course The Dreamtime is still very present out here. Most of their art is about this – so many dreamtime stories and the Indigenous names for these towns come from the stories. In fact they are often about an abstract thought – like Papulankutja is about the moment when 2 men had been travelling together and then at a certain moment in the story they turn into goannas and the town is about the moment when they looked at each other as they changed into goannas. Dreams out here are reality. Sometimes from my point of view they verge on superstition but other times they are quite prophetic and are often in the form of fables that use images to describe a reality. I remember one time a hole appeared in the track that everyone drove along and it opened up into a cave so they deviated the road and the story was that no-one could close that hole as serpents were coming out of it and causing all the trouble in the community. So often men turn into animals or even stones and vice versa. it is so fascinating to go out bush with the old people and they have a story about every tree, hill, rock that is there – they see dreamtime tracks, rocks that have been significant for thousands of years, every plant has a purpose. I have worked out here many times and each time have quite amazing dreams myself although have not tried to interpret them or place a great deal of importance to them.

  9. Thank you for this inspiring article.
    I did a section on Dreams when I was getting my Masters in Psychology. I wasn’t an artist at the time though I “dabbled” with it. I Learned that I am a lucid dreamer and at times can change the course of dreams while in them to create a better outcome. I started painting about twenty years ago and when I’m stuck on a piece I will put it on a shelf to look at untilI get a new insight. I think as an offshoot of that, I will occassionally get a vision of the piece I’m struggling with in a dream and the answer is magically there for me. Twice I saw the painting in the dream and was able to try different alternatives to “see” which was best.
    My art has been realistic and detailed but in the past year I’ve been trying to loosen up; I’m am even trying some abstract pieces to give me a new freedom. You’re right that when you allow yourself to approach your art in a totally different way, new ideas and possibilities continually flash into your head. I’m anxious to paint them all.
    This article and the comments from other artists has given me encouragement. Thank you

  10. Thanks for shedding light on this intriguing topic. There’s a wonderful book by Harold Klemp called “The Art of Spiritual Dreaming,” which delves into how to discover the wealth of awareness and insights we can gain from dreams. Harold Klemp offers many techniques we can use to better understand and interpret our dreams, as well as many rich examples of all different types of dreams. Through conscious dreaming, we all can get answers to questions in our lives and enrich our experience of the beauty and vast worlds of God.

  11. I have been collecting my dreams for many years. I have learned that when I dream of babies it is about my art. When I first started writing my dreams down there was not much literature out there except for Carl Jung. Now there is a wealth of information about that subject. Everything in dreams is symbolic and I believe some dreams can give us insight and even guidance if you choose to explore them.

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