Easel living


Dear Artist,

After the electronic shower of your New Year’s resolutions, (and my own resolution to grow my hair this year) I was passing my easel and paused to note its magnificence. Like many artists who wrote to mention that they don’t believe in resolutions, looking at the upright, decent instrument that my easel is, I realized that, with its help, things pretty well take care of themselves.


“Woman at a Piano” ca.1871-9
oil painting by
Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931)

Then through the veil of the remaining Christmas nog, I was remembering that time in Vejer de la Frontera when Jack and I were set up in a narrow cobbled street. Some playful Spanish kids had crept up behind us. At what they thought was an appropriate time, they fired off a couple of strings of firecrackers. Jack and I only glanced at the ruckus and at the hysterical, running kids. We were like a couple of cud-chewing cows, our minds dulled to any potential doom by the simple demands of our easels. The sky could have fallen and we wouldn’t have missed a stroke.


“The Artist Ruth Sterling in Her Studio” ca.1892
oil painting by Giovanni Boldini

Stroke: It’s simply a matter of putting the right colours in the right places and doing it well. Touch: Touch can be tender, casual, tentative, bold, curved, straight, thick, thin, sensual, energetic, dramatic or violent. Words: Design, pride, joy, grand, flourish, style, quality, work, play, confectionery. Thoughts: Waiting for the right mood or inspiration is counterproductive. Inspiration comes from doing. Action is more valuable than thought. Preparations: To take moments to scrape along the golden riffles of memory. To cruise present as well as old reference. To decide size and format. To make sure that the tools are ready to go and that supports and materials are readily at hand. To decide to pre-mix colours — or merely to squeeze. To raise or lower a daring blank canvas to its beginning height. To realize that all other artists, living and dead, are sitting right here beside me. To turn up the Mozart, to count blessings and to commit. Regrets: There is never, never enough time at this place.


“The Pianist A. Rey Colaço” 1883
pastel on paper on canvas
by Giovanni Boldini

Best regards,


PS: “I’m as happy as a cow in her stall. That’s the only place where everything is all right.” (Louise Nevelson)

Esoterica: “Easel living” is not necessarily easy living. It’s a low-tech station where toil makes miracles happen. Like a lot of the important places, little things mean a lot. Light, music, handedness, ready ideas and subject matter all play a part. Whether your easel is in the bush or the basement — it holds a promise of well-being and self-sufficiency. With all of the frustrations to be had at an easel, there’s also a cozy smugness. Your easel is the nuclear sun of an uncommon universe.

This letter was originally published as “Easel living” on January 6, 2004.


The audio letters are now ready to give as a gift!
The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“This is the place of creative incubation. At first, you may find nothing happens there. But, if you have a sacred place and use it, take advantage of it, something will happen.” (Joseph Campbell)

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