Effortless perfection


Dear Artist,

Carefully curated images on social media of shiny children and food, vacations and relationships presented by normal breathing humans, are irking social scientists. Apparently, the suffocating display of a polished facsimile of human experience without evidence of the associated toil, rather than delivering the desired feeling of connection and love, is alienating us and giving us the blues.


Cetology, 2002, by Brian Jungen
sculpture built using plastic chair parts

When it comes to painting, we do expect a level of proficiency and an absence of mistakes. And to call it art, we look for magic. As humans, we may also need some sign of struggle to know we’re dealing with the real. I recently visited an art dealer who took pains to tell me about an artist’s process of layering house paint on a strip of linoleum to achieve a linoleum-y-looking house-painty thing. His justification felt like an earnest response to the popular suspicion of contemporary art. In the last hundred years, experts have manufactured into art’s story an “effort” metric — think poverty, outsider-ness, deep thoughts or process. A new absence of obvious signs of skill or toil has saddled contemporary art with a reliance on myth-magic to explain its worthiness. If this magic isn’t immediately apparent, an instructive blurb can help. Like Rembrandt, the universally magical Brian Jungen doesn’t need a blurb, though words for his work are a seductive calling for many.


“Nonchaloir (Repose)”
oil on canvas, 1911
by John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)

For the rest of us, we play between the realms of our hardscrabble and the aspiration of effortlessness. Those of us who work in hyper-detail, super realism or chiseling have the workman’s edge. A bronze, too, comes with a set of knowns about its process and the artist’s pocketbook. Still, nobody’s impressed by the painstaking arrangement of orchestral instruments if the symphony itself doesn’t inspire. Art, like charm, awards no medal for sweat alone.

“Mine is the horny hand of toil,” said John Singer Sargent, while transcending realism for virtuosic light and shadow-play. Deft, gestural fingers and chins and oily folds of silk eclipse the babblings of future curators. Knowing his effortlessness to be but an illusion, we worship at this perfection.


“El Jaleo” by John Singer Sargent



PS: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” (Brené Brown)

Esoterica: The myth of effortless perfection betrays our vulnerability — the very conduit to intimacy and connection. As human beings, we crave the real and want to link our common strivings. In art, we search out these indicators of authenticity while toiling for polish and master craftsmanship. And how do we summon the magic we call artistry? In cleverness, innovation, imagination, ingenuity or originality? In exertion or skill? In pure struggle? I’ve always had the feeling that paintings are the products most impossible to divorce from human touch. The illusion of effortless perfection we reach for simmers with potential within its own exquisite vulnerability.


J.S.S. study

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“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.” (Winston Churchill)



  1. OH, Sara! This struck such a deep chord, as painting allows me to fail, and try again. A photo captures a second in time, but shiny and slick do not satisfy the need I have to apply paint, ink, gold leaf and see what emerges. Creating excites the best parts of us, gives all of us the feeling of being alive.

    • Nancy Ericksen on

      Thank you, Ms. Manning, for the intuitive distinction between the photo and a painting. That comment was as insightful as anything in the blog. Gave me pause to ponder……

      • Mary Manning on

        Nancy Erickson, Thank you. As a journalist, I used photos all the time to illustrate stories, but after losing my reporting career, the full-time artist emerged.

      • A photo, unless by s photographer of artistic skill, is usually a map whereas a painting is the experience resulting from the artist traveling on all the roads in the map.

  2. Lucille Blainey on

    This is so real, so true, so affirming of what it takes to create. Thank you so much for this letter which I will be quoting often.

  3. This is a wonderful letter, Sara! making art is so hard to put in words, but you do it beautifully. I like what you say about toil, craftsmanship and artistry. We need all of it. I like to think that each of us is pursuing something unique too. Nobody else can do what each of us does – so if we don’t do it, the world will be left without it, and our potential will be left unrealized. Perfection is just an illusion indeed, the joy is in the toil.

  4. Nancy Ericksen on

    As always, a thought provoking piece. A lovely side effect of this blog is the many thought provoking and intelligent comments from your reader base.

  5. Venkatarao Rao on

    Sarah, well said. Perfection without toil is almost. Non existent. Even the. Out talented have toil to some extent. For. Osf of us it takes more toil.

    • Venkatarao Rao on

      I typed the comment on an iPad, with auto correction, it guesses what you want to say . I am sorry for the mistakes. I can correct the mistakes on Facebook by editing. I meant to say “even the most talented have to toil to some extent. For most of us it takes more toil”

  6. Grandly stated, Sara! I love your deep philosophical approach.
    Also feel validated / vindicated on some level! Never have been able to express this quite as well as you just have!

    Sargent’s quote: “Start with a flourish, end with a flourish” – applies to this concept,
    as does Cezanne’s: “A work of art must begin and end in emotion. In the middle is technique and craftsmanship.”

    I LOVE Brene Brown’s TED Talks and writings on Vulnerability.

    And Thank You for introducing me to Brian Jungen’s wonderful work!
    Sending Warm Hugs, and a Many Thanks for keeping your dad’s legacy so beautifully! Somewhere, he is proud!
    ~ Diane

  7. Virginia Urani on

    Oh Sara, I must agree with the comments thanking you for continuing your Dad’s work with the letters. You express your thoughts beautifully and I am very grateful you are continuing in his work. After years in the corporate world it finally became possible for me to devote time to my painting. Classes, workshops, and books provide a lot of “how to” information, but I have found that there is an entire separate world of questions and thoughts about what I would call the philosophy of the individual doing the work. And there is no one with whom to discuss the questions or thoughts. For me, that is a big part of your father’s letters … the honest sharing of the struggles, observations, failures and successes of working at this thing called art. This letter just made me realize that the reason I love painting even though there are many struggles is that magic moment when that blank canvas covered with searching lines and brushstrokes becomes complete and you feel it in your heart.

  8. Congratulations to all who helped get this newsletter out. You have don an excellent job. Really like the new format. The paintings are always great choices. Thanks for your work.. It dows inspire
    Rich Mason

  9. Pingback: March 15, 2016 - Sorta Perfect - Life in Full ColorLife in Full Color

  10. I read a book about Sargent on only his small charcoal drawings of heads. They look as if he just dashed them off but he did one and threw it away and then did another, threw it away and then another……. I heard that people hated to pose for him and he hated doing these little drawings. Everyone in society wanted one. But they said he swore and sweated and ripped and drew for a looooong time for each one. Some took more than one sitting. To look at, they seem fast and wonderful. Just as does the satin skirt of the lounging young woman. Small sections of his paintings are like amazing abstracts. I saw the exhibition at The Whitney long ago and it was the most inspiring exhibit I have ever seen. He mixed the colors of the paints on his brushes at times. Look closely at the folds of her skirt and her hands. I worked in portraits. He was my idol. D. C. Veeder

  11. My only complaint about your wonderful posts is that I will never have a cleaned out email box because I cannot bare to delete your emails. Each and every one of your posts is filled with such love and inspiration and sharing of the art spirit that I am condemned to an inbox filled with many many of your posts gone by. Thank you for all that you do.

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