Extraordinary artist


Dear Artist,

Artists write to say that they can do it one day and not the next. Simple as the problem may sound, it has always been a great curiosity to me. Some time ago I invented a method called “IAEAS.” It sounds Zeus-like, like a Greek god, and in a way it is. It stands for the “I’m An Extraordinary Artist System.” Before you turn me in, let me explain:


Eggs in an Egg Crate”
oil on Masonite, 1975
by Mary Pratt (1935- )

Lack of confidence is an ongoing scourge to both amateur and professional. It presents itself in the form of a block. Compositions self-destruct, brushes fiddle, ideas wither and abort. The causes are many and specific to each artist. They include negativity, jinxes, attitudes, fears, clutter, anxiety, guilt, debt, previous failure and the plain ordinary blues. Can’t do it, won’t do it, takes over.

Artists must know that bouts of incompetence come with the territory. IAEAS works by allowing yourself short blasts of acting in an extraordinarily confident manner. It’s almost, but not quite, what the Greeks called “hubris” — insolent pride. The artist tells herself that she is not troubled by the sorts of concerns that other artists are prone to. She sees herself as a goddess of art and an island unto herself. If she so wishes, she may come to a primal state where trodden paths are not taken, where old tapes are overwritten. If she so wishes she may simply find a rebirth of her energy, her vision and her stroke. High hubris overcomes a tired brush. Flying from a prepared workspace (paint well squeezed) she takes a stand (stand up for a change) — an “attitude” that sweeps impedimenta aside. It’s a ploy — a Trojan Horse that you drag into your studio. Artists who try this system have found that when they keep it up for an hour or so, they can repeat the action. With repetition the habits are formed or reformed and the blocks can be sidelined. With this minor and forgivable self-delusion a kind of honesty arises. Simply and brilliantly, disabilities melt, process takes over and miracles begin again to happen. IAEAS means standing up tall for yourself. “Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.” (Helen Keller)


“Dishcloth on Line #3”
mixed media on paper 1997
by Mary Pratt

Best regards,


PS: “Walk to your easel casually, but with a dollop of arrogance.” (Harley Brown)

Esoterica: If this subject interests you please note that on a previous occasion I wrote a letter called “Confidence.” It touches on the dual nature of the creative mind. “I seem to be two people. One who does not paint and one who does. The one who does not paint assumes that the one who does can paint anything. The one who is the painter sometimes finds it difficult to live up to that faith.” (Mary Pratt)

This letter was originally published as “Extraordinary artist” on March 26, 2004.

mary-pratt_blue-geishaDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, hereProceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“My only strength is finding something where most people would find nothing.” (Mary Pratt)




  1. I love this letter…… it brings a smile to my face and a twinge to my heart … this is the man that moved so many artists forward in ways he will never know …. thank you .

    • This is so good. I am a writer. I married a man I couldn’t write with. I went 16 years without writing. I am almost dead from not writing. I am an old woman who hasn’t written. I can barely call myself a writer any more, but yesterday I wrote a poem. It was called, This House. It compares the house I ended up with with my soul. I take the time to tell you my sad story as a warning. Write. Paint. Don’t play it safe.

      • Jil Coolidge on

        thank you, Thia. I heard this message from my very stoic mother-in-law just before she died. I’ve never forgotten it.




      • Louise Shotton on

        Oh my!!!!! I haven’t painted in oils for at least 10 yrs., There was big trauma that happened then and that would be why

      • Nancy Cantelon on

        THIA: You’re a good writer. You paint with words, and I understand exactly what you mean. Sometimes even a long interval between stretches of high productivity can lead to fresh ideas and greater professionalism. We learn and soak up inspiration every day.

        I would love to read ‘The House.’

  2. What a great letter; and Thank You for featuring the work and words of Mary Pratt. – I had the chance to meet her in St. John’s in the 90’s when I was a mother of 2 toddlers and new to Newfoundland, from California where I had been an active plein air painter. She spoke words of encouragement into my artistic heart that sustained me thru a very difficult time. As I began to learn about her life and her work, I realized where her wisdom came from.
    She is a Canadian treasure.

  3. R. M. Anitta Trotter on

    Tubes of paint. What inspiration!
    As a long-time user of liquid acrylics, but with several pounds of tubes in my studio, as soon as my health returns, I will tackle a canvas with a big brush using tube paint and my left hand. Looking forward to the next phase.
    Thank you, Sara, for continuing these letters.
    PS. Art has had to take a backseat to family issues for sometime, but that has passed. And my webpage myexpose.com disappeared with my money. Thinking of using Facebook. Any ideas on that?

    • Have you thought about using Pinterest? I share my favorite photographs in one of my files but one could easily use one’s profile solely as an art gallery of one’s work. It’s free unless one wants to pay a fee for a business set up (I’ve no idea how much that would cost or what that gets you). If I can just overcome my blocks I might one day be able to share some paintings or drawings! I love this post…totally needed it (thinking of oneself as a Trojan horse – sneaking in to make art – yes!). It’s horrible how draining illness can be on one’s confidence and one’s perspective. I’ve been fighting an endless negative mental dialogue – if I could just find the off switch and put a new record on – even one that sneers, ‘I dare you pick up your brush and finish that painting gathering dust! I dare you to be happy!’ – that would be an improvement.

  4. Jamuna Snitkin on

    the artist in one’s small ego self feels. all the shades of in security. I find it is a matter of will to get in there and just begin. Only then can the artist’s inspiration gradually take over in the asking. “what now?”and listening for the answer.
    I don’t do well thinking I know.

  5. As I look out my kitchen window, the morning mist has already left. Now the glistening sunlight on the spring garden beckons me to dance with it, and the birds are asking me to sing with them. Oh how these morning moments are fraught with an anxiousness and insecurity as I wonder if I will do even a tiny bit of what I have intended to do this day. So now I will walk outside to dance with the sunlight and sing a love-song with the birds. Intentions are my will for this day. Perhaps the sunlight and the birds will help guide me in their fulfillment.

    • How poetic! Beautiful words! It makes me want to walk and dance with the sunlight and the birds right now. Unfortunately it’s gray and wet – we are having Spring shows here. Your post has awakened my imagination… thank you.

    • Sharon,

      Thank you for the beautiful poetic prose. I mirror your thoughts and feelings today.

      However, we must not let our feelings of “not being enough” conquer! I am going out right now with a “little arrogance” and going to squeeze some gushy paint and paint with gusto. Then those self-defeating thoughts will have to take a back seat!!!

  6. What a wonderful reminder for those of us who seem to shape shift by the day, Sara. Robert’s and your letters come at perfect times, when the going seems hopeless, and then I smile and go create something new. Thank you, both, from creative center.

  7. My work, sculpture, requires a good bit of physical work, often near violence. So on a non-artist day I pull out a log and just beat the hell out of it; mallet chisel, chain saw. Usually sometime before lunch the log says OUCH! and tells me to get serious. So either I do or I take a walk or bike 20 km. The next day it all flows. This goes back to a former article about anger and art. Our modern world not only does not validate negative emotions it wants us to repress them. 90% of the time blocked art is blocked (negative) emotion.

    • Ronaldo Norden on

      Hey Norman, whoever said artists make good business people? Especially when they take on a commission and the client wants to know how much $ . Then half way thru the artist figures out that they are way off in their quote, like a dollar an hour now. Then that other voice, the non artist kick in. You’re a total failure! Then with the passage of time, kindness sometimes prevails, the commission image becomes a gift to the universe, and the client. On it goes…making beauty.

  8. kathryn taylor on

    Thank you Thia for your instruction,”Write.Paint. Don’t play it safe.” Thanks Sharon, for your description of a beautiful morning. And thank you Robert and Sara, for sharing these encouraging and inspiring letters and artwork!

    • Manushalini Nandwani on

      Thank you Sara & Robert for this highly inspiring write-up. I too have experienced this shifts in confidence, which is every creative person’s bane.
      This article was so helpful. Just realising that every artist goes through periods of ‘highs & lows’ makes it easier to strengthen ones resolve to not give up!
      Thank you!

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop


https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Line_Of_Fire_2_Hanlon_2019-wpcf_300x222.jpgLine of Fire 2, 2019
6 x 8 inches

Featured Artist

Christine Hanlon, whose work has been compared to that of Edward Hopper, creates ‘urban landscapes which quietly exude atmosphere.’


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.