Fresh drive


Dear Artist,

According to productivity gurus, there are two types of motivation; extrinsic and intrinsic, with extrinsic relying on the “if/then” reward model, and intrinsic depending more upon personal, internal drives. Extrinsic can be great for tasks; establishing a daily writing habit, getting kids to do chores, say, or exercising, but can fall apart when it comes to advancing the establishment of a routine into a higher, creative achievement. When it comes to art, researchers have found that the “if/then” model can actually destroy motivation. Artists, it seems, are inspired by everything but an external reward.

Cow mask for a cat, 1938 by Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

Cow mask for a cat, 1938
by Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

Intrinsic motivation is dependent upon three main factors; autonomy, or auteurship; mastery, or the pursuit of excellence in a given skill; and purpose, the soul-driven intention behind a quest or endeavour. Finding out one’s purpose is a lifelong exercise — and should be mutable and ever-evolving. We know that temporal landmarks like birthdays force us to reflect on the big picture and can trigger clearer thoughts on our purpose. For many, it’s the best time to change behavior, set goals or take action. For artists, this phenomenon, dubbed “the fresh-start effect,” has often been hacked into a daily practice for the purpose of cultivating renewed inspiration quickly and regularly. For us, it can be a shortcut to refreshing our internal creative drive.

Big Red, 1959 Sheet metal, wire, paint 74 × 114 inches by Alexander Calder

Big Red, 1959
Sheet metal, wire, paint
74 × 114 inches
by Alexander Calder

Daniel Pink, an expert on human motivation, has made a case for imploring businesspeople to understand what artists innately already practice: in the near-carrotless world of fine art, where the journey is often the only reward, the ideas are inherently better. Without a known destination or straight path to victory, artists dwell in the periphery of problems and solutions, forced to look around and take time to contemplate options and routes to discovery. The secret to meaningful conceptual thinking is to circumvent the obvious and embrace the mysteries. This is how we surprise ourselves and push beyond the “first thought.” While the first thought may be the most expedient, it will not advance the artform. You must commit, over and over again, to putting yourself in the arena of better ideas, so that a process of discovery can take hold. “Ideas,” wrote John Steinbeck, “are like rabbits. You get a couple, learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

La Grand vitesse, 1969 Painted steel 43 × 30 × 54 feet by Alexander Calder

La Grand Vitesse, 1969
Painted steel
43 × 30 × 54 feet
by Alexander Calder



PS: “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” (Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us)

Esoterica: If you’re looking for a fresh start, begin by simulating a temporal landmark. What is this? A sunrise, or a brisk walk, first thing, or what’s outside your window, connected to the larger rhythm and business of nature. The riot of squeezing your paint on a fresh palette, or the ritual of stretching new canvas, or the first sip of coffee before doing so. Create a new day, a new hour, a new week, a new month, a new you in a new life, and do it regularly. Here’s your fresh start, designed as an open field, its purpose shaped by your urge to direct your own life and to get better at something for its own sake, because it’s interesting and worthy of your attention. Live with a yearning to hard-scrabble at a calling greater than just you. What makes it important? There is no tangible reward — there is no guaranteed audience or applause for your pursuit. There will be no foreseeable performance bonus. Sharpen your thinking and accelerate your creativity by embracing this private and noble drive. The reward, as you know, is in the trying.

Alexander Calder with his Cirque Calder, 1929 By Sacha Stone Photo credit: Calder Foundation, NY/ Art Resource, NY

Alexander Calder with his Cirque Calder, 1929
By Sacha Stone
Photo credit: Calder Foundation, NY/ Art Resource, NY

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“The world embarrasses me, and I cannot dream that this watch exists and has no watchmaker.” (Voltaire)





  1. So many good bits in your article Sara! I always thought I was just odd being intrinsically motivated, not just in my art but in all aspects of my life. “You must commit, over and over again, to putting yourself in the arena of better ideas, so that a process of discovery can take hold.” And ideas are definitely like rabbits! Sometimes some ideas must be neutered so you don’t spend all your time chasing them out of the way and you can get down to working with the best ones. I read someplace recently about thinking of our lives as creating well-being for ourselves and others. That if we use this as a measure, rather than economics and status, we will make wiser and more fulfilling decisions. Intrinsic motivation isn’t without reward, not really. It is just that the rewards are not calculated and known in advance. Painting for its own sake for me is a way of being in the world. It is a way of being engaged and in conversation with myself, our natural world and others. I do it because it helps me breathe and sleep and find hope and possibility in the most trying of circumstances. But I didn’t know this at first. There was no promise in advance of this exchange. At first, there was just paint on a canvas. Thanks for the reminder Sara and all the best of Friday to everyone.

  2. Barbara Belyea on

    Disciplined work involves an internalization of so-called extrinsic motivation. These newsletters repeatedly picture the artist in a sort of Sargasso Sea, aimless and uninspired, desperate to find new winds and currents, to be “creative” once more. It seems to me that if one has nothing more to express by using paint, words, etc one should do other things until currents pick up again. Perhaps a new wind will blow, perhaps not. Until then the aimless time can be filled with technical exercises or organizing closets or living intensely in other ways. “Artists” are not special beings; they are human beings like everyone else; from time to time they have something to express and the ability to carry will into action. Discipline and a modest sense of one’s talents are essential to transforming inspiration into art.
    Do I sound arrogant here? I hope not. This is what I tell myself on Sargasso days.

  3. Great letter, Sara. Another temporal landmark happens in just a few days- the vernal equinox – associated with symbolism of growth and regeneration. This letter is filled with beautiful musings and profound observations, but I have to admit that it was the cat with the cow mask that has really hooked me and made me laugh. So thanks for that.

  4. Jan Morrison on

    I think that I use both inside and outside motivation for anything I do – writing, drawing, meditating. I do use a system of carrots and sticks (no wonder there are so many rabbits here). The carrot is usually as simple as knowing that I’ve kept to my discipline, the stick is my firm belief that if I don’t show up with some regularity, the muse will stay with the other boys in the basement. Right now I’m writing a thousand words a day on a new project. That is the external motivation – I said I’d do it for all of March and I will even though nobody but me cares. The internal part is that I truly let myself wander. If I feel a bit uninspired I’ll read what I have so far and might find a memory or idea poking up and I just go with it no matter if it fits the external judge’s idea of proceeding or what might sell down the line. My inner creative says – “shut up. I sat down. I’ll write my words and that’s all you need to know.” Now I will go back to work – but thanks for the heavenly diversion!

  5. This letter inspires me to push past doubt, fear, and yes, paying the bills! In fact, I just finished that chore, so I can begin anew to think about art, to turn dreams into reality. In the past week, we have had two snowstorms, and each time I felt reborn. Saturday is the Vernal Equinox and then a birthday in April. Lots of time to feel renewed, refreshed, and re-motivated in life and art. Art has become such an integral part of my life, each time the brush, the palette knife, or fingers glide across canvas, paper, or wood, the rush of excitement pours out onto the piece.

  6. Voltaire is astonishing. He must have been referring to time pieces because it is amazing hubris to believe that the race of humans has been specially created.

  7. Pingback: DREAMERS AND MUSIC-MAKERS – Luann Udell

  8. Thank you for Voltaire’s reminder. When I find the courage to try, it is an act of faith in the watchmaker of this embarrassing world.

  9. Diana Childs on

    Thank you Sara, for these beautiful thoughts. I am going to try to live up to these noble musings.

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Oil on Canvas
48" x 60"

Featured Artist

Sometimes we see what no one looks for–images that have waited for us to find them. If we are lucky, these images will wait while we try to capture them with paint on canvas. They will probably change as we reach for them. I believe that if we clearly and honestly record what we see, we will be surprised, enriched, and sometimes stunned by what we’ve found.

There is almost always a narrative in my paintings as I believe that a story may be introduced in a scene. The viewer must fill in the before and after with unique eyes and experience, but enough can be presented to set a challenging stage if the work is successful. 

Along with being a visual story teller, I’ve been called a colorist, surrealist, patternist, and sometimes a texturist. I’m an Atlanta artist–an oil painter for over twenty-five years–with a studio in Brookhaven. I love working with oils because each painting session results in a new revelation of what they might do. There is a mystical quality to each painting and each day for me.

Finally, and always, there is a spiritual quest in my paintings. Driving that are the essential questions of why we are here, what we can or should or might do here, how we got here, and where we might be going. Just as I believe that there is a spirit in all things, I try to instill a bit of that spirit into each brushstroke. 

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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