How to do everything


Dear Artist,

An artist wrote, “As someone who’s always organized, I long to break free in my paintings. I wonder if it’s in me to be wild and unstructured in this one area of my life. Do others deal with this dilemma? Is it a case of, ‘how you do one thing is how you do everything?’”


photographing the Chama Valley,
New Mexico, 1961
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
photo Todd Webb

Thanks. Picasso had his multiple women and periods; Bacon, his hoarder studio and brushwork; and O’Keeffe her monastic Ghost Ranch from which to capture the emptiness of the New Mexico sky. Think of these connections as an overarching, personal spirit exaggerated in a few choice areas, rather than a dogmatic rule of sameness stroked on with a big, limiting brush. Outliers are possible. My dad wasn’t much for putting the caps back on his paint tubes and might have been smothered by a pile of books and yogurt cups if not for the TLC of my mother. His work, on the other hand, spoke to polish, often marked by the pin-perfect finishing of a number 6 sable. A longtime mystery, his secret was revealed to me one summer while I was flicking and flailing all over a lap canvas in the deep ranges of the Rocky Mountains. He looked over my shoulder and said, “Try to choose at least one area to be neat.” Through a channelling of care, he was a rock of a parent, ran a tickity-boo business and in life, like in his work, took the time to be tender. In fact, all areas of his life carried the élan of his paintings — he just happened to be doing it in the pants of a hobo, with the help of a raggamuffin dog.


Georgia O’Keeffe
Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

The secret is to do it your way. Button up, go feral or make a productive mix. Let your sweet spot find you. The Chief Technical Officer of a Fortune 500 recently asked me to meet her on the tarmac at Burning Man for a week of unwashed, hemp-crunching counter culture. Her idea of a palate cleanse was to drop the shackles of boss life and set stuff alight. For artists, such extremes may or may not be necessary. Perhaps, instead, the artist’s prerogative is to save her most unfettered impulses for the canvas. From there, she can always choose at least one area to try to be neat — or not.


Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch, 1968
photo Arnold Newman



PS: “I believe in deeply ordered chaos.” (Francis Bacon)

Esoterica: Claude Monet — gardening in life and paint, flanked by kids, cultivating other artists — got progressively looser as he aged. His octogenarian water lilies, aided by cataracts and a very long brush, peaked as an inspired interior window, revealing the mastery of a technician. I used to tease my Dad that, like Monet, he was heading towards his most avant garde decade, when the cares of the world would soften and his wisdom could articulate through rabidly lucid and poetic focus. While my dad and his paintings were denied their eighties, their unique complexities remain in the carefree, polished and paradoxical strokes of a total, human package.


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.

“A week ago it was the mountains I thought the most wonderful, and today it’s the plains. I guess it’s the feeling of bigness in both that carries me away.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)



  1. Absolutely delightful! I so laughed out loud with the comment about “try to be neat”. Your dad had a way of touching the soul of things. I sometimes wonder if I am too neat. At the same time I believe in “deeply ordered chaos” like Bacon. It is a complex world we enjoy, we artists. The call to freedom is more compelling these days. I am finishing less. Leaving more spaces open. It is still ordered. In any case I find the process fascinating. Thank you so much for your sharings. So inspirational.

  2. Love this letter! Love the photos of Georgia! I recently spent a month in Scotland and went to many galleries…..what struck me was that most galleries have paintings, indeed whole rooms dedicated to a singular style and sometimes even a singular artist…I thought I had seen all of Monets work, Mary Cassat works and yet how amazing to continue to discover new. I had the added pleasure of seeing several of my ancestors works(John Pettie) when I least expected it. Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh having his largest (I believe) work. Thank you!

  3. jan zimmerman on

    I often think I am too neat, so my mantra should probably be -” try to choose at least one area to be chaotic! ” Thanks so much Sara for all your wisdom!

    • Norman Ridenour on

      Henry Miller, one of my top ten writers said, ‘Chaos is the name we give an order we do not understand.’

  4. Order vs Chaos …yes a constant juggling and one that presents itself well on the canvas for sure. An excellent letter urging us for that “Sweet Spot” to find us. Your dad a master with his delicate no. 6 sable placed over his exuberant glazes and scumbles dealt out the full mix in a beautifully orchestrated manner….and you following along in his footsteps! Thank you Sara.

  5. Alice Church on

    Thank you Sara for your always interesting and poetically written comments. I think it’s wonderful that you choose to share so many touching memories of your Dad. I hope you realize how many people admire your dedication.

    • I agree that it is SO touching to hear a daughter with such a good Dad celebrating him: but also Sara: you are a clear and poetic voice asking us, as readers/ friends to understand and we do because you speak directly and, at times provocatively .. I mean no lazy readers or hearers alllwed we are scooped up in the team to listen and get it. I love these continuing and heartfelt and challenging us to get it and feel and do messages. Thank you. On Sunday I am running a 2?hour open to public free workshop on painting in watercolours in far off King’s Lynn I’m Norfolk, England. Leonardo, Picass , Rembrandt etc refs let alone surrealism or idiosyncrasy of Freda Khalo and then, back to what matters looking and feeling and moving the brush or pencil to engage do each can say I see: I feel : I will find you then watercolour it. Should be good. Thanks Sara for all you do .lovely you, Ann Froshaug

  6. A beautiful letter and story. I loved the bits about your Dad. And the other artists. How quirky we all are. In a good way. You have continued with your Dad’s work here so beautifully Sarah. Your insights and experiences are appreciated greatly. Thank you.

    • Virginia Urani on

      Sara, thank you so much for your wonderful letter which seemed to come at just the right time. I paint mostly in watercolors trying to capture the delicate beauty of the wildflowers which bloom almost year round where I live. Paintings are usually small and representational. I just signed up for a weeklong class in acrylics … large canvases and a free experimental style. One day I think, why did I do this and the next day … this will be fun and who knows where it might lead. It has only taken 74 years for me to begin to discover that we artists are jewels with many facets and to trust where the light wants to shine. I miss your Dad though I knew him only through his letters. You do him so much credit with your sensitivity and beautiful writing. I am glad you are choosing to let that facet shine and light the way for us.

  7. Sara – Painter, and add to that, a sensitive, entertaining, and most talented writer. Thank you for these sharings in the footsteps of your father.

  8. Thank-you Sara for your insights and for the memories of your father though I only met him once he greatly influenced my work. Please keep the letters coming, I read them every day.

  9. Nina otulakowski on

    So beautifully written, your letter touched me deeply and answered a question I have been asking myself. Could not have come at a better time. Thank you .

    • Yes I too feel freed by Sara’s writting….Now to go “feral and try for a productive mix”….it’s so nice to be given “permission”. Have fun painting Feral and let us know if you choose to keep one area neat…or not. Live it!

  10. So timely! I have oil painted (neatly!) for over 50 years. Just recently I took a little detour into fluid acrylics and am in my third month of controlled chaos in my studio! I had never just played with paint… always trying to be it’s master, and this exercise in ‘allowing what will be’ has made me bolder in many ways. My oil painting muscles are getting stronger by proxy!

    Thank you Sara, for this Letter. I often used to think your Dad’s letter’s tapped into the collective unconscious of all painters… and I would feel the synchronicity of our souls….I think you do it too!

  11. Thank you Sara for a wonderful letter I only wish I could have had your dad as my teacher
    He did influence my work though as he shared a lot of his secrets to me when we talked at the gallery
    I have his “Sea Stacks at Evensong ” painting in my hall way and I look at it everyday
    Miss him but I relive every conversation I had with him through you and your wonderful letters

  12. Thanks, Sara! Your father shared his gifts with you, graciously. In so doing, the student surpasses the teacher. I look forward to your posts, as well as your Dad’s. Onward!

  13. Thank you, Sara! To be loose and messy in most of the painting is always welcomed….but then, to find one part to detail makes the painting come together with an ‘orchestral outcome’.

    hmmm, where did that come from, Shirley? lol

  14. Chris Everest on

    Since my daughter died… very buttoned up and only just beginning to think in colour again … Loved the description of Robert as “…he just happened to be doing it in the pants of a hobo, with the help of a raggamuffin dog….” He, in turn would be proud of you.

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Killarney is a special place to paint. Huge granite cliffs, sparkling lakes, near North forests. There are no roads. We take a stable pontoon boat to all painting locations.


Keith is a post-impressionist painter and teaches compositional fundamentals, how to bring order out of the chaos of a live scene when painting en plein air, plus how modern colour theory can make colour mixing easy.




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