The inner game of art


Dear Artist,

In the new pile of books brought by Santa and others, I noticed an early edition of The Inner Game of Music. Written in 1986 by Barry Green, former Principal Bassist for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, “The Inner Game” explores how musicians can temper the hang-ups that stymie heightened creative expression. After researching the nuts and bolts of peak performance with his co-author, sports psychology coach W. Timothy Gallwey, Green determined that performance techniques used by tennis players might also be applied to the arts. Artists, like athletes, while chasing flow and the truth, can instead be bound up with fear, perfectionism, rote and bad vibes.


Joni Mitchell self-portrait, 1999

While alone in the studio striving to solve problems in my own work, I’ve noticed there always arrives a moment of choice, when I can fold up creatively at the panic and shame of possible failure, or let go and trust in the process of discovery. If I can manage the latter, a temporal, but satiating pleasure in the actual, physical activity at hand emerges. After all, if a painting is, among other things, a record of the act of painting, then might we release ourselves from the burden of results and instead simply create? In this system, the end product may even take care of itself.

If you’re still with me, Barry and Timothy suggest this unburdening is achieved by first understanding that we’re made up of two selves: a chiding, full-of-doubt, accuracy junkie who hurls negative comments at a talented joy machine emoting in a carefree orgy of self-expression. This interfering inner voice is an art-killer and must be silenced with a master technique called, “relaxed concentration.” By getting into a state where we’re alert, relaxed, responsive and focused, we can casually make magic while still employing a learned, technical prowess. Here are a few of Barry’s tips for relaxed concentration, adapted for painting:


“The Old Guitarist” 1903-4
oil on panel, 48.4 × 32.5 inches
by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Be aware of what’s going on in your work by aligning your feelings with what you’re doing.

Be committed to the main goal of making art by putting expression first.

Let your muscle memory do the technical heavy lifting. Think of your practiced, mastered skills as an insurance policy against self-doubt, but also as a set of wings for heightened expression. If you want to be a painter, you need to know how to paint. This mastery frees you to then slip into an automatic mode of play and communication.

Trust in the character of the thing you want to express. Tune into what could be bubbling up from your own, inner joy machine. Does the work, in its purest form, have a casual quality? Is it excited or calm? Is it gorgeous? Is it troubled? What expression are you really conveying?


“The Guitar Player” 1894
oil painting by
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Lastly, trust in a brotherhood and sisterhood of greatness. Can you draw on the vibes of another or role-play as a means of channelling a certain character of expression? Barry may suggest his students play for a minute like Charlie Mingus, just to get a feeling for the expression. In doing so, we may grow accustomed to the sensations and pull our own uniqueness from within.



PS: “Forget shoulds and experience is.” (W. Timothy Gallwey)

Esoterica: The Inner Game of Music has been casually lying on our coffee table this week, dog-eared by my father-in-law, a lifelong musician and former clarinetist for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. On his 80th birthday, retired but inspired for a new challenge, he picked up a trombone. “The primary discovery of the Inner Game is that, especially in our culture of achievement-oriented activities, human beings significantly get in their own way. The point of the Inner Game of sports or music is always the same — to reduce mental interferences that inhibit the full expression of human potential.” (W. Timothy Gallwey)


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.

“Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested. When this occurs, the mind is drawn irresistibly toward the object (or subject) of interest. It is effortless and relaxed, not tense and overly controlled.” (W. Timothy Gallwey)




  1. Great reminders for keeping artistic expansion flowing!

    MY TIP: paint, write, or draw with your non-dominant hand! It works like magic to shut up the critical side of the brain…

  2. Tennis, classical ballet, modern dance (especially Martha Graham), all fed from life-long energy could not stifle the longing to paint and play flute. And that is what is happening to me as I live and evolve, painting and playing flutes in all their forms. Instead of on-toe ballet, Tai Chi unkinks the flow. Flute music unlocks magical images. And then I can paint, gild, and form calligraphy in every stroke. We are amazing creative beings, if we can just let go and get into the flow.

  3. Excellent article and very timely as many of us are transitioning from the holiday season back to our projects and classes. Getting the creative juices going again can be an obstacle in itself. You offer some great advice about overcoming that block that we all come up against. Thank you.

    • What has worked for me is weird but it works. I used to play music when I painted & once in awhile my piece turns out o.k. However, I have a strong left brain & taught critical thinking in the past & it usually interferes with my art-making. It criticizes what I am doing, I flatten my once organic shapes & I dull the colors. So, I play mystery stories to keep my left brain occupied & my right brain has a wonderful time keeping my paintings joyous & interesting; I retain vibrant color, sensual shapes & I have fun creating & experimenting with my acrylics & mixed media. When I need to check proportion or perspective I turn off the CD & when I’m finished with that part, I resume my CD story. My art stays fresh that way.

      • Alice, I am one who doesn’t think that is weird at all. Actually found your duality enlightening because at a time when I was working on a dissertation in abstract mathematics, it was digital app sketching which helped me cope with fear based writer’s block. I didn’t have any artistic training or identity at the time–it was just a dab of play that lured me to the desk and the word processor. With the pleasure each day’s creation I found my self esteem relaxed enough to concentrate on the real business at hand. Thanks for sharing.

  4. This letter hit home with me. It focused like a laser on a problem I’m currently having with a WIP. I haven’t yet gained the necessary proficiency in painting with acrylics to get out of my own way.
    ” If you want to be a painter, you need to know how to paint. This mastery frees you to then slip into an automatic mode of play and communication.”
    You can’t fake it, can you?

  5. Sara, I love your encouragement. In these darkest days of January artists can struggle with inner demons that thwart even getting out of bed. Just showing up can be difficult. Upon awakening, I open my eyes and I see another grey day. Through the power of thought I lift myself up. I stretch my arms high, then, carefully I bend over and touch my toes stretching as deeply as I can. Standing tall once again, I smile and take a deep breath, affirming. I take those remembered truths and head to the studio where anything is possible. Fear is not allowed there. My dog looks at me. She does not understand why I work so hard, as she heads quickly back to her bed.

  6. ” … To reduce mental interferences that inhibit the full expression of human potential.”

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. In my experience, once a certain amount of technical skill has been acquired, the work of art is pretty much all about becoming aware of how we block ourselves. As Jacob wrestled with the angel, something in us — ego, resistance, self-protection — must be wounded in order to access the art-impulse blessing that’s within us, seeking to express through us. To mix metaphors, we are tough nuts to crack. But the practicing the suggestions you list above, certainly can help us crack open our shells.

    • Thank you, Sara for a wonderful post. It was very helpful and just what I needed to read :)

      And Ellie, thank you for this insight: “once a certain amount of technical skill has been acquired, the work of art is pretty much all about becoming aware of how we block ourselves.” You are absolutely right!!

  7. Gabriella Morrison on

    “Failure” is such a heavy term. Each essay into an unknown area of practice is simply an unfolding of what is possible or potential. This requires attending to what is at hand, not to what may be an outcome. Being submerged in process is the secret key that one can misplace so easily.

  8. Sara, I have been reading these letters for years, and I just wanted to share how much I am appreciating your signature on the bottom of the prose.
    I started up piano at the age of 50 after years of playing guitar and you cleverly wrote exactly how lovely the sharing of emotion, being through art and music.
    Yours is a written expression of such, and as much as we miss your dad, I am thrilled your evolution as the writer has continued.
    I have changed from public mural painting to private canvas, and these letters always bring home a point, that is important. Such as this last one.
    Thank you.

  9. Perfectly timed letter Sara!
    Exactly what I’ve been dealing with on this current painting.
    I also appreciate all of the comments.

    Flowing New Year to you all!

  10. I agree that the “inner game” can be a violent, knock down, drag out thing, but even when the “talented joy machine” wins, you’re still not home free. Trusting in the process of discovery gets more difficult as you get older and there seem to be fewer things to discover. And yes, knowing how to paint can liberate you, but it can also limit you. My old quote here in the Painter’s Keys that “the worst thing that can happen to a painter is to learn to paint” may be an exaggeration, but I still like to pretend that each painting is my first and that I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing. –And sometimes it’s not pretending, and it can be a terrifying thing! Freedom is terrifying but also exhilarating. It’s the only state where we can “release ourselves from the burden of results,” the only place to enter the “flow and the truth” and to find out there ARE new things to discover after all!

    • Your post made me laugh out loud, Warren! Thanks for brightening my day with unexpected colourful language reserved not only for the young! Plus a dose of reality and affirmation.



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  13. I understand this situation all too well. I’ve been painting for over 30 years and can paint in my sleep when it comes to the technical aspects of painting. Today I finished a painting I’ve been struggling with of an ancient, dying oak. I could get nowhere with it, used every artistic trick and device and still the painting fell flat. So, at two in the morning, I stood back from the picture and beheld all the optically mixed darks on my palette and sighed then the old tree said, “Paint me black. I’m dying, I’m going back to the dark earth where there is no light to grow another of me.” and I said, “Real landscape artist don’t use pure black, you ninny.” Then I had it. I threw the technical jargon out the window, cleaned my palette, used pure black pigment and got my picture. It has that surrealistic, not-here-nor-there look to it that is very pleasing to me. The old oak is dying with dignity and I’m happy with my painting. Not a masterpiece, I’ve never made one of those and hope never to do so, now. I had a helluvalot of fun painting with my almost full tube of pure black.

  14. Upon forwarding this Letter to my husband of 50 years and our kids, he wrote an email to all, saying, “I’ve been in her (Joni’s) house in the Nutana district of Saskatoon. Met her mother.” Cool beans, eh? Small world.


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The Power of Paint; Creating the WOW factor in your paintings with Dutch artist Carole Boggemann Peirson
April 10, 2019 to April 17, 2019


Location: between Puerto Vallarta & Mazatlan, Mexico


Week-long workshop in gorgeous paradise retreat for beginning and intermediate students in oils (or acrylics with experience). You will learn how to create a painting with beautiful light that captures viewers’ attention and keeps them fascinated. Small group size guarantees personal attention.


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oil 12 x 16 inches

Featured Artist

Capturing the beauty of nature and expressing those impressions in oil paint is a joy. Every hour of the day presents new possibilities and keeps even the same landscape location, same composition, an ongoing and beckoning challenge. For this reason, I love painting series: it is exploration made visual.


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