Make it great


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Denise Thigpen wrote, “I’ve been drawing my whole life but never had any confidence in myself that I might get anywhere without a degree. I’m in college now and although I’m learning, I am not getting out of it what I thought I would. I decided to figure painting out for myself. My passion has been shifted and I’m amazed at what I can do. I’ve even been selling paintings. Now, what does it take to get noticed? What do I have to do to get into a gallery? I paint in acrylic. Is there a market for acrylic or do oil paintings sell best?”

Thanks, Denise. You may be on the right track. The best way to get noticed is to do great work. The way to do great work is to go to your workspace and consciously exploit full value from your potential. Feel the depths and the joys. Grab the challenges. It may take a while. The minute you think you are getting somewhere, push yourself to an even higher standard. Acrylic or oil or encaustic or gouache or watercolor or pastel or collage or whatever — it isn’t the medium. Make your work unique and unavoidably brilliant and you will be noticed. Strother McMinn, my great instructor at Art Center School, used to say, “There’s no such thing as an undiscovered genius.”

Education can raise your vision toward greatness. You can workshop with a master, go to art school or university, or simply set yourself some tough standards and study on your own. These days North Americans particularly are facing an alarming falloff in the quality of education. Christina Hoff-Sommers and Sally Satel have written a remarkable book One Nation Under Therapy — How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance. In it they remind us that educators are under pressure to protect students from disappointment, frustration and failure. In the name of shaky theories about threatened self-esteem, schools over-praise and over-reward. “Grade inflation” is rampant. Students are promoted for simply working hard. The results are high expectations and low competency. In several states marking with a red pen has been banned because of the perceived threat to young egos.

Self-esteem is okay, but the real value for an artist — or anyone wishing to make a mark — is still individual initiative in the pursuit of excellence. It’s called self-reliance. These days greatness can be made in your own room with your own red pen.

Best regards,


PS: “Overprotected kids do not flourish.”(Sally Satel)

Esoterica: According to these authors the mollycoddling starts in pre-school and goes right through to PhD. Games such as dodgeball and tag are cut back as being too aggressive and competitive. Grief counselors are brought in to deal with the death of a baby elephant in the local zoo. The list goes on. Emerging from this cocoon young adults arrive unfit for the real world. For art school graduates stepping into the jungle, “feeling good” about your work is not good enough. Look around and you’ll see that many of our greatest colleagues are graduates of the school of hard knocks. In the end it’s that great art educator Robert Henri who had it right: “All education must be self-education.”


Push yourself
by Kenneth Flitton, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Spirit Lake”
oil on canvas
by Kenneth Flitton

It is so easy to delude yourself that you have done a masterpiece! For years I have shown my masterpieces to absolutely no acclaim whatsoever. But rather than assume the public doesn’t know good art, I found it best to realize they do know what they like. Each time you have to tell yourself: “I’ve simply got to do better.” The amazing thing about the human eyeball tied to the ego is that very often when you look at one of your “masterpieces” some time later, you wonder what ever made you think that was a good job. Tiger Woods putts 2-300 balls every morning and that’s what the artist has to do. Push.


Through the back door
by Gail Siptak, Houston, TX, USA

My knocks were as hard as any. I surfed in and out of schools, then every weird job and finally into teaching art through the back door. My most valuable lessons were from doing window display for a number of years. It taught me composition and form. I went into that through the back door too. I always said yes to most every opportunity and later I figured out how to do it. That taught me confidence. School taught me what the trends were, life taught me art.


What a deal!
by Kay Cox, Seabrook, TX, USA

I live in a community that offers many opportunities to expand my thinking and grow in all directions. I’m not just talking about “art” classes but all educational opportunities to expand my mind and soul. They all add to my work. Each semester I enroll in a life drawing class at a local community college. For $72 a semester I have a live nude model 2 days a week and get to experience the energy of other students. What a deal!


Not a deal
by Jean Morey, Ocala, FL, USA

I read this letter with great interest. I just completed a two semester stint at Manatee Community College to get Gordon Rule catch up classes to go on for a BFA. I am now rapidly approaching my 78th birthday. I was awarded the Image of Excellence and was on the Dean’s list. The math for the “Gordon Rule” (a Florida qualifier) was just a big waste of time but the experience got me over the idea that a degree is the answer for someone who has worked at some form of art all their lives as I have. I am back to the easel, drawing board and word processor and researching my next book. We can set an example for this lost generation who just has given up and expects to be canon fodder for wars they do not believe in.


Missed college
by Leonard Niles, Grimsby, Lincolnshire, England

I have painted and drawn from very early childhood without any formal training or directive. Now, in the autumn of my years, I regret sincerely never having experienced the wonderful atmosphere and the instructive, vibrant discussions that are most profound in a modern art college or any other such establishment. I suppose being an outsider I have unfortunately missed a great deal which would have proven to be of benefit. However I still have several hundred paintings to my credit which are now gracing many homes around my country, which I hope have given their owners some pleasure. But I digress. If you have not already done so, would you I wonder, consider including ‘Primitive Painting’ as a subject for one of your enlightening letters and their follow-ups.

(RG note) Thanks, Leonard. I’ll put that into the thinker. In the meantime you might take a look at a valuable clickback The naive choice.


Difficulties in teacherland
by Teresa Hitch


original painting
by Teresa Hitch

Regarding One Nation Under Therapy, it seems the authors have underestimated the role of parents in teaching self-reliance. Educators, from my observation, respond and react to what is expected of them. These days, too often, they serve as parents (even ensuring breakfasts, lunches, medical needs, etc.), thus having the responsibility without the power.

As an educator, I can say there are situations where “honey” is the only accepted means of dealing with difficult situations. Students demanding and readily accepting the clarity of a red pen are the easiest to teach, in my experience. This is becoming more and more rare in the public schools. Also, so much depends on age and ability. Some special-needs students need other foci and will never be able to achieve “great things” or be competitive in the workplace. These days, “nice people” are valued in our society, and sometimes the major objective may be to just help the student develop age-appropriate social skills. Expecting these students to achieve more only serves to erode their self-esteem. Also, “mainstreaming” is becoming the norm, and teachers with large classes are also expected to deal with tremendous diversity. Teaching to the “lowest common denominator” may be the only way to manage a class, in which everyone achieves to the best of their ability.


Hardened children
by Mary Jackson, Tampa Bay, FL, USA

I’m sad to add that, as a teacher, while I agree that the emphasis on “no failure ever” is rampant in schools, even though that was never shown to be beneficial by psychologists, my elementary school students are protected from nothing by many of their parents. They have seen and heard things that no teenagers (or for that matter, few adults) should be exposed to. These are the parents who take their toddlers to R-rated movies (you’ve seen and heard them), criticize their children’s teachers in front of the children, share all their personal worries and miseries with the children, and buy them video games rampant with bloodshed and torture. I could go on. Children are being hardened to violence and evil way too young by forces outside of school.


A solution for educational problems
by Scott Menaul, Clearwater, FL, USA


original photo
by Scott Menaul

You’re spot on with the problems of our educational system. Applied Scholastics has schools which educate students properly and prepare them for life. Both my children go to one. My daughter is eight, was taught to read at age 3, is in the fourth grade and reads at an adult level. If she hadn’t been challenged academically, she would be having “trouble” in school.

The Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights is combating the abuse of children by psychiatrists who “evaluate” children and put them on Ritalin and other drugs for ADD and other ridiculous things. The reason that students are fidgety and won’t focus is due to misunderstood words and other study phenomenon which are now better known and easily handled.


Blossoming happy children
by Susan McCrae, Branton ON, Canada

How ironic. While I agree with the notions expressed about the dilution of value in education in the north american context, they are not universal.

I am working with an organization (Pueblito Canada) that sponsors projects for children living in poverty in Latin America. One of these projects FUNARTE in Nicaragua, uses art and creativity as underpinnings for child and community development. In doing so they strive to overcome serious deficits in self-esteem and to build the personal and congnitive skills which young children (2 – 6 yrs.) need to succeed, against all the odds which extreme poverty stacks against them. The project is working on many levels — artistic — family building — community development — blossoming happy children.

Art can also be used effectively, it seems, as early stimulation and a base from which to create better futures and prospects, even amidst great poverty and deprivation.


Advice from Bill Gates
by Myra Mandel, IL, USA


“Room in Safed”
original painting
by Myra Mandel

Bill Gates recently gave a speech at a High School about 11 things they did not and will not learn in school. He talks about how feel-good, politically correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept set them up for failure in the real world.

Rule 1: Life is not fair — get used to it!

Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will not make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping — they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent’s generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is not real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.


Rebirth and revival
by Kirk Wassell, Chino Hills, CA, USA

In my view, since the renaissance of the ’60s we have gradually backslid down that hill we started to climb, “Mount Awakening.” Now “Leaving no child behind” has replaced creativity with a slogan. There are wonderful things happening, but they are not mainstream. Are we ready for another ’60s revival? I think so.

I am 59 years old and returning to school in the fall. I want to be challenged, pushed and feel fortunate to have access to an environment that can stimulate my thinking. I firmly believe that the Arts are the answer to addressing awareness, opening our minds eye to the beauty of life or death, the eternal circle, the Yin & Yang.

I love music, art, acting, writing, physical activity — are these activities becoming remnants of the ’60s? Today they are often seen as fads — for me they are life. Have we really failed to see the importance of these activities in our educational system, at a time when our school systems are under scrutiny from those who see numbers as answers? Accountants and mathematicians now counsel politicians as to the productivity of our schools. Hello, is there anybody in there? I remember school, namely high school, as a stimulating time when instructors had the freedom to be creative, and likewise students became creative or at least had the opportunity to do so. I hope to challenge myself till the day I take my last breath. May I be lucky enough to transition as I slump over my desk, having penned the conclusion of my latest book.


Safe haven
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA

You forgot to mention that university can be a very easy and protected route to take, especially for those who haven’t developed any “spring” to their fanny and the ability to bounce back or comprehend the wealth of opportunity within failure. It can also delay adulthood and teach our youth how to function very well within the sub-culture of university life, but not real life.

It can also be a safe haven for those without the guts, or training, to take the knocks awaiting everybody who walks the road less traveled. I hate to make sweeping generalizations, but time and time again I’ve experienced professors who live lives of resentment and take it out on their students. Many of them have gotten stuck within the safe folds of academe, and rather than risk the uncertainty of following their passion, they go for the 401(k) and a weekly paycheck. I’ve known professors whose envy of young hope, dreams, and potential is so thick they wear it like a smear of Crisco on their faces. I’ve seen brilliant young talent ridiculed until it died, and the mediocre encouraged so they’ll rise, but never surpass their professor.


No easy way for students
by Carol Ubben, Mount Morris, IL, USA


oil on canvas
by Carol Ubben

There are so many disillusioned art graduates today. They have spent time and money (in a number of cases with huge student loans to repay) and find that upon graduating they are faced with uncertainty and no “job.” I’m not saying that formal education isn’t a good thing — it’s just not the only thing. It can be a hindrance for some students in that they feel that when they complete the course they will be ready to step into the “big world” of art. Some students look for the easy way out — and there is no easy way. One percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration applies here.




Cloud nine doesn’t last
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA

I was recently in an art show and won and took all four ribbons in professional acrylics. I came home feeling a little on cloud nine but it did not last very long. It seems that I keep pushing myself for something better and am not really totally satisfied. I remember somewhere in my life reading a quote and I can not remember the author. “Show me a man completely satisfied and I will show you a failure.” Art is between the artist, canvas, brush and eye. No one ever said that it would be easy.


True creativity
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA

I live in a relatively famous artists’ community here in East Hampton, NY, and most of the over 500 artists here have very similar questions to those asked by Denise Thigpen. In our meetings of our artists’ alliance they constantly come up. Consequently I’m quite surprised that the most critical subject, true creativity, almost never comes up. The misconception seems to be: If you are painting, or working in any other artistic medium, you are being creative. That’s not necessarily the case. Producing imitative work that’s reminiscent of other artists’ work is simply “old hat” and has nothing to do with creativity, no matter how people may even admire it.

Just as in science, creativity means that you stand on the shoulders of the creative spirits before you, and from there make a step forward. How do you do that? You study recent art history (including the present) and figure out how you can advance on some of the work that speaks to you. Once you have accomplished that, you also need to be able to explain what you have done. Art dealers and critics don’t always see the logic of your work. When you can prove that you have made the inevitable next step, you are at the finish line.


Not cloning the inspiration
by Beverley Peden, Pender Island, BC, Canada

I also went through a process of realization that the real education began in my own studio. Greatness, of course, is relative. I don’t try and be great for anyone but myself, and my “great” means that I can stand back and analyze my work by asking myself questions — what works for me, what parts do I like, what parts don’t work, and what can be done either in this painting or print to “correct,” or what can be done in the next painting to improve or enhance? If I am responding to something positively, what is it and why? If I am feeling a lack, where and why?

I am always looking for the excellence in other people’s work as well, and look for what I can learn from them and from the masters of the past. Then, I leave them at the door of my studio, and only allow myself and whatever I have gleaned into the studio to sort it out, take what I think I have learned and try and see if I can apply it in a meaningful way in my own work. If I can’t it wasn’t mine, and if I can find value in it, it comes out as a new dimension to what I am already doing rather than a cloning of the inspiration.


Shaky sources
by Barbara Johnson, Somerville, MA, USA

I have to strongly disagree with your source material, the recent pulp non-fiction by Satel and Hoff-Sommers. I have heard them on several talk shows where they could not provide any real sources for the apparently “straw men” they set up to try and make their point. We had a group of theater people called Ladies Against Women and they could have a field day with these two.

The U.S.A is a very violent culture, as well as competitive. There is a thin line between real sadism and “dodge ball” here. In case you haven’t noticed we are really on the map for school shootings. This isn’t just due to red marks on a test or paper. And I strongly believe there is nothing wrong with teaching children to deal with grief via the death of a baby elephant (if indeed this really happened) when they may end up having to process grief due to classmates shot in the cafeteria. These women are part of an agenda to create more corporate bullies like the Coca Cola vendors that kill unionizers in South America. I don’t see anything wrong with raising sensitive artists and other vocations. There is no reason one cannot be sensitive and great. And as for grade inflation, I have taught art in Ivy League schools, state universities, and community colleges and it was the privileged twits (not all but many) at the academies of the entitled ones that drove around the campus in sports cars provided by their parents that were the demanders and recipients of much grade inflation (I never saw it at our state school), and they were never going to find the “hard knocks” to learn from, and probably not even going to notice.

You living in Canada (and I know you travel) must not know the realities of inner city life (or suburban — the Colorado high school students were victims of homophobia — a little therapy would have helped there) here in the great U.S. of A. I’m sure you don’t observe the record number of suicides in young people who obviously were “molly coddled” and couldn’t take the reality of gay bashing, maybe the possibility of being stripped naked and tied to a fence in Wyoming, beaten, and left to die. Or had your siblings shot in the street by gang violence and drug wars. No, this is not just a question of girl scouts getting a stress badge, or journal writing badge, but how many artists are we grateful to for keeping journals — Delacroix? Van Gogh? or learning to meditate — is that wimpy?

It is an outright lie that red pens have been banned in some states. I would suggest that you look for some reviews of this book. For starters contact some real teachers in America, try Cleveland, Ohio. I have a friend there, teaching in the inner city. She can tell you how much touchy feely is going on, maybe only when she has to talk a student out of jumping from the third floor window — because he is having a bad trip. (I will send you her address if you would like her perspective.) This book, One Nation Under Therapy, is promoting the new agenda of “maybe some children left behind?” to shift people’s attention from the skyrocketing unemployment, loss of jobs due to outsourcing, and an eroding health care system due to the “creative marketing” of real individualist self reliant CEOs that don’t “molly coddle” their employees. Instead they are clever and creative enough to pay less, and keep more for themselves by shifting the burden to the government, which in turn gets less in taxes from smaller paychecks to American workers (due to low competency and lack of ambition of course) and no taxes from the welfare given to companies that move off shore. But of course this is all due to the low self esteem and non competitive nature of the lowly workers that pick your food, stock the shelves, serve your meals. Of course one has to paint and discover their own way, and probably in the mean time wait on tables or stock shelves, until their genius is discovered, but that doesn’t mean they should have to paint and sleep in their car, unless their daddy is a self made CEO, and they can take all the time they need (they probably have the right genes, then).

(RG note) Readers who might like to look into this controversial book can read a variety of reader reviews.


Dealing with ‘limbo’
by Kerrie Warren, Crossover, Victoria, Australia


“Big Burn”
original painting
by Kerrie Warren

I am going through a ‘limbo’ stage. My work had been selling very well but right now sales have come to a standstill. I did bring my prices up last year and that could be it, but I feel my work has become so much stronger. I speak to other artists who are not selling well at the moment either, so maybe it is the economy. Anyway, what coping tools do you use to keep yourself on an ‘up’ during these times?

(RG note) Thanks, Kerrie. Those of us who tend to make our living from our art tend also to get concerned when things slow down. Here’s what I do: Disconnect cash-flow from self-esteem. Know that all things are forever in a state of change. Paint for joy anyway. Build the old bank balance in times of abundance.


Order in the Universe
by Relene Schuster, VA, USA

I just started a painting class at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia close to DC. The teacher Marsha Staiger teaches Mixed Water Media and she recommended your book The Painter’s Keys which I just purchased. A few weeks before the class began I was introduced to your website thru the Aquanet group. Two days ago I began to read your book and I put two and two together that your book and the website were related. Coincidences like this make me realize that there is an order to the Universe. Thanks to you and all your informed partners for being the next step in my progression.





Bitches brew

oil painting
by Ron Anderson, Columbus, OH, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Linda Fields who wrote, “Self-esteem comes from being faced with a challenge, whatever it might be, and meeting it.”




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