Dear Artist,

Why do some achieve mastery and others not? How is it that some “get good” and others never seem to? For many of us who teach or practice art — this is a question that we ask every day — about others and about ourselves. With all the interest in formal art education, workshops, self-promotion, sales, and other secondary art activities, there is, after all, no greater value than simply becoming a “master.” How does this happen? In my experience it largely occurs when the artist is alone. It’s a function of individual character. Leonardo da Vinci said, “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” As well, mastery has an attitude. Robert Henri suggested, “Masters are people who haven’t learned everything — and they know it.”


“La Carriere”
watercolour painting
by Edgar A. Whitney (1891-1987)

In George Leonard’s remarkable little book, Mastery, he draws on Zen philosophy and the martial art of aikido. He shows that the mastering of any non-trivial activity can be plotted on a graph where relatively small gains are made at intervals, followed by slight declines — and then by prolonged plateaus where nothing much seems to be happening. Those who become masters, he says, are the ones who learn to live with and accept these plateaus. Leonard also names three character types who seldom achieve mastery. They are the Dabbler, the Obsessive and the Hacker.


watercolour painting
by Edgar A. Whitney

The Dabbler, while initially enthusiastic, soon finds the plateaus unacceptable and is generally distracted to another sport. “The dabbler specializes in honeymoons,” says Leonard. The Obsessive, on the other hand, is a bottom-line kind of person. He is tenacious, inward-looking and much in need of fast results, but he, too, cannot handle the plateaus. The Obsessive stops short when his needs are not being met. The Hacker has a different attitude. He or she is willing to stay on a plateau indefinitely. He fails to continue to grow because he doesn’t want to. He’s just fine and comfortable, thank you.

True mastery involves a kind of driven skill-building. It may take an extraordinary life experience to make it happen. Maybe not. After stewing about it for a lifetime, I’m stewing about it right now — I know that mastery is a form of love transported to a surface. “When love and skill work together — expect a masterpiece.” (John Ruskin)


watercolour painting
by Edgar A. Whitney

Best regards,


PS: “The discipline endured is the mastery achieved.” (Edgar A. Whitney)

Esoterica: In our current climate of instant gratification, simple involvement in a long-term graph is one way of understanding and building mastery. We all know of the joy that new peaks give — and the kind of silver star that we can give ourselves at those peaks. But there’s a kind of philosophic approach needed for the plateaus. Patience, work, care, process, love, and the confident knowledge that in due course the graph will once again wiggle upwards.

This letter was originally published as “Mastery” on June 15, 2004.


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.

“The priceless quality of ease is present when one knows one knows.” (Edgar A. Whitney)

Edgar A. Whitney watercolor books



  1. A Persian proverb comes to mind…

    He who knows not and knows not that he knows not, is a fool, shun him.
    He who knows not and knows not that he knows not, is a child, teach him.
    He who knows and knows that he knows, is wise, follow him.

    I suppose that knowing that you know not is also wise. I’ve probably misquoted the proverb. :–)

    Art is a jealous lover.

  2. Today’s letter really hit home with me, because I consider myself third generation Edgar Whitney, as I am so fortunate to have studied with many of Whitney’s students (Some of the best contemporary watercolorists still living). I remember that Bob and I discussed this very subject in person back in September of 2005, aboard the Coral Princess Cruise Ship bound for Glacier Bay, Alaska. Thank you so much for keeping his legacy alive for us all, Sara. xo

  3. No one has the time to know everything. Like the suggestion- if you had everything- where would you put it. So Mastery is about knowing you know what you know and then working with that. Because my work is labor intensive- there’s less of it and I had to figure out the how/where/what/when&why of mastering my processes while actually creating less physical work.
    I got to a point where inspiration- insight into the new- the next- was playing out simultaneously with inventing tessellations- making patterns- cutting out my functional palette- building whatever several pieces I was building at any given moment- setting up to stitch and finish any particular piece- and then completing something and signing it. And then adding in exhibiting it with all that that can entail- all at the same time.
    So maybe there is a plateau- and maybe I’m on it- and maybe perceived growth will occur at some moment. But I don’t care anymore. To me- Mastery just means getting up everyday and continuing to produce- doing the work. Do I make an occasional mistake? Sure- but who cares? Does the work exhibit continuing growth? What does that even mean? Each piece is successful. It is of course- my definition of success. Nobody else’s is relevant anyway.
    Just keep creating. Your Mastery will be found in doing the work. Your work. It’s the only place it can be found.

  4. Lovely! Also agree :)
    And this: I know that mastery is a form of love transported to a surface. “When love and skill work together — expect a masterpiece.” (John Ruskin) – this is going on a sticky on the easel :)

  5. John MacKenzie on

    A friend of mine and mentor, Herb Shepard, said that the perfect “vocation” for anyone is when there is no differentiation between work and play. I love that and it seems appropriate to this article.

  6. Sounds like the consummate major league baseball player: a “steady Eddie” temperament who can take the inevitable ups an downs of a162 game schedule.

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oil 12 x 16 inches

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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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