More Mastery


Dear Artist,

My last letter brought a volume of correspondence regarding George Leonard’s book Mastery. Quite a few artists are apparently reading it right now. In it he gives five “master keys” to the achieving of mastery — Instruction, Practice, Surrender, Intentionality, and the Edge. The first three are what might be expected from a Zen master — Great masters have great masters; the joy and efficacy of repetition — and the active art of surrendering to a process that is greater than the self.

In Intentionality Leonard uses golfer Jack Nicklaus as an example. Nicklaus never hit a ball without first clearly visualizing the ball’s perfect flight and its triumphant destination. A successful shot, according to Nicklaus, is 50 percent visualization, 40 percent set-up, and only 10 percent swing. Leonard also cites a sophisticated method called viseo-motor behavior reversal (VMBR) developed at Colorado State University. Here, deep relaxation is combined with vivid mental imaging. A successful prior vision, according to this study, creates a healthy “want power” that leads to the Master’s Edge. Also, on the aikido mat, images and metaphors go along with the mechanics of movement — and superior results flow. One version of nikkyo (wrist lock), for example, when combined with right thinking, defeats larger and stronger attackers handily. These and other insights, whether for golf, tennis or creative work lead plain folks to become “zealots of practice and connoisseurs of the small, incremental step.” Furthermore, while task-mastery is the goal, relationships, self-esteem and inner harmonies are other natural benefits. Above all, Leonard’s life-view is a sense and a feeling for the return of personal excellence.

Many artists already know and go to work daily in the wisdom of these concepts. It’s good to be reminded of their value. For most of us, I have the feeling that our universe is constantly sending us tests. We take the tests, and if we fail the tests we will again, sooner or later, be sent the same tests — to fail or to pass. Life is a path of learning. It’s good to know what you know, even if it’s mysterious and its power is only half-understood. The pathway to more mastery is scattered with these joys.

Best regards,


PS: “The essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes.” (George Leonard)

Esoterica: The insight of Zen suggests lack of clutter, a plain, sparse environment, simplified needs and a mind at rest but focused. Some time ago, after the buildup of incredible junk and impedimenta in my studio, I discovered the studio of the greater world. There’s something about tai-chi on a grassy hill. Plein air. “How to begin the journey? You need only to take the first step. When? There is always now.” (George Leonard)


Buddhist philosophy
by Karen Phillips Curran, Rideau Ferry, QE, Canada


“Farm portrait”
watercolour painting
by Karen Phillips Curran

As a working artist, the idea of mastery is a never-ending goal. As a young artist, I was often told, “learn to do one thing well”. I have ignored that advice, in a way. I do one thing well, I create, but my subject matter and the tools I use to create have constantly changed over the years. To keep myself going as an artist I have always tried to remember a Buddhist philosophy: “Let faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration and then wisdom, be your guides.”


What’s a master?
by Doretta Bendalin, Rio Rancho, NM, USA


acrylic painting, 24 x 18 inches
by Doretta Bendalin

How is it ever decided that an artist is a Master? So many artists, who were declared Masters only after their death, probably never ever thought they were Masters. They knew that they didn’t know everything and were always striving. And, many of those who think their work is great, having achieved financial success, go through a flash of fame, only to be forgotten a few years later. So, when do we know we are Masters? What is a Master besides one who is constantly growing?

(RG note) Just as a bore is a person who won’t let me speak, a master is someone, dead or alive, whose works I admire. George Leonard’s take is that a return to measurable levels of mastery is desirable. He makes a case that our societies have softened up on mastery. These days anything goes and the non-trivial crafts are out of whack. In the old days John Singer Sargent was an obvious master. Nowadays Sargent’s mastery is suspect, particularly in some art schools, and in many places a masterful approach is no longer taught or respected. Mastery, in the older sense, means apprenticeship toward technique, the desire to build understanding and perhaps the elevation of thoughts.


Most masters are tortured
by B. J. Haugstad, Hayfield, MN, USA


“Sister’s & Friends”
oil painting, 13.75 x 15.5 inches
by B. J. Haugstad

It seems in every aspect of American life there’s a concept that everything is obtainable through a kind of self-help mentality. Good art is not obtained through visualization, want, practice, and etc. There are no guarantees that by practicing the concepts you discussed an aspiring artist will create masterpieces. Even with a master as a teacher you are not guaranteed success — the student will never become more than the teacher and usually they do not become a master themselves. I truthfully believe that those who thrill us with their vision and the beauty of their work are individuals who live within the boundaries of their own life’s experiences. Most are tortured individuals who create beauty out of the disasters of painful childhoods, or physical limitations. Those are things that are beyond anyone’s wants or understanding. Being a master is a solitary path few are willing or able to walk.


Toward “the bliss”
by Lorna Quigley


oil on panel, 24 x 32 inches
by Lorna Quigley

My personal journey on the road to mastery has come across the odd road sign that misdirects and roads that may promise an easier stroll. Occasionally if one is fortunate one encounters a wise individual who will remind them of the benefits of plateaus. Life, being a paradox, often gives us what we seek. Ask for a flat and easy stroll and that is just what you get — a heavy emphasis on the flat. Risk the bumps and knolls and there can be ecstasy — sometimes referred to as “the bliss.” I know this because I have caught glimpses.



Mastery and intuition
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Wild Things”
watercolour painting, 14 x 21 inches
by Marney Ward

Mastery is primarily intuition. Einstein said that all his great ideas just came to him in a flash of intuition, and then he spent his life trying to prove them mathematically. To become masters, we need to be able to tap our inner creativity, and then combine the inspiration we receive from within with the technical skill that has come from years of experience. And in order to tap our inner creativity, we need to know how to still our minds, which is why so many artists are drawn to the sanctity and silence of the natural world. Nature and meditation have the ability to draw us to our deeper selves, where we finally realize that we are not boring, nor isolated, nor in need of external excitement to be happy, but a part of the great harmony of all living things.


Why us, why now?
by Jerry Lucey, Guadalajara, Mexico


original painting
by Jerry Lucey

Those who find a satisfaction in some inner self, tend to believe we should all follow their path. They could be right… it was great that it worked for Jack, but what works for Tiger? …and when we talk of masters of our profession, we talk of Europeans of centuries gone by. I wonder what drove the Dutch masters, who most likely knew little of the Orient and eastern culture. In Amsterdam we are struck speechless at their creations. We have the advantage of all the modern advances in the tools of the art trade …but could I master the creation of the Night Watch? Oh, that I could or even knew an associate that could… perhaps we do need a guide to reach the inner self and be creative, but why us, why now?


Master of the Self
by J. Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA

Inherent in becoming a Master is the ability to complete. People with short attention spans never learn this. Some with perfectionist complexes never learn to because the finished project could never be perfect enough for them, or their parents. Many of us who’ve had to deal with not being good enough struggle to recognize that in fact, we are good enough. Not being good enough, for whatever reason, is a terrible cross to bear and defeats many. Learning how to complete is key to being able to do the work long enough to master it. Doing whatever it takes to break the cycle of a short attention span, a dysfunctional perfectionist complex or a destroyed sense of self-worth can be difficult, but in doing the work, one becomes master of the Self.


Book on artistic struggle
by Mary Madsen

Another drop-dead brilliant book, specifically on the artistic struggle, is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. This guy cuts the artist no breaks, and speaks of Resistance as being the enemy as well as the guide that helps us understand our true calling. I gobbled the book in one sitting, and plan to revisit it weekly. If you haven’t already read it, I hope you’ll give it a look. Reading the book was like riding a lightening bolt. Now I’ve got to run and get George Leonard’s Mastery and hope I have time to read it. After reading The War of Art, I’m so busy working, I don’t have much free time.


About George Leonard
by Joseph von Muhlke, Alto, NM, USA

I enjoyed your George Leonard presentation. A great guy. I had dropped out of Denver U and wound up being the Dinner Chef at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California around 1968-71. He had worked with my father at Look Magazine. We enjoyed each other’s company as I was just evolving my cosmic identity and he was evolving the one he’d realized earlier as a Masterful Teacher. We drank and smoked cigarettes in the Pacific-lit emulsion that was to be seen in those days as “Heavenly Grace.”

(RG note) The Esalen Institute, centered in California, with branches in Canada, Mexico, Germany and Japan offers “an Olympics of the body mind and spirit,” with the current emphasis on massage therapy. The Esalen Arts Center can be seen at George Leonard is or has been the President of this organization, and is also the founder of Leonard Energy Training. As well as Mastery, he is the author of Education and Ecstasy, The Ultimate Athlete, and The Way of Aikido.


Part of the Web
by Karen Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada

I was profoundly moved by the words of this mystical lady in The Dreamway. These angels walk in our midst, and from time to time their words are caught and put down for the benefit of many. A manual for life, practically! I am really astounded at how many wonderful gifts land on our path when we are watching for them. When you expect the gifts; they come. It’s marvelous. It happens to me often. A connection with someone, a poem, a painting or a piece of music that touches profoundly. The best part is, these things are ephemeral. We have to savour the moment, and then it is gone. We take in the words and move on, but are somehow changed by them, perhaps not really in our awareness. Your letters and the clickbacks and everything on the Painter’s Keys site are such a marvelous way for people to connect, and to feel part of a web of creative beings around the world. (I would love a copy of The Dreamway. I have given many people your address, and in some cases have no idea whether they actually subscribed, but they are artists, and they would be missing a lot if they didn’t!)

(RG note) We’ll send you a free copy of The Dreamway, Karen. We make this offer to anyone who sends in the names of three potential new subscribers to the twice-weekly letter. Thanks for the friendship.


The high cost of art
by Mary Bakker, Zeeland, MI, USA

I want to speak about the cost of a work of art. I have not spent a great deal of time selling. Actually, I have only been to two craft shows. (I make unique fabric colored journals) Even though I do not feel guilty about charging what my work is worth and the cost is reasonable in comparison, I also find that when someone is excited and interested that I would just as easily give it to them if they cannot afford it. It means more to me that they might enjoy one of my creations than getting paid for it.

Why should art be so expensive? I don’t mean to convey that the value is not there but come from a position of one who cannot afford to buy. Just the other day I saw a beautiful piece that really spoke to me. I went home without it. The price? $190. It was more than I had. I knew that the asking price was reasonable and dared not offer less. I still miss not having that in my home. I needed it.

When is it okay to ask an artist to compromise on their work? Why should it only be people of means who can have a nice piece of artwork in their home? Why is it for those of us less fortunate, who could benefit from such beauty in our lives, we have to return home with empty hands? How wonderful it would be to have a focus of “life” amidst the sometimes darkness. How nice it would be to have a work of art grace our home. Where is that fine line between what a piece is “worth” and the price for those who can afford it? What does that really say?

(RG note) I know how you feel, Mary. There are so many times when I too feel like saying, “Please just take it.” But we artists are in the business of building careers and unfortunately, with a few exceptions, it cannot be done this way. Art, like diamonds, is a commodity, the value of which must be preserved in order to also serve the interests of those who do the digging. We’ve previously dealt with the sticky business of pricing in: Principles of pricing art, The Price of Things and Gallery Blues.


Rolls Royce Easel


Rolls Royce Easel – Hooper’s ‘Utility Limousine’ custom built for artist C. Michaelis


Rolls Royce Easel – Hooper’s ‘Utility Limousine’ custom built for artist C. Michaelis








(RG note) It’s a 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom II with a custom body built for painter C. Michaelis in 1938 by Hooper of England (body #8956). The folding rooftop appears to be capable of taking up to about a 30″ x 30″. The rear seat probably slid on a track that would make it handy for sitting back and contemplating. “Park the car right here Jeeves — no, there.” (Photographs from the Denver Public Library Collection) Odd easels are one of my weaknesses. If you know of or have one, please consider sharing with us. Thanks for writing.







Europa (2003)

original oil painting
by Michael Bergt, Santa Fe, NM, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Sarah Spector, who sent this quote from Malidoma Patrice Some: “Until grief is restored in the West as the starting place where the man and woman might find peace, the culture will continue to abuse and ignore the power of water, and in turn will be fascinated with fire.” You can get an idea what Malidoma is all about at

And also Pat Kammer who wrote, “I’ve been on a Spiritual path and am a teacher of A Course In Miracles. I found a book written in 1910 that is as useful today as then. It’s called The Science of Getting Rich.”

And also Qasim Al-Sabti of the Hewer Art Gallery in Baghdad, Iraq who wrote, “It is our duty as artists to feel what our countrymen are feeling and suffering. Some artists used to be neutral, but now there are artists, poets, and writers who have reached the decision that the Americans are destroyers. It has given them a new sense of purpose in art.”




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