The mother of all tips


Dear Artist,

It seems that a struggling young composer asked Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to give him a few tips. Mozart told him to go home and work at composing for a few years. “But,” said the young man, “you didn’t have to work at it for years.” Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t have to ask for tips.”

Whether this story is true or not, my memory of it was prompted by Nancy Bea Miller’s remark in a recent clickback that many would-be artists confuse interest with aptitude. Interest alone does not a great artist make. Otherwise, art museums would be full of artists. Most of us who would make art need a bit of talent, a dose of character, and good work habits. Having said that, we’ve all noticed how some go far with little, just as others go nowhere with lots. That’s one of the reasons why those of us who like to encourage others must be even-handed in our distribution of tips. One never knows from where the stars are going to arise and shine.

To find potential in someone we must look for an intrinsic something called “attitude.” The artist’s attitude determines how she acts as her work is in progress. “Thinking while on a roll” invites ease, audacity and derring-do. Engrossed in a self-anointed process, these artists become part of the terrain they’re attempting to render. They accept the gift of art, surrender to its puzzles, and know that their own solutions, if not perfect, will be appropriate. For some reason, they’re often nuts about their jobs. “Writing music is my one and only passion and joy,” said Mozart.

“Respect” is another word for those who might excel. This means respect for the stars that have gone before, as well as current travellers in the Brotherhood and Sisterhood. “Follow the advice of the masters, but do something different,” Edgar Degas wisely asserted. Our own Resource of Art Quotations is a community of masters — yours and mine. A human frailty, perhaps, but we do tend to respect the ones we admire.

And then perhaps creative excellence is a brain thing, like the ability for math or spelling. Some have it, and some don’t. In my private searches among my masters, many I’ve admired have simply and smartly divined the mother of all tips: It’s the work itself that gives the best tips.

Best regards,


PS: “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791)

Esoterica: The image of Mozart as a divinely inspired effortless creator, dramatized by the film Amadeus, is an unlikely one. The idea that he never changed his compositions is refuted by looking at Mozart’s many heavily-revised manuscripts. Mozart was studious and a hard worker. His extensive knowledge and abilities developed from his study of European musical tradition. Nevertheless, the myth goes on. Albert Einstein said, “The music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely looked around and found it — that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe.” Good tip though.


Question of talent
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada

I am currently an art student so I found your words about inherent talent very interesting. A fellow student recently asked one of our painting instructors how one knows for sure if one has the talent to go the distance in art. With a characteristic bluntness (perhaps truthfulness), he replied, “Well, I still think a bunch of you should go study dentistry.” A few of us laughed, but more people were insulted. However, just because your mom likes your stuff or because you’ve decided to take the art route as a tool for rebellion doesn’t mean it’s what you’re cut out to do in life. If we could only know the absolute truth on the matter, without having to spend thousands of dollars in study “finding ourselves,” or years of fruitlessly plugging away at someone else’s dream.


Love and Tenacity
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA


oil painting
by Gregory Packard

I believe we are here to celebrate and experience life, and to do that we have to find and develop our potential. With two young children I watch for signs regularly to see what they enjoy and what might indicate talent. I don’t want to push them in a direction I think they should go. I don’t want to push them at all. I hope to offer them the freedom and security to find out for themselves who they are and what they love, armed with the certainty that their mom and I will love them whatever their passions. It’s selfish and inhibiting to do otherwise.

It seems to me that, here in America, relatively few actually find what they are passionate about, which is ironic given the opportunity available to us. Or those who do find their passion aren’t willing to trade away some of the many conveniences and luxuries available to them in order to find the time and money to work and grow their passion into something that is life-altering and perhaps could make a positive contribution to life. Even in a place of opportunity it is a rare combination of nature and nurture that empowers someone to really discover the potential they have. But it only takes one or two voices of belief (including one’s own) to overcome all the people and obstacles who say you can’t.

The key, as Mozart discovered, is love. I am extremely grateful to be an artist because I am an artist at my core. It is where my love springs. I don’t take it for granted because, in spite of its many rewards, it has not been an easy path. It is, however, the way in which I experience and celebrate life to the fullest and it is for me, a person who is prone to depression, a salvation. I just hope my kids can find a wellspring of love aligned with their own nature and then have the tenacity to develop it.


Freedom and efficiency
by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA

My concern is with that which deprives me from energy so vital to engage in a creative process. The second factor is the natural, casual approach that leads to incredible results. The process itself is stronger than we are. There should be no power struggle with the process because, once we are engaged, it already serves as an answer, as an encouraging factor, as a point of reference. I disagree with anything that distances us from the ultimate feeling of freedom and efficiency, by suggesting that the masters, for the most part, are the point of reference and that we can measure how far we are from the truth by standing next to them. We, 21st century artists, have so much advantage over all the masters that shaped the decades. We have advanced thinking in place, we have plenty of materials, we have new-age durability, we have all the tools to allow us to use short cuts and by doing so we find ourselves closer to point of impact. Excuses are the source of all evil and good will is the mother of all success. Squinting brings me closer to utilizing the alternative and when I make friends with my obstacles I can, then, allow them to stay. The creative process speaks for the fun and sweetness of life and this understanding is the guarantee for my long lasting inspiration and capability to implement. I portray the process constantly and eliminate selections. I have no choice and I cannot help myself. That is when I know I am in the safe home of my destiny.


Practice and practice
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


by Helena Tiainen

Isn’t one of the definitions of mastery the ability to make something that is difficult look like it was easy? The endless hours of practice, practice and more practice eventually lend themselves to something that seems mainly effortless. In music or visual art or any other creation the audiences often see only the end result, not the road that leads there. As a viewer, one should not get stuck on the technical aspects of the creation. The piece of art or creation of any kind should be able to deliver magic beyond its technical attributes. After all, the technical is only a means of delivery and I think the aim is to mainly rise above.


Andrew Wyeth story
by Brian Kliewer, Maine, USA


“In the Studio”
oil on linen
by Brian Kliewer

There appears to be a conflict between the “audacity and derring-do” statement and the comment “Follow the advice of the masters, but do something different,” by Degas. I respect many artists but should I avoid painting something they might do just because I do? I can best explain by the following true story…

I grew up in the other “Wyeth Country” here in Maine. As many local Mainers, I have my own Andrew Wyeth story to tell. It was kind of fun, I have to admit. So I actually posted it on my web site.

A few years ago I was out driving through the country about where Spear Hill Road meets the Cushing Road in the South Warren/North Cushing area. As I came to the intersection, I saw the hull of a lobster boat sitting in a stand of pine trees. Just a hull, no cabin. It immediately struck me as a scene that I might like to paint, being so out of the ordinary. Have you ever seen a lobster boat in a forest? A local lobsterman (fisherman) had made a clearing near his house so that he could work on his boat. I drove by it several times and kept thinking that it would make a great painting. It sat there for at least a couple of years. Well, I never did get around to painting it and even later decided that it looked too much like something Andrew Wyeth himself might do. (I do believe now that the reason I “never did get around to it” was because of this misplaced “respect”.) As I’ve mentioned on my web site, my studio is a short distance from the Farnsworth Museum. So… seeing original Wyeths is easy. Anyway, a year or so after that, I saw a new painting… there was my boat in the forest! Only, it was signed… “Andrew Wyeth.”

If my “respect” for Wyeth hadn’t got in the way in this case, a little “derring-do” would have seen me with a nice painting that would have been all my own even if Wyeth did follow me! “Go with your gut instinct!” has become my motto ever since.


Get up!
by Karen McLaughlin, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Get up, Get UP, GET UP! The bed is starting to look like you. Just forget that you have too many things to do. Too many things to do will always make you want to do none of them. That’s just how you are (you and about a million other people in this world). Difference is, you at least realize it now. Right? So GET UP.

Forget the unpainted spackle spots on the wall that you had to create because the old thermostat was smaller than the new, more efficient model. The spots that grew around the room since you had the stuff out already you might as well just keep going. That’s efficiency for you. When you get around to it (don’t rush you have other things to do first) the spot painting won’t match anyway. Forget the hole in the cheap plywood wall that your dad lovingly hammered up about 25 years ago to create that room he built that he never got a permit for. Just don’t forget that one too long, because those unidentified brown and orange flying bugs will start to invade your TV room. Yuck! Remember how they used to land on you randomly back when you got stuck in the die-cutting department of your first real job? The job you loved because it had at least some vague creative possibilities. More than that gym management job. The job you quit the previous job for, before you even knew if you had it. It wasn’t bad enough that they made you leave the “art department” to go out into that god-awful, hot, bug-infested, factory. They had to put you out in the open for bugs to use you as a landing strip in the most boring department ever created. The department that forced you to read FLOW by that unspellable philosopher that you thought was Russian but was actually from Chicago, just so you could get through the day without thoughts of… well let’s just not go there.

GET UP and DO something. You have a REAL creative job now. Just forget the dirty floor and the laundry and the Kong-sized dust balls and the peeling paint and the old things under the bed and the unreturned, unusable store purchases and unpaid bills (don’t forget those too long either) and GETUP. Get out the easel. Get out the brushes. Get out the board. Get them out and put a stroke down. Put down two. You’ll finally get past the apathy and the lethargy and the apprehension and the fear. The Fear. And the Abulia. Good word. Specific word. A word that gives a name to the need to GET UP.


Simple, honest advice
by Ken Campbell, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Great Blue Herons”
mixed media
by Ken Campbell

Often when giving painting classes and workshops I feel compelled to give simple, honest advice. Not the humourous one-liners or flashy brush technique that students seem to enjoy (and I love to dish out). What I am talking about here is the “real goods.” I have found that such a thing — even if Zen-like in simplicity — is appreciated. Over time I have come to one that goes to the very heart. And it is simply this: “Start by creating 100 paintings.”

In most crowds, some will grimace. Others will laugh. But some will get a knowing look in their eye and “get it.” I usually continue to say that the act of painting is an invaluable teacher, that the act of painting will answer many questions and reveal new ones, and that the sooner you start to paint the sooner you will answer your questions, get focused and excel. At the end of the 100 paintings, you will have learned so much. And, your questions will be fundamentally different. To me, the mother of all answers is… “paint.”


What do you have to sacrifice?
by Paula Jones

Your letters have all helped and made sense along the way, but rarely has one really hit me like this one did. I have been painting for three years (starting at age 45). Every artist I have taken lessons from has seen something in me that I was not aware that I had until taking workshops with these wonderful “teachers.” I have asked them all, “How do you know?” and they have all responded, “It is in your soul.” I have always felt “something” my whole life and just not realized what “it” was. Now, how to shape that soul… Lots of canvas, lots of paint and lots of brush mileage, along with compassionate, intuitive teachers, now, can I just make them proud? Do I have the time it takes to commit with a family and husband in the middle of Kansas? I hope so. I want people to look at my art and feel like a completed symphony is in front of them that gives them goosebumps and makes them cry. Do I have it? I suppose… Do I want it? Sure I do… but, can I do it all and maintain respect from my peers? As well as being a good mother and wife? What do you have to be willing to sacrifice in order to follow who you know you are?


Talent is attitude
by Nancy Moskovitz, Ocala, FL, USA


“Is Anyone Else Up?”
watercolour and pastel painting
by Nancy Moskovitz

Whenever someone uses the word talent while complimenting me, I smile to hide my mixed feelings. To my mind “talent” discounts the miles of canvas covered to hone one’s skills. I suppose “talent” is also used to describe Olympic athletes, but nobody would ever suggest that they don’t need their coach (read “another workshop or class or teacher”) because they have so much talent.

I love Richard Schmid’s take on talent in his book Alla Prima on page 3: “Don’t bother about whether or not you have it. Just assume that you do, and then forget about it. Talent is a word we use after someone has become accomplished. There is no way to detect it before the fact… or to predict when or if mastery will click into place.”

Be it Mozart, an Olympic athlete, or Monet who wants “to paint like a bird sings” from your own Resource of Art Quotations, a lot of attitude goes into the process.


Globalization of art and culture
by Abed Malhas, Amman, Jordan

CASA, short for Caring and Sharing Artists, proposes to bring together the work of artists from all countries in the world on a common platform in a moving art exhibition which has been proposed to commence at the Louvre. The proceeds, along with sponsor money and donations – Mr. Malhas has left no stone unturned in connecting with charitable institutes and the like – will go towards the betterment of society, to the underprivileged and the downtrodden of the world.

Of course, many may discourse about the negative effect of such positive globalization on art and culture. Mr. Malhas is quick to reiterate the sentiment of the Mahatma by quoting him: “I do not want my house to be rounded by walls and my windows to be closed to other cultures. I wish to become familiar with the culture of lands as much as possible but I will not permit them to affect me or shake me from my own status.” In view of this, it is significant that Mr. Malhas is a proponent of dynamic art and feels that the effect of positive globalization on art is dual for without native or national art there can be no globalization and without globalization there can be no unity in the world today.


Work consistently with passion
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Journey On”
oil painting
by Mary Moquin

I know that the book, The Treehouse by Naomi Wolf, was recently recommended in response to a previous letter. I promptly borrowed it from my library and found it truly inspirational and I feel it speaks to this letter as well. Although it is geared toward poetry, the parallels are there of course. Naomi’s father says that “the real difference between those who want to write and those that do, is that those that do get up every day and do it.”

In the class that I teach on painting, I am amazed at how many people are paralyzed because they don’t know how to start or what to do. No matter how I try to express that knowing what to do next comes from just doing it. One painting teaches us about what needs to be done in the next painting. Just do it as the Nike ad says. I mentioned to another student that I didn’t like something in the painting I was working on and I said I was going to take sandpaper to it. He exclaimed, “You can do that!?” Where do our preconceptions come from? You can do anything to a painting that it takes to make it work for you! Just do it, use what ever materials and techniques it takes to help you achieve the look you want. The problem often comes because people don’t know yet what they are looking for. That only comes by discovering what they don’t like, which comes from just doing it. Another quote by Leonard Wolf is, “You can’t revise a blank page.” Mozart knew that, all creative people know that. It is only by getting something down that we can assess it and adjust it until it expresses our initial vision and impulse. It is very rare that things ever come out perfect the first time. If they do, I question if the artist is truly still searching or is just resting on his previous accomplishments.

We put up so many diversions to keep us from painting because it is work, and the goal is often evasive and frustrating at times. It is easy to rest when we have reached a certain level of competency and just coast along on the praise by those who haven’t made it as far. “Wow, what a great painter you are, etc.” The quest must go on, we must continue to paint and persevere for only God knows how far we are meant to climb in this lifetime. Don’t let too much praise or criticism stand in the way. The only way to get there is to do the work consistently and with passion, always with passion.


Careful of the critic
by Alison Mackie, Florida, USA

A highly critical mother heaped negativity upon me from the time of my birth. Because she held her opinion in high regard, I did also. I was of the understanding that my mother’s opinion was the only valid one in the world. Her constant commentary upon my very existence, I felt, was utterly crucial to my development. My ear was so finely tuned to her opinion that I never realized how negative it always was. Nor did I realize, at the time, that protecting myself from such negativity was necessary. She was my mother and I loved her. I felt that she wanted the best for me and that her words were chosen to bring me along in the world, to a better place. They did not. Years later I recognized the echo of my mother’s highly critical nature within myself: I became aware of a negative inner voice dismissing every original thought that popped into my mind, discounting them, one by one, without going deeper. It was a powerful critical voice.

Realizing that my mother had never stretched herself toward any achievement of her own, I began to question her qualifications for being a critic. Missing from her valuable observations was praise for what was strong. Instead, the attention was always focused upon what was weak. Continuing this pattern in my own life, I gave up writing and painting. I was not good enough.

Just as I was about to sell off the paints, in walked Daniel Campbell. He was exactly what someone like me needed. Daniel never uttered a negative remark upon his student’s work. Instead, he would search for something in the work that was done well, pointing to that space on the canvas and saying something like, “This works,” or “That is strong.” The rest of the canvas could be utter shit, but Daniel only had eyes for what worked. I am sure he understood how difficult a process it is to work at improving. If the weeds are pulled out of the garden too soon, the too shallow roots of the plants developing around it get pulled up with the weed also. Time is what is needed before criticism can be useful. Otherwise it is heavy handed and inappropriate. It was through Daniel that I was finally able to tune out my mother’s voice inside of me, to develop my own voice.

It is, as you say, in the work itself that gives the best tips. There are too many out there who proudly call themselves critics, but I have come to see that many of those critics have never tested their own skill. Careful who you listen to.





A Brief Encounter

oil painting
by Raymond Leech, Cowes, Isle of Wight, Britain


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, 2006.

That includes Valerie Kent who wrote, “You know your painting is right when you view the universe, select the segments that inspire you, record them and you clearly see what is not there. You hear what the work is not telling you. It is important that you listen to your intuition effectively enough to know when the painting whispers success.”

And also Raul D. Arellano who wrote, “Thanks for keeping us stimulated in the arts. We are all debris of evolution. If Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in our generation, do you think he would have painted the way he did during the Renaissance?”

And also Toni Ciserella of Richfield, UT, USA who wrote, “And the motha of them all, to quote (John) Calvin Coolidge: ‘Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.’ ”

And also Jim Heumann of Juneau, AK, USA who wrote, “Mozart gets so much credit for being an irreverent sod, but so few realize how much effort was behind his work. To me, painting is like being a blacksmith — we pound away at a concept (values, composition, etc.) until we achieve a workable piece. So much of it is effort combined with a suspension of time. Perhaps that’s the best part of it!”




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