The mystery of motivation


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Ruth Merrow-Smith of Porte Gerin, France, wrote with the following puzzle: “We have been back from California, Venice and Cornwall for three weeks now. It was much deserved time off as my husband Julian had just finished a large commission for the Queen Mary 2. There was much excited talk about all the paintings he wanted to do as soon as he returned. Since we have been back, despite commissions needing to be finished and a gallery needing to be filled, Julian has still not picked up a paintbrush. Julian seems only to be able to focus on one thing at a time, whether it is painting, looking for a house (which we are doing), working on his website or preparing a meal for friends. As a very organized person I’m looking at poor time management, especially when bills and debts need to be paid. However, I understand that this is a process I’m going to have to accept, and hopefully might understand one day and learn from. Meanwhile, is it unreasonable to think that a little work — or even some time just to sit in the studio every day and see if anything comes would help? Could you try and explain why please? Any tips from a more neutral source would be enlightening to me, and perhaps to others living with the process.”

Without coming right out and saying that brilliant Julian needs a short course in multitasking, I have to tell you that this sort of thing is a common mystery and not always easy to solve. It’s often most virulent after trips. But the goose that lays the golden eggs generally has to lay them in her own sweet time. In this case the gander. Further, if creative people feel they are being manipulated, they can go even more barren. Both verbal encouragement and negative honking can be counter-creative to contrarians. Leaving stuff lying around (to trip over or slide on) might work. Innocently bringing in third parties (inviting a non-threatening dealer or agent for pate de fois gras) is worth a try. Or try suggesting the opposite to what you want. For example, start talking enthusiastically about your next worldwide jaunt.

It’s been my experience that many creative people just seem to grab things and start working when the spirit moves. Blessed is the artist who can say, “I work when the spirit moves, and fortunately it moves every day.”

Best regards,


PS: “Motivation is a fire from within. If someone else tries to light that fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly.” (Stephen R. Covey) “The motive for artistic creation is the need to feel that we are essential in relationship to the world.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Esoterica: Regular work habits are more valuable than talent. These habits can be learned. Use techniques such as pump-priming, fetishistic habit-formation, leaving yesterday’s work unfinished, squeezing out before coffee, fantasized demand, desire focus, de-programming lazy habits, loud music, physical exercise, delusions of grandeur, playing with materials and allowing yourself to embark on the love-boat of process.

(RG note) Thank you so much to everyone who wrote on this matter. Some of these represented below have been rather well edited so that readers cannot blame the Painter’s Keys for keeping them from their easels too long and interfering with their art processes. All letters in their frankness and fullness have been forwarded to the Merrow-Smiths.


Couldn’t wait
by Gary Myers, Dallas, TX, USA


“Santa Fe Dancer”
original painting by Gary Myers

The letter from Ruth Merrow-Smith regarding her frustration with Julian’s lack of motivation, was as if my ex-wife was writing those exact words through a time warp. For years, I watched her frustration with my inability to focus on work, especially after a successful art show or a research trip when my head was filled with all the masterpieces I was ‘going’ to create! I would putter away hours, days and weeks with trivial diversions as thoughts of my future success was assured just because I was so darned talented! I forwarded your letter to my ex, with post-dated apologies. Even though she understood all along… she just couldn’t wait around for the results.


Satellitic dependents
by Anonymous

What bothers and sometimes angers me is the sense of entitlement that satellitic dependents and other parasites have of those laying geese you refer to. “Oh, yeah,” they say, “he (or she) will just nip into the studio and make us some more bucks.”


Burnt out
by J. Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA

Julian is totally burnt out and needs a rest. In other words he’s fried from the completion of a large commission. Ruth needs to get over it and realize Julian can’t work on his art right now as he’s used up all that energy for a short while. He can work on other things that need doing, like looking for a house, as those things are a perfect distraction in this time of completion/death/rebirth. He needs to stop for a few minutes (or months) and regenerate/rejuvenate. Screw the bills.


Focus on your own work
by Susan M. Rohacek, GA, USA


“Minitiature Brown Mill”
watercolour, 8 x 10 inches
by Susan M. Rohacek

I’m afraid the writer of the letter concerned about the artist’s inability to follow through in “her” time frame was clearly exposing herself by mentioning, “or paying bills.” She’d be better to motivate herself and develop financial independence so the only one she needs to worry about being motivated is herself. As a person who lived depending on my husband’s art of “precision machining” for 15 years, I am sure a happier person now that I have built my own studio and focus on my own work. Creation works best without close examination.


Respect fallow time
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Lake Alice Sunset”
oil on canvas, 24 x 48 inches
by Eleanor Blair

Lord save us from the time management police. There is an organic ebb and flow to productivity that I don’t understand. Some days not much gets done (in any obvious measurable way) and other days beautiful paintings seem to appear in the studio like magic. Deadlines and looming commissions might compel me to pick up the brush, but I seem to get a lot more done when there’s absolutely no pressure to do anything at all. My advice to Ruth Merrow-Smith: Worrying about what someone else ‘should’ be doing is a great way to avoid what we need to do. Respect your husband’s fallow time. Do what is in your own hands to do.


Julian also frustrated
by Judi Gorski, San Francisco, CA, USA


“Laura at the Beach”
commissioned portrait
by Judi Gorski

My guess is that Julian is just as frustrated about dragging his feet as his wife is, and that whatever his lazy style may be, it works. He’s in demand and he does eventually get the work done and get the paychecks in. Hard as it is, my advice to her would be to get busier herself so she has less time to pay attention to his work habits. He’ll change them if they become a problem for him, but not because they are a problem for her.


Keep boundaries intact
by Lesley Humphrey, Tomball, TX, USA


“Equine Dynamics”
 painting by Leslie Humphrey

After a serious commission, it is my experience that one feels depleted and empty. I suspect it’s the need to escape the price tag and all the demands people have for our talent that is the main problem here. It’s not a question of it being “fun.” It’s more a question of it being our heart and soul and not for sale at times. We can’t “paint by committee.” Professionals need to keep our boundaries up — even from those we love. In my experience it’s scary for them, but it’s the very aspect of outside control that sometimes weighs us down like bags and makes it impossible for us to create.


Nearly impossible
by Linda K Blondheim


“Red trees”
oil painting by Linda Blondheim

I have a friend who is only able to focus on one thing at a time. His painting always comes last. It makes me wonder if he secretly enjoys the trappings of being an artist but not the process itself. I am a type A person who is multitasking all day long — stopping to paint on my way to the studio or on my way to meetings or galleries in other cities. It is very difficult for me to be around unmotivated people. I would think it nearly impossible to be married to an artist who won’t paint.


From different planets
by Tim Moore

So much for this feminist notion that men and woman are made equal and exactly the same! Yes, equally important in the realm of God’s Creation, but certainly different. The genders are simply wired differently and of course us men are at a disadvantage, particularly when it comes to “multitasking.” Remember the chemical wash that happens during the womb experience and then later at puberty? I call it mild brain damage, because it allows men only to process information from one side of the brain or the other at one time, in various degrees for each man. The women are infinitely at an advantage because they never loose the ability to think simultaneously from both sides of the brain. Men are not dumber — just more intensely focused — different. I’m sure there are exceptions to the right or left of this human gender norm, particularly through education and discipline on both sides of course. My recommendation for this patient wife is to just affirm her husband gently and lovingly to do the next thing!


“Show up”
by Pamela Sweet

I have found this saying to be helpful for me in my studio. I now just “Show up” at my studio at 8:00 a.m. and begin my work. I stay until 3:00 p.m. even if I am just reading art books. I have found I can be creative most days if I just “Show up.”

“We should be aware that the process of work precedes the work of art.” (John D. Engle, Jr)


Avoid emotions
by Steve Hovland, San Francisco, CA, USA


“In a bad mood”
original photo by Steve Hovland

I think it’s important to avoid being controlled by your emotions. You need to be aware of what you are feeling, but those feelings should not determine what you do. Going to drawing co-ops helped me on this. The model comes in, takes a pose, and you start. It doesn’t matter how you feel. Some writers end their workday leaving the last sentence unfinished. An artist can make a mark, a squiggle, anything. Motivation implies movement. In this case the artist might be depressed or be having the “winter blues.” My favorite antidote for winter blues is adding the amino acid l-phenylalanine to my diet- 500 mg in the morning and 500 mg at noon. It keeps me going.


Bridge from the ordinary
by Valerie McCaffrey, Beverly Farms, MA, USA


“Show at Long Hill”
acrylic, 30 x 32 inches
by Valerie McCaffrey

I’m reading the journals of Thomas Merton The Hermitage years — late 1960s — and am astounded how this monk, in a secluded, protected hermitage, of long standing and enormous talent and worldwide acceptance, sabotaged his solitude. As an artist I tell myself that if I had what he had I would be producing huge quantities of important work. Probably not. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way suggests writing three pages a day, first thing. I have been doing this for five years (most days) and every day I do it, I work with focus. Julia’s system offers me a non-threatening bridge from ordinary to creative activity.


Serve somebody
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA

As a kid, I worked for my parents in their art gallery in Overland Park, Kansas, at a time of great growth in the city. We had to finish our framing orders no matter what impediment might crop up. When my mother re-married many years after their divorce, she married another “motivated” man who always liked the saying “you’re either early or you’re late.” Growing up and being shaped by type “A” personalities doesn’t mean you are one, but it’s so hard to survive these days as an artist without being an aggressive business person. I borrow some of my parents’ sensibilities.

Sometimes, to become more motivated, I keep my mind in the present — which pieces are due next. I always give a due date — true to form, each commission is inquired about earlier than that due date, about 7 out of 10 times. I think it makes the buyer a little more eager without the hype I could provide.

After that, motivation comes from knowing I made the house payment 28 straight times so far with my art sales, buying the kids clothes or something we really need. It’s almost always something we really need, although I felt a gust of motivational wind when our 20th wedding anniversary came around. I decided to have our portrait photographed by the most capable, although the most expensive photographer in Kansas City. It was something of a milestone, and it had to be dealt with in a reverent and respectful manner; I’d done the new ring thing at our 15th, so jewelry was not important. Accomplishing that for my wife made her so happy, I feel an extraordinary creative “push” lately!

Having the mind to do for others may impede creative juices for some, but for myself, the cold but true words of Bob Dylan echo softly: “You gotta serve somebody…” It’s good to remember the dishes and the trash when I’m getting inspiration. It’s good to have some humility, a daily dose of reality, and to always remember where our talent comes from, ultimately. To observe the world and its inhabitants and take lightly the gifts we artists possess would be like burying our clay back into the earth; to empty tubes of paint into wads of newsprint, never to be used or looked upon, or to simply turn our heads away from that which is uniquely ours.


Be here now
by Cassandra James, Austin, TX, USA

After a big trip, the time afterwards is critically necessary to digest new visual inventory and sort out how it is best used in the new studio work. I think there is a comparable amount of time necessary after a large show, to learn as much as possible about the work by viewing it in a new light as a body and to physically recover from the adrenalin of the previous weeks. Just ease back into the studio. Gesso some canvases and before long the work starts to happen. Don’t panic. Buddhists say ‘Be here now.’


Problem of distraction
by Juvenal Reis, Long Island City, NY, USA


“Spurious Relationship #6”
oil painting, 60 x 56 inches
by Juvenal Reis

I live the same problem all the time and I call it “distractions.” How many things we do to keep us away from what really matters. Your suggestions are all great and I would add a simple and basic principle of discipline… to accomplish something everyday. Yes, anything… from rearranging something in the studio, reading a poem or reading about an artist, visiting a museum, etc. The point is to end the day being able to say: “I got this done today.”




Get back Julian!
by Nicky Baumeister

Julian, get yourself back on a daily routine. Allocate certain hours or days to the issue of finding a house. Delegate responsibility to your real estate agent. Assess the commission you finished. Sort through the information: what did you discover, was it useful or not. Use what you learned or feed yourself with new information. Working is a process not a product. Success comes from the word, succeed: Latin: ‘to under go.’ You must keep moving.


Get out there Julian!
by Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada

Julian’s is a classic case of fear of the inability to repeat recent successes. He has just completed a wonderful and most likely well-rewarded commission and has taken time off for trips and wow, they are even contemplating purchasing a new home… and he has lots of new ideas that will produce even more money, fame, cache! More power to Julian, it seems like this is his time to really take off. But wait, uncertainty is creeping in the door. As it is with many who experience a great success, the uncertainty of acceptance of future projects prevents one from moving ahead. What one must do is believe in oneself and follow Robert’s Rules. Do what you do well and what you have become known for.

Success is to be built upon like a foundation, not gingerly stepped upon like moving ice floes. Get out there Julian, we all await your next, and more importantly, the inevitability of your next success.


The brain business
by Rolf Racker, Frankfurt/Main, Germany

For many years I experienced the same process as Julian. Some 10 years ago I found the HBDI, the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, which was invented by Ned Herrmann when he was working for GE as an education-manager. Ned, himself both an artist and engineer, searched for the reasons why one person is “a very organized person” and the other person not–but very creative. What can be done to adapt a certain dominance profile for special tasks is described in his Whole Brain Business Book which also describes his own process in writing. I developed Ned’s model further for my own understanding of the world and for my brain-coaching work. To understand better why and how we’re trapped both positively and negatively read The Unbearable Automaticity of Being. Here, you will find that the new science of Neuroeconomics is searching for the soul of the consumer. By the way, all the brain-and-psycho-stuff didn’t change me very much, but I learned to understand and live in a complementary partnership.

(RG note) If you write to Rolf he will direct you to on-line access to his own brain coaching activities. The Herrmann International site is at


Valuable feedback
by Ruth Phillips (Merrow-Smith), France


Ruth Phillips photo

This has been an incredible experience for me, and I have learned so much from the dozens of heartfelt responses. Even more than that I feel so much less alone in it all, and have come to realize that Julian is not only perfectly normal but also a great teacher for me. In a small village in Provence I am a bit cut off from other artists and to suddenly have such a wealth of creative support around has been warming and inspiring. It has also challenged me and helped Julian and I crawl out from under a pretty heavy pattern and breathe good fresh open air again. I am reminded of the artist’s trick of looking at the painting in the mirror. All you artist folk have provided me with such a mirror in which to see more clearly what stands in front of me. I have also made lots of new friends! Thank you.

One of the nicest connections to be made for me has been the connection between ‘motivation’ and ‘movement.’ Since much of my work as a cellist and workshop leader is about movement — finding the impulse behind the movement that is truly from one’s heart and not forced — I am beginning to see that it is time for me to practice this understanding which I have gained in music in my life and my marriage. It is a long journey but one I am very grateful to have had so much help with, in its infancy.

Meanwhile, Julian is madly working and has proved you all right and left me face to face with my fears and no projection screen!







Man in a Suit, (self-portrait)

oil on canvas painting
by Julian Merrow-Smith, France


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 Tamara who wrote, ” I need to bring the focus back to the only person I know I can motivate — myself. I’ll focus on my own work and building my creative life, and then I’ll worry about the lifejackets for all the rest.”

And Monica Leaning who wrote, “The difference between an amateur artist and a professional is that the amateur works when the spirit moves and the professional works every day whether they feel like it or not.”

And Melinda who wrote, “Cy Twombly and I were guests at a small villa in Italy. He said that he makes himself go into the studio for four hours every day, and stays there… even if it is just to sweep. He said a lot of times the sweeping would lead to painting.”

And Maxine Price who wrote, “Having faith in oneself that you can do what you set out to do is essential. I have found that artists who wait for the mood are rarely successful.”

And also Jerrie Powell who wrote, “My mantra is just paint and it will come. Concentrate on the process, not the product.”


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