Dear Artist,

Yesterday, an artist emailed with a basic but vital question: “I was curious if you have any tips on how to motivate yourself to paint. I love painting; however, I haven’t had much motivation to do so. It’s been a few months. Any suggestions?”

Zeus Weeps, 1972 oil on canvas 88 1/4 x 115 1/4 inches by Dorothy Hood (1919-2000)

Zeus Weeps, 1972
oil on canvas
88 1/4 x 115 1/4 inches
by Dorothy Hood (1919-2000)

It may be a help to understand that work is not work when work is loved. This thought brings affirmations from legions of artists who have no trouble being motivated. Many get themselves started with the expectation of joy. But there’s hardly one of us who hasn’t at some time been stuck. In my studio, when there’s no joy, there’s no work. In studying motivation, I’ve found that there have to be at least three prerequisites — challenge, process, and the feeling of progress. Without challenge the muse dies. If an artist underestimates capability or goes too long with outworn motifs, interest fades and motivation fails. Complexity, nuance, even novelty, need to be consciously added to the mix.

Untitled, 2000 oil on canvas 48 x 48 inches by Dorothy Hood

Untitled, 2000
oil on canvas
48 x 48 inches
by Dorothy Hood

Process is the actual bit-by-bit activity that causes the work to unfold. Some of these bits need to be personal and unique. They can be anti-academic. Style-force develops out of what you’re doing wrong, and the result is ego-force. The artist, having fallen in love with her own process, shouts convincingly, “It’s my stuff and I’m doing it!” The feelings of progress and growth are above feelings of mere change. Progress brings refinement, evolution, revelation, and exaltation. You see it in the work, and the work begets work. Even failures become treasured stepping stones to further progress.

Sonar Psyche, ca. 1970 oil on canvas 90 1/8 × 70 1/2 × 2 1/8 inches by Dorothy Hood

Sonar Psyche, ca. 1970
oil on canvas
90 1/8 × 70 1/2 × 2 1/8 inches
by Dorothy Hood

I’ve always been fascinated by the conundrum of motivation. Why is it that one time we’re full of moxie — and another time we’re dead ducks? “Comes with the territory,” you might say. I’ve observed that some artists are masochistic and deliberately shoot themselves in the hand. For others, the idea is to simply become a “master.” Masters master themselves. They know their own habits — good and bad. They keep on keeping on. There’s a tipping point. When masters willfully step into the studio, prime the pump, understand and embrace the three prerequisites, they may not easily get things stopped.

Best regards,


PS: “Desire is the key to motivation.” (Mario Andretti)

Esoterica: Desire is more than a wish — it’s a craving. When the artist has the feeling that the work at hand is worthwhile in and for its own sake — and temporarily safe from negative input or jaded critique — then the artist simply craves the work for its own sake. This state of desire often requires the self-delusion and iconoclasm that isolation provides. It’s in private times that the tender shoots of desire appear and flourish. And while desire may prime starting, starting also primes desire.

This letter was originally published as “Motivation” on September 15, 2006.

Dorothy HoodSara Genn: New Alphabet is on view until October 17th, 2019 at Dimmitt Contemporary Art, 3637 West Alabama Street, Houston. 

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open…” (Martha Graham)




  1. The work and life of Dorothy Hood is new to me. The piece from 2000 was done during her last year. Looking at small images of large paintings makes it easier to see the intent of a piece but not the struggle to get there. But that’s fine. There is always more to see and learn. Thanks

  2. In reading today’s post about motivation, I am reminded of taking my two young grandson’s painting and their needing to put on my red painting apron that is covered in paint splatters and marks. They wear it with the excitement of a surgeon’s gown or a carpenter’s belt. Painting is important work for them. At the ages of now six and eight they have painted enough times with me that they know how to hold my good brushes, mix the colour they want and stand back to see what they have on their painting board. Their serious attentive faces as they stand at the easel, that I have adjusted for their shorter statures, reminds me that, what we place significance on, so will others. It is the first of the three prerequisites – process, that seems to provide the ongoing motivation to start painting while it is challenge and progress that keeps me painting. Yet, like when sharing painting with my young grandsons, the leaps forward need to have some reachability, some distance that is just outside my immediate grasp but doesn’t take me completely over a cliff with no wings yet to fly. As the years have past, I feel more confident in taking on greater challenges because I have a larger bed of previous progress to fall on should I fail miserably. Neither is my confidence so easily crushed nor manipulated by outside opinion…. Often, the only motivation I need is to see my painting tools. There are mental drawers in my mind overflowing with ideas and I just pull one out, untangle it from the others, and begin! Another great post! Thanks Sara and team!

  3. Some years ago I was in need of completing a large piece of complex writing that took a lot of dedication, and one of the tricks to motivate myself was to say: Alright, I am not pretty motivated right now, but I will go and sit in front of the computer, open the files, and I will not panic if motivation is not there. Slowly but persistently, I was making some sort of progress while waiting for the motivation fairy to come and find me with my “pen already in my hand”. And she did.

  4. Short of clinical depression a painter’s block is easy to overcome by starting scribbling and scribbling over scribbles when suddenly a random shape image starts appearing. Begin delineating it and then maybe coloring it. The trick is to start something tangible. It could be a chunk of kneading a piece of old bread until it takes shape & before you know it’s a Michelangelo! Or a Moore! Or more likely a Dali.

  5. Being stuck has something to do with fear of whether the next effort will be progress from what has gone before. Nobody wants to disappoint themselves. We want the result of the effort to be our truth even though we may not yet be aware of the truth we’re imagining, striving for. We are exposed through our painting, and sometimes we don’t welcome that eventuality. For these reasons I gravitate toward portraits from life and also plein air painting. I am able to enjoy the spontaneity without a lot of second guessing. And, yes, the results are more satisfying for me as well.

    • Motivation comes from within find a comfortable place to get a peace of mind don’t rush your efforts they will come when the time is right stay dedicated to your project but give yourself time to explore the eliments around you and the art and design will come to mind

  6. Sara,
    Your dad was an absolute master of the written word. And we are so fortunate to be blessed with his great understanding of so much of humanity!
    Thank you for sharing….

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

“THE MAGIC OF PAINTING FROM LIFE” with Sheree Jones at Casa Buena Art Retreat, Mexico
November 20, 2019 to November 27, 2019

Spanish Casita

Join Canadian artist Sheree Jones as she shares her passion for painting “from life” at this idyllic coastal retreat.

This workshop is designed for experienced beginner & intermediate oil (and acrylic) painters.
The small group size guarantees plenty of one on one instruction.
While you’re busy creating art, your friendly hosts at Casa Buena will be working hard, ensuring that your stay is a memorable one.
Outstanding food, accommodations, and field trips will satisfy your desire for both comfort and adventure. Non painting partners welcome.

For more information visit:
or contact Sheree: Through
oil 12 x 16 inches

Featured Artist

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.