Nothing much here right now


Dear Artist,

I always thought it was just my problem. Every time anyone — friend, art dealer or family member — wanted to take a look around my studio, I felt I needed to apologize and tell them, “Nothing much here right now. Come back later.”

Girl with a Butterfly Net, 1959 by Tetyana Yablonska (1917-2005)

Girl with a Butterfly Net, 1959
by Tetyana Yablonska (1917-2005)

One day, several years ago, I dropped in on an elderly painter who lives nearby. At her studio door she warned me there was “nothing much here right now.” I insisted on seeing around her studio anyway. Every square inch of the place was filled with her art. Canvases ten deep leaned against the walls. Pastels in multiple piles a foot thick lay on large tables. I began to suspect that my “Nothing Much Here Syndrome” (NMHS) might be a universal condition. I wondered what might be at the root of this deception.

For some time I’ve observed that only the really poor artists are totally pleased with their work. I’ve also noted that most who toil for quality are lacking in even modest amounts of post-creation glee. As perfectionists and optimists, the better artists fantasize that their work may get better. It seems a mark of competency that these folks often hide their talents under a bush. In the land of the truly good, there is the tempting illusion that the truly good stuff will be created “later.”

Bread, 1949 Oil on canvas 370 x 201 cm by Tetyana Yablonska

Bread, 1949
Oil on canvas
370 x 201 cm
by Tetyana Yablonska

Humans, of course, are probably hard-wired to be makers of things. But, as widely noted by smarter pundits than I, human beings are deeply flawed with incompetence and inadequacy. Schools, universities and colleges exist on this principle. People are widely advised there is no cure — other than to become a student and to keep trying. Here’s the point: the stations of our trying are not only of interest, they are the windows of our vitality, our personality, and become the very ports of our progress. Advice: Be strong, open ‘er up, let in the interlopers — that stuff’s worth looking at.

Hard-wired also is the artist’s need to sail the high seas and get away from the studio legacy. Intuitively, while we may love our studios, we also suspect them. The travelling artist has the benefit of being a more genuinely empty vessel, at least to start with. Newly virginal, with only optimism and without a nagging history of “not much here” — you have a clean canvas, a fresh slate, an empty sheet, and there’s nothing to do but fill ‘er up.

Morning, 1954 by Tetyana Yablonska

Morning, 1954
by Tetyana Yablonska

Best regards,


PS: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” (Alexander Pope)

Esoterica: In 1493 when Christopher Columbus first came to the Lesser Antilles, he named this island Virgin Gorda because it looked to him like a big woman. Such, I’m told, might be the fantasy of one who has been long at sea. And much of what we think we know and believe, I’m also told, is a fantasy as well. So if an island can be a woman, I can be a lousy, undeserving artist who has nothing much to show. Or I can be a decent one who is prolific and available. The trick is to believe in the latter but still remain displeased. Even Columbus was displeased: when he came ashore here he saw no future in coconuts.

This letter was originally published as “Nothing much here right now” on March 16, 2007.

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“As I breathe, I hope.” (Cicero)



  1. Thanks for your advice, Robert. Open ‘er up! Indeed, I find that works-in-progress have a mysterious quality all unto themselves; neither the viewer nor artist knows what awaits. It’s in that ‘liminal’ space between white-canvas and finished (is it ever truly finished) artwork, that I find most revelatory.

  2. A beautiful article! Fill ‘er up. Like fire which grabs and feeds from oxygen, so too can our soul be ignited. A reminder. We have just this one life. One chance to find away to use our breath, every single second, in a positive way. We create each day anew. Each day, like a blank paper or canvas space is a new opportunity, a new beginning. To ignite a fire, an enteral fire from within–we need to keep feeding this. To live our dreams even with all the obstacles before us. To realize that our goals are attainable. We must adapt and persevere. As humans, we dare to become something more. We are the ones who know that every created thing is a treasure. We are the blessed ones. Fill ‘er up!

    As always, love is the way,

    Miles Patrick Yohnke

  3. Jane Considine on

    Whenever non-artists ask me if I like my work, they are puzzled by my response: “Well I don’t hate it”, or something like it. They think it’s me being neurotic. They don’t have any idea how painful creating a painting can be, and how we as painters do know the difference between mediocre and truly good. That we know a better work could be in our future, but isn’t here yet. Thanks for the article

  4. Shushana Caplan on

    Your comment really resonated with me, Jane. People have often told me how “lucky” I am to be an artist. It looks like so much “fun” to them. I often exclaim, to their surprise, that it’s anything but “fun”. It’s hard to park and worry.

    • I keep hoping one day I will take Robert’s advice and ‘Fall in love with process’. Hasn’t happened yet. I love it when a painting comes together near the end but after all these years every one is still a struggle.

  5. Absolutely one of my favorite articles. I often would find myself, especially while painting in a busy location, and people wanting to “take a peek”, saying, “Oh it isn’t finished yet!” I now just invite the viewers to enjoy taking a peek and enjoy the interaction. Most everyone is kind and truly interested and sometimes buy the painting I’m working on. Im no longer feeling intimidated and simply enjoying the moment.

  6. Sheri-Lee Langlois on

    From one woman to all you others who enjoy The Painters Keys, Happy International Women’s Day! We have so many things to celebrate such as, Sarah Genn’s Art and writing and the beautiful light in Tatyana’s paintings accompanying this newsletter.
    I am thinking today also of the girls & women of Ukraine with a heavy heart. May peace come soon to all Ukrainians and the Russians who protest for them.

  7. In recent years, from slashing and tossing many early pieces, I’ve revisited several paintings I thought were hopeless. One got me curated into an international show, after only 11 years of work. The more I paint, the more critical and painful the process becomes, and the studio is full of “nothing much here,” except pieces in the works. When people ask me how long it takes to paint a canvas/panel/paper, I say, “It takes a lifetime.” And life begins anew each day, drawing me into the studio. Thank you for this piece.

  8. If anyone asks to come to have a look at what I have in my studio, I just say no. Not only because I don’t want anyone browsing unfinished or “stuck” paintings, or old ones that survived the slash sessions, it’s because of the anxiety it would cause me from embarrassment over the mess and chaos. To me it’s a place where creativity happens that put my blinders on to mess, but to them, I don’t think they’d be able to see past the mess. I have a gallery that represents my work, I tell them to go there to see what I paint. Those are the works that are as good as I can be in that particular time of releasing them to the world. Although, even those ones I see flaws and break into hot flashes over if I look at them for too long. Honestly, while I still continue to work on a piece that is just not cooperating, I wonder why I do this thing called making art at all. This is why I say no to commissions, have enough trouble satisfying myself nevermind someone else’s vision they are hoping for. Much admiration and respect for the artists who do commissions. Great letter, I shall keep on…..

  9. My home is not only my studio, it’s also my gallery. My work finds its way on walls throughout our home, and I appreciate the fact that my wife is the curator of this gallery. Works change places over the year , and anyone coming by for a visit will see a different collection than they did the time before.

    There are other artists’ works displayed as well, with the result that my work is seen along side other artists’ pieces. For this reason, I am comfortable when guests come and want to see what’s new in the gallery. Only if they show interest in a particular piece of mine, do I talk about it. I know that the average viewer in any art gallery will only be drawn to one or two pieces, so why should my home be any different? They will let me know, by their questions, which ones, if any, catch their eye. And I’ve learned from experience, that some of our guests need to see a piece several times to reach a decision.

    Having said this, the reason we invite friends over is always for their friendship and companionship. Their interest in my are is secondary to a pleasant time with them.

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Uncorking Your Creative Core: Paint, Write & Walk in Mexico
October 17, 2022 to October 23, 2022

CDLN 6Uncorking Your Creative Core: Paint, Write & Walk in Mexico

October 17 – 23, 2022

San Miguel de Allende

Painting Mentor – Amit Janco: Artist, Author, Labyrinth Designer, Founder of Heartshops and Retreat on Your Feet (Creativity and Walking Retreats)

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Details at Over the Farm #2
original pastel 15 x 15 inches

Featured Artist

Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.