Of geese and swans


Dear Artist,

Horace Walpole once remarked of Sir Joshua Reynolds, “All his own geese are swans, as the swans of others are geese.”


“The Threatened Swan” ca.1650
oil painting by
Jan Asselijn (1610-1652)

I’ve heard variations of this idea from some of my artist friends. There have even been times, perish the thought, when I’ve caught myself being like that. In most cases it’s got something to do with the ongoing problem that we ourselves just never seem to have enough swans. Sometimes there’s nothing but ducks.

The trick to getting more swans is to see your own geese for what they are. It takes clarity of vision. It’s a function of looking and seeing. The patron saint of mediocrity awaits with his veil in every studio. The seasoned eye is better able to spot his movements. When the mind is elevated and informed it stands a chance of avoiding his spell. Trouble is, the guy has to be re-fought every time you crack out a new canvas or full-sheet. Good news: He can often be held at bay by potent antidotes:


“Taunting the Geese”
oil painting by
Herbert William Weekes (1841-1914)

Stop, look and listen.
Take pains to take pains.
Aim for the above and beyond.
Keep your betters for counsel.
Give yourself a rest or a run.
Constantly ask: “What could be?”
Lash out at all forms of laziness.
Believe in yourself, but not too much.
When all else fails: follow directions.
Go back to school — if only for a minute.
Put “process” beyond other considerations.
Know that “good enough” is not good enough.
Before you start out, get your swans in a row.

If the best of your vision eludes you, and your dreams can’t be grasped today, be philosophic, know that defeat is often temporary. Never let disappointment spoil the hunt. Tomorrow will be another day.


“The Disputed Gate”
oil painting by
Herbert William Weekes (1841-1914)

Best regards,


PS: “I’d rather be a could-be if I cannot be an are;
Because a could-be is a maybe who is reaching for a star.
I’d rather be a has-been than a might-have-been, by far;
For a might-have-been has never been, but a has was once an are.” (Milton Berle)

Esoterica: Every professional was once an amateur. Ongoing professionalism is based on an apprentice attitude. In the range of creative aspiration, more is attainable when the artist has a student mind. A wide-eyed student stands a better chance of flying with the swans.

This letter was originally published as “Of geese and swans” on September 13, 2002.


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

“The painter goes through states of fullness and evaluation. That is the whole secret of art.” (Pablo Picasso)



  1. Many years ago, I concluded on the subject of mediocrity, “many are called and most are chosen”. Thanks for the repost

  2. Love the Weekes. Such a carefully observed depiction of a very simple scene– the bobbing, hissing geese, the knock-kneed calves. A most basic gate leaning slightly, fence made of saplings or branches nailed to the available trees. If you’ve ever been confronted by said geese, you will have a soundtrack to go with it. I am told that guard-geese will keep coyotes at bay.

    I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged lately, this is a nice reminder, thanks as always.

  3. Thanks for this letter! Good, encouraging advice. I like the swan and geese paintings. Especially Weekes “The Disputed Gate”. Wonderfully painted! And the humor in it, too.

  4. Joanne Stange on

    Wonderful paintings and Robert’s advice is filled with refreshing ideas and valued advice. A keeper article to refer to along the way. Thank you so much for sharing it!

  5. Robert- if you’re listening- we all love you- but I have to take issue with this statement: “Know that “good enough” is not good enough.”
    Many artists suffer from little to no support growing up. Many parents actively negate their children’s creative aspirations for more *practical* ones. And many parents feel no remorse for stifling creativity. So it’s a very real fact that many of us struggle with the idea of being good enough- because we did not get the necessary support we needed at crucial moments in our growth and evolution.
    You can’t even begin to evaluate whether a singular piece of art is good enough- if you haven’t even gotten to the point where you know that YOU- in fact- ARE good enough.
    I know it sounds like a technicality- but it’s a fairly profound one. You may have to heal yourself first. True non-ego-based confidence is often hard-won. And I’ve been called arrogant several times in just the last few weeks by people who had no clue how hard I’d worked to get to the point where I know what I know and I believe in myself and I can talk about it.
    So while the work I do tomorrow may be better because of the work I do today- the work I do today has to be good enough- especially if some aspect of my own self-worth is based on the work I do today. Tomorrow may never come.

  6. Elizabeth Senger on

    I think what Robert was thinking about when he mentioned “good enough” was about a person not doing his or her best. Like an artist saying, “It’s not my best, but it’s good enough (for this show, etc) when you know you can do a piece better. It’s giving up instead of trying to do your best work. Being satisfied with a not-your- best piece when you should be scrapping it for what you know you have it in you to do it better.
    I don’t think he was talking about what other people are saying about your work! What do they know! You can be at peace knowing it WAS your best at this point in time.

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