Pick up your tool


Dear Artist,

A friend of a friend phoned this morning and said, “Don’t waste my time Bob — what’s your all-time best tip?” I had to put down my brush for that one. I used to think it was “Keep busy while you’re waiting for something to happen.” After some thought I realized I had honed the advice further: “Pick up your tool,” I told him.


Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

It’s been my observation that pretty well all growth, success and creative happiness are based on the discovery and exploitation of our tools. Some tools, tried and true, come back and are used again to new advantage. Still others are out there to be discovered. Here, necessity is often the mother of invention. It’s the instrument itself that cranks up the creative process. Some tools are mighty humble. I once watched a Hungarian artist by the name of Andre Szasz using crumpled newspapers to remove dark oil paint in degree from a light shiny ground and creating remarkably modelled figures. The use of that odd tool took him right into his unique and satisfying process.


“Composition with Pouring II”
oil painting, c. 1943
by Jackson Pollock

Recently I wrote to you from an island. Out there I was sometimes using a small paintbox loaded with little plastic bottles of liquid acrylic. I fitted a dozen or so with cone-shaped tops — the sort of instruments women use to touch up the roots of their hair. Craftspeople know all about these things. They give a three-dimensional line and invite a cursive, fluid stroke. When they get blocked you poke them with a nail. They keep the ideas fresh, help with the design, and above all, they’re speedy. I brought the bottle-made sketches back into the cabin during a storm and worked into them. What a tool, I thought.

So I’m telling the friend of my friend that I don’t mean for him to pick up my particular tool. I’m telling him that we all need to find and hold the tools that will become our partners. “Take that tool in your hand and let it discover your joy. That’s my all-time best tip,” I say. He hangs up. Maybe that was his best tip, too.


Best regards,


PS: “It is vain for painters to endeavor to invent without materials with which the mind may work.” (Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Esoterica: Did you ever stop to think that it’s only when you have a tool in your hand that you can get proficient at doing something? Without a tool you can talk about it, dream about it, regret about it, and that’s just about all you can do about it.

This letter was originally published as “Pick up your tool” on May 21, 2002.



  1. Not being particularly attentive to my painting brushes, I find that they change with abuse and can’t deliver what I expect of them. I am not that way with garden tools or even pens, but its the brushes that surprise me. With luck I will be more attentive to what they can offer and watch their condition change. When a brush offers a different output I should be more able to include it in my ambitions. I don’t work in a straight line anyway.

    • A fellow artist naively told me once that “There are no straight lines on nature.” A few days later, I showed her a hand filled with quartz crystals. After that, I undertook a series of 12 paintings of “Yantras” or consciousness-raising visual devices often called mandalas. They were all hard-edged “geometrical in nature”.
      Nic East

      • Wowzer! Fascinating work. In “Nic at the Torch”, I noticed how perfectly aligned your supplies and materials are. That is really something. Lots of straight lines there. Also, your use of Picasa was surprising – I thought I was the only person on the planet who uses Picasa – but not for my artwork.



  2. Thank you for sharing this again, Sarah. I was just thinking last night that the brushes are such great tools. They take the love and abuse I put them through and remain useful for the rest of their days.

    • Raymond Mosier on

      I am sometimes asked “what brushes do you use” meaning the brand when I am not feeling smart enough to answer”paint”. But seriously I have always subscribed to the idea that in the case of brushes, it isn’t necessarily the brand, kind of hair, size and shape, but the skill employed in using the brush. That is the craft in being a painter, much as the sculptor or cabinet maker uses their tools in their craft.

  3. Seeing the Pollock artwork with pouring paint reminded me of my recent experiment with making vortex paintings using a “lazy susan” to spin the sturdy paper around while I poured acrylic paints to create the swirls and spatters. It took me four times as long to mix my special colors as it did to make the paintings. That’s when it confirmed to me my favorite “tool” is color! It was good to playfully shake things up a little in the creative process, too. I made a short video of this process if you want to take a peek. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzLFKtngoT8&feature=youtu.be

    • Karen, years ago in the 60’s my husband I were at a fair where for a price you could do this
      “spin art” thing. Basically, it was an old washing machine tub with a motor. You placed a piece
      of paper on a board on the motor, turned it on and as it spun around you dribbled different colored paint from tubes. It did the most amazing paintings. My husband and I then found an old washing machine tub and made us one and it worked just fine. Now, if I could just find another old washing machine tub I could go back into business, maybe on a larger scale.

  4. Linda Harbison on

    Once after I had taken a break from watercolor for a while, I began getting supplies together to start again. I was so happy to open a storage box and see all of my brushes . They were like old friends waiting to catch up.

  5. Mary Gayle Selfridge on

    Art making is my tool to keep my Soul and Spirit toned and tuned,thank you for this letter.I am surprised each time I do a painting how it reflects my vision and where I am at the present moment and that is all we really have is the present moment,blessings

  6. En plein air I use twigs and grass… I treat my brushes too harshly like Jim Stewart. Sometimes I feel quilty and spruce them up like they should be treated – but I would rather paint. Now I scratch my name in the wet paint with the proverbially nail. Love this letter from Robert!

  7. Timely letter. I suffer from getting into too much detail and blending for my liking. After watching a video of an artist who sketches with ink and a stick it’s given me an idea. I’m going to try turning my brush around to paint with handle, could be an interesting exercise.

  8. Thank you, everyone for your comments! I always find the responses just as insightful as Robert and Sara’s letters. What I have noticed is that you can create anything with the right tool. I find all sorts of tools in my studio that work for my experimental paintings. Anything from crinkled plastic bags to a rolling pin, brayer, scraper, squeegee and old brushes. They all work in various ways to create non-objective art. Thank you, Sara!

  9. Letting go…after a watercolor workshop last year where we poured, sprayed and splattered, I went back to brushwork that tightened me up once more. A week before Christmas, taking a 4-foot by 3-foot canvas into the darkening afternoon, I began pouring paint and water, tilting the canvas like a dancer in love. In the morning, I ran down to see the patterns formed overnight, and continued to work on the piece with great joy and excitement. It sold Monday to a couple who are just starting to collect art. So letting go is a valuable tool for me.

  10. I feel that sometimes an artists best work is completed when their mind is not paying attention. That is when all of the skills they have learned mixes with the natural talent they posses, without their consciousness getting in the way.

    The mantra of “pick up your tool” makes a lot of sense!

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