In praise of early rising


Dear Artist,

I’m in my studio most mornings about five. As far as I can see, it has something to do with the idea that I might be able to fix the thing I was working on the day before. While it hasn’t always been this way, lately it’s been getting worse. Or better, depending on your point of view.

Spider, 1994 Bronze, silver nitrate and brown patina, and granite 274.3 x 457.2 x 378.5 cm by Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)

Spider, 1994
Bronze, silver nitrate and brown patina, and granite
274.3 x 457.2 x 378.5 cm
by Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)

Studies by neuroscientist Dr. Ying-Hui Fu of the University of California indicate early risers may be living with a mutated gene. I can handle that. Familial Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome (FASPS) is when people are early to bed and early to rise. They may also be healthy, wealthy and wise. Some FASPS folks like to get started in the middle of the night.

Mutant or not, I’m sure interested in the possible benefits. “When you set your mind on a problem,” says the highly successful entrepreneurial mutant Dennis Parass, “you might set it aside at bedtime, but your brain will still be working on it. You go to bed with the problems on your mind and when you wake up your mind is more focused.”

Spirals, 2005 Suite of 12 woodcuts on smooth, thin, handmade Echizen Shikibu Gampi paper 36.6 × 42.2 cm by Louise Bourgeois

Spirals, 2005
Suite of 12 woodcuts on smooth, thin, handmade Echizen Shikibu Gampi paper
36.6 × 42.2 cm
by Louise Bourgeois

Fact is, it seems the solution is more often at hand when you enter the work area at a ridiculous hour. We mutants are in good company: Margaret Thatcher, Martha Stewart, Al Einstein, Ben Franklin, Pablo Picasso. Night-owling may be good too, but there’s really something to be said for pre-dawn sorties. Wonderfully perverse is a day’s work done before others have even negotiated the morning traffic. Here are a few thoughts for the mutant’s ideal world:

You need to sleep until you wake up.

You need a good reason to wake up.

You need to take a guilt-free nap any time you need one.

As creativity and workmanship diminish with tiredness, you need think about coming to a full stop when you’re overtired.

One of the greatest of all ploys is to simply leave something undone when you turn out the studio lights. This undone part may be a problematical area, or it may be one of those pleasurable passages where you know exactly what to do next. This alone primes the pump and propels the passion. Simple desire may be the key to early rising.

Untitled, 2008 Fabric 83.8 x 99.6 cm by Louise Bourgeois

Untitled, 2008
83.8 x 99.6 cm
by Louise Bourgeois

Best regards,


PS: “The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work.” (Richard Bach)

Esoterica: According to Fu, more than a dozen tightly intertwined genes control the human body clock. The clock controls a variety of physical and behavioral cycles including fluctuations in alertness, heart rate, blood pressure and the immune system. They also play a role in determining drive, passion and creativity. In degree, fully one-third of the population is not naturally tuned to the standard 24-hour night/day cycle.

Louise Bourgeois in her studio in Chelsea, New York City, 1974.

Louise Bourgeois in her studio in Chelsea, New York City, 1974.

This letter was originally published as “In praise of early rising” on December 1, 2009.

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. 

“My life has been regulated by insomnia.” (Louise Bourgeois)



  1. Love Louise Bourgeois….it’s so comforting to see an artist who creates in a multitude of mediums. As for early rising, well go for it early birds….I rather like the early morning too, but it’s the hours after midnight and before dawn.

    • Turn frustration into an opportunity. To walk early, I sleep in comfy exercise clothes. When freezing I sleep in thermals. Now I will try sleeping in paint destined pajamas or leisure suits! I am laughing at myself, because I am usually having to be creative just to make do, to get out the door into nature or studio. But it’s always worth the effort.
      Dear Sara, you are very precious. I am thankful for yours and your dad’s dedicated to inspire other artists. I am so amazed how much I learn spiritually, intellectually and with sound advice.

  2. Wendy Christensen on

    I have many times solved problems in my sleep. Back when I was programming for a living, I often dreamed in code (whatever language I was using at the time) and when I woke I often had some knotty problem all solved. I haven’t had this experience with art dilemmas (yet) maybe because I now have more freedom to take those “guilt-free naps” that help solve problems in a gentler and more ongoing way. And I HIGHLY recommend those naps!

  3. I love how Robert set up the pretext that us early risers are mutants. I think the night owls would agree with that assessment.

    Thank you Genn family for continuing to share his wonderful way of looking at art and human nature. He is missed.

  4. Artists such as Louise absolutely fascinate me. Absolutely!!! And yes, you early risers go for it with your ‘mutated genes’ . I need at least a couple of hours to wake up, have my coffee and morning cup of internet, do my hair, put on some make-up……you get the picture. I would die if I ever had to physically present to the camera or adoring public as Louise did in the photo above in her studio. How can people be so different??? How did we get here? Where are we going? Who are we?….said with tongue in cheek.

    Think I’ll go and make some Nanaimo bars and fudge now. Have a Merry Christmas all.



    • Verna, I am so much like you! I am blessed with more want-to’s, than should’s and have-to’s and mornings are strictly for the woman, me. The painter arrives mid-day, sometimes until late into the night, but Roberts’s admonishment from years ago to work at least 2 hours a day keeps me on track and very happy most of the time! Decorating sugar cookies with as much artistic flair as I can tomorrow with my sisters, that will be my 2 hours for that day! Cheers, and Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  5. I am one of those early riser mutants, even though I sleep until I wake up and rarely ever have to set an alarm except if I have a set time I must be up. Then the alarm helps me sleep better and I usually wake up about five minutes before it goes off.

    “Wonderfully perverse is a day’s work done before others have even negotiated the morning traffic.”

    I love this! I must admit to fiendish satisfaction in having half a day’s work done before others have finished their first morning coffee. This morning at 6:00 am I was polishing my 2020 Arbutus Trees And Life Itself Painting Project proposal. However, I don’t often start painting in the studio until daylight because I prefer natural light. I do have special studio lamps that I will use in an emergency such as when I just can’t bear to put the brushes down or the day is heavily overcast. I will get up and hike to an en plein air location for sunrise though and I have been known for starting out in the summer pre-dawn regularly. This is pure pleasure! I usually have a location all to myself for those few early hours.

    Another delightful letter and all the best of the Holiday Season Everyone!

  6. I am a reformed night owl. What I tend not to do is enter my studio when I wake up at 3am or 4am…. Nor do I take a nap. I so stop when I am tired. Me thinks my schedule needs rethinking.

  7. emily whittlesey on

    Love this letter and the responses. The subject of sleep, work, dream, nap, balancing is dear to me.
    More and more I am finding my own rhythms shift, perhaps with the moon, between being a late nighter and a predawn riser, each way always trying to sleep until I awaken naturally. This choice brings me close to what I gave been dreaming, and where the current painting is beckoning. Naps are a different beast: not really sleep but mind heart travel time. Often MY FEET hit the floor from such a nap, and half returned, I find myself with brush in hand, in a flow which has energized from the “nap”.
    Thank you Sara for your continued gifting!

  8. Such a wonderful, fulfilling letter for someone who wakes up on fire. After 34 years as a journalist, creating art is pure pleasure, as I can control pace, work and passion. When painting, I am passionate no matter what time of day or night I work. Always paint on my feet. whether at easel or doing watercolor flat on a table. Definitely stop when physically and mentally tired, but the pleasure from work lingers long after returning to everyday life.

    Thank you so much, Sara, for printing your father’s words, and your amazing art! Merry Christmas and Happy 2020!

  9. One of the greatest advantage of the early hours is undisturbed time. No interruptions, no voices, no noise accept what the artist produces or desires. It is you at work on the paper, canvas, etc. and your Creator at work in you. Blessed Christmas to all.

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