Returning to a cold easel


Dear Artist,

Lee Hulcher from Clarkston Valley, Montana wrote, “I love to paint but being self-employed doesn’t leave much time, except in blocks of hours, sometimes days or months apart. Here lies the issue: When I step away from a painting that is going well, I dread the return, due to severe anxiety of messing it up and ruining the started painting. Of course, by the time I actually get to paint I am so stressed that I ruin the painting. I have found myself actually making excuses as to why I can’t paint. Do you have any suggestions, as I have a lot of unfinished paintings I would love to finish.”


“The Viaduct at L’Estaque” 1907-8
oil on canvas, 65.1 x 80.6 cm
by Georges Braque (1882-1963)

Thanks, Lee. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” wrote Virginia Woolf, when reconciling ideal creative conditions. Neglected, incomplete work tends to go stale after awhile. And, like taking a deep breath and postponing an exhale, a promising beginning can morph into a terrifying condition. Cold Easel Syndrome, or CES, threatens confidence, flow and a slick palette — the symptoms so off-putting they can paralyze a once joyful brush-pusher. Here are a few remedies:

Set up your work so that it’s waiting for you. Devote a room or space in your home to no other purpose but painting, and keep your tools at the ready.

Position your paintings in various stages of completion within eyeshot of other areas — like your bed and dinner table. Your process is one of multiple tracks, simultaneity and exploration, with less emphasis on a chronological series of would-be masterpieces.


“Harbour in Normandy” 1909
oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm
by Georges Braque

Temper your aspirations for beginnings and middles. Realize nothing can be ruined — you have only a set of waiting possibilities. You could warm up with another start. Do it quickly and keep it fresh.

On the whole, speed up. “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. Like the shadow moving across the glacier, paint it fast — catch the joy of your stolen moments. Lay in your overall vision with unattached gusto. Stay loose. Get to 80% or 90% complete in the arc of time allotted. Think of your painting as a record of this event.

Now, it’s contemplation period. And when you return to the easel, avoid approaching your “second act” with the same thinking as your first. Instead, consider this next pass as a refreshed, relaxed and special kind of pleasure — stay cool. Those last flourishes, a glaze or two, coming to light, titling and signing will prime the pump for your next beginning.


“Road near L’Estaque” 1908
oil on canvas, 50.2 x 60.3 cm
by Georges Braque



PS: “The painting is finished when the idea has disappeared.” (Georges Braque)

Esoterica: Life portions us our allotted hours — it’s up to us to protect the creative ones. Start with understanding your own personal commitment and desire to go all the way. Know that an endless, uninterrupted lifetime to dream, plan, prepare, squeeze out, lay in, linger, languish, triumph and finish can be condensed into the time it takes for another to dry on the secondary easel. “Work expands to the time allotted.” (Parkinson’s Law)


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“It is the unforeseeable that creates the event.” (Georges Braque)



    • When I reach a place where I’m stuck, I place the work upside down in a place where I can see it on a regular basis. I leave it alone for at least 24 hours. This lets me see shapes and values that need help.

    • Bev Schutzman on

      Exactly what I was thinking. I thought until your signature, Sara, that it might be your Dad writing .
      Well said!

    • Lee, I feel your pain! I think every artist has felt that fear and paralysis at one time or another. As an artist who works in various media, I leave painting for long periods sometimes. I now keep numerous paintings in progress ON VIEW in my studio ( a room smack in the middle of my house) so that I see them everyday as I go about my day. This allows me, over time, to see faults and to see new directions to go and to
      ” incubate” these paintings. I see them ALL as ” under paintings” that will grow when I return.

      • Dear Julie.. “Under paintings that will grow..” I’m a photographer…a beginning painter & a long time gardener.. This is a delightful & inspirational thought ! Many thanks! Dona Dugay

    • Lee your letter was from my heart. Thanks for sharing. I too will get back to those once started and left half way paintings and try to see them with excited and fresh eyes.

  1. This one was written much like your father wrote. I always sneak ahead to look at the signature when that happens. The title of the piece made me laugh twice.

    • Not everyone paints with the speed and gusto that Robert did either! We all have a different approach. I like the Braque quote that “a painting is finished when the idea is gone”. No matter how long it takes…….

    • Beth, I do the same thing when one of these letters resonates with Robert’s voice but turns out to be written by Sara. She obviously inherited much of his wisdom and insightfulness, and we are so fortunate that Sara continues to share it with us!

    • Beth, that was my reaction to how this letter was written, as well – except that I did NOT want to look ahead to see who authored it. I was surprised to see Sara’s signature, as I was sure I heard her father’s economy of words and his cadence. How delightful! (Thank you, Sara, for all your wise words.)

  2. Mary Manning on

    You struck a deep chord, Sara. In the past year I learned to keep several paintings going at once, and after the shapes and contrasts take off, the details, final glazes and signature tell me when I’m done. Those first exciting hours at the beginning echo into the pieces throughput the process. And it is a process!

    • Excellent question and response. Realizing that it is a process, it is necessary to find one’s own process and to be comfortable with that process . For me, it’s never letting the painting get too cold….. and knowing when to stop and contemplate next steps in the process….. paintings “in progress” are always placed on my fireplace mantel where I can observe them, and let my unconscious mind decide what to do next in the painting….. asking these questions before bed….. most often provides me the answer upon waking …… and then its time to move back into the painting….. sometimes, the painting must sit for days for weeks , but when the answers come….. it is so much easier to go back to the painting….. So, find your own process and follow Sara’s excellent advice….. and let us know what happens….

  3. Jill Frederickson on

    Thank you! This was just the support I needed today. I am a puppeteer more than a painter, but partly complete work is a stumbling block for me too.

  4. Suellen on July 15th…Usually time away from a painting is a good thing…you are able to see mistakes and be objective more readily because of the “fullness of time”, Don’t be afraid of it. Take the time to look and see mistakes…it’s not precious it’s a painting and with experience you can resolve it and make it better. Just go to work.

  5. It’s also good to keep the mind set that painting is fun. Even in our busy day of other jobs and responsibilities we can look forward to the time we can go paint (our time – our pleasure).

  6. Lynne Patrick on

    This might be a universal experience and both the question and your response resonated with me. I love having several paintings on the go at any given time each in a different stage of the creative process. That has helped me reframe my thinking to see myself as working within a creative continuum even though I might be away from the studio for a while. Having a stack of unthreateningly sized papers on the table as starters helps too. I try to cultivate a mindset where I look at paintings as never completely finished and hold on to the idea that I can always paint or collage over an offending section if necessary. This mitigates some of the initiation angst for me.

  7. Becki Hesedahl on

    I try to make notes of the next thing to do at quitting time. Then when starting up again I contemplate the work reviewing my notes. I leave the wrk out where I can see it from time to time and if I think of something I add it to my notes. Sometimes it helps and sometimes not!

    • I not only make notes of What Next, but add to them whenever I see my work in a new light. This way, when I ca get back to my easel, I can start with these notes and in a few minutes, I am back in conversation with the painting, letting IT tell me what to do, rather than worrying about whether I’ll ruin it, I simply do something and see if I have ruined it. Starting with instructions to myself tells me that back then I presumably knew what I was doing and can therefore start with taking my own advice. Almost anything can be fixed; either painted over, or in the case of watercolours, dunked in water to cover and mistrokes gently swept off while the rest of the painting stays put.

      When I’ve been away for a really long time, I remind myself to do 3 bad paintings, quickly, small, and “dirty” as opposed to painstakingly, sort of warm-up exercises. Today I had eye surgery and can once again see where my brush will land, so am eager to go see what painting again will be like!

  8. I too have pushed the limits of stagnation and insecurity. Our work has no other person to judge it than ourselves, and that walk can be a lonely and fearful one if we allow the results to dictate OUR value. We are not failures if we set something aside for 6 months or even 6 years. We learn and grow every time we put ourselves in front of that alter where we work hard to create our next vision. A stroke or two may be all that is needed to get us going again. No need to worry or fret. Go happily on your way and cheer when another vision comes into your view. Plein Air is a great way to get embers burning brightly again. Grab those paints and paint something from life in a couple of hours. If you do not know how to do it, take a workshop or two in it. Although difficult, it will loosen those ties, and jump-start your spirit. But be careful, it can be addicting. :)

  9. Ole Pathfinder on

    With my limited attention span, I often lay back a piece I am working on to let my mind come back to it with a fresh eye later. I also work with a personal mantra that the enemy of “good” is “better”. The point being that, for me, I try to be sensitive to when a work has gone as far as my limited skills at that point have any hope of improving the work. I am happy with this approach along with trying to not take myself too seriously.

  10. I would add the following suggestion: grab smaller pieces of “spare” time. I used to think I needed an hour minimum to do any meaningful work on a painting. Then one day I only had 20 minutes and I thought what the hell, and dove in. I was surprised at how much I could accomplish in such a short span of time. Being willing to take advantage of even tiny spaces of free time can make a big difference. And you won’t end up with months-long gaps between painting times.

  11. Dear Artist,

    What about starting a smaller work that you can actually finish in one sitting? It might need a tweak here and there later but some people are not made to work on a painting for weeks or months. I am a one sitting wonder! The best paintings I have done are one sitting. I also did others in four sittings or more at times. They were larger but only after I had worked my way up to large. I started with canvasses about 12 x 14″. Worked my way up after years, to 24 x 36″, 30 x 36″ and then 36 x 48″ and then on to the huge one, 7′ x 9′. That took years! Not in work hours but it years. I use large brushes too. Cannot get too fussy with that. One portrait I did was with a 2″ house painting brush, a good one, the brush. Think large in scale and think structure. A 3’4″ brush on a small canvass is large. DCVeeder

  12. Shirely Verdone on

    I have also experienced this condition and sometimes even when I haven’t got a painting or drawing ‘on the go’ or ‘on the easel or drawing table’ so to speak, I have a kind of reluctance, resistance and trepidation about going to begin work again in my studio/art room (a transformed bedroom of one of my adult children no longer living here!). As for this other fear of messing up a piece of work that is not yet finished (which I too have experienced) what I do is pin or stand up my work on or against the wall in my art room and leave it for as long as it takes until I don’t have “precious” feelings about it which can be months on end even. (I also will begin another drawing or painting in the meantime). When I have become sufficiently emotionally detached from the work I have pinned up for the time being, I am much more willing to take that risk of possibly messing it up and will take it up again to work on it. By having left it for this time and also viewing it day by day, I eventually can see new ways how I’d like to add to it. But even more so, I am more willing to possibly mess it up (I work in abstract mostly, just to mention) so I can work with the challenge of working on it to get it ‘right’ eventually. I was taught by my dear artist friend and mentor to leave off on my work when I get feeling too ‘precious’ about it. When I fear messing it up. It’s this fear that kills creativity and stops us in our artistic tracks.

  13. Lillian E Walsh on

    Sara: No matter what is delivered from you…. I am inspired. Your subject may not be what I think, however it makes me THINK! I have found, since doing more painting, I do need to THINK…. much more time than doing an actual creation. By your thoughts sent out to our ART Community, my art is becomming much better…my attention span is better and the return I get from my work is much better………Thanks for being you and picking up where your delightful father left off.

    Devoted reader and W/C artist…

  14. I needed this one today! I enjoyed all the comments too. Lots of good advice. Now I just need to take it. If I mess up, I can just do it over. If only I could print that fact on my brain so I didn’t lose so much time by wondering what if it’s rubbish… It’s a process. To start is to finish…eventually…hopefully. :)

  15. In many paintings I find it an advantage to put it aside, where I can see it, for a while. It is the good stuff I try to find as much as anything. What is working, and is it the direction I want. After while the original vision gets confused in the work and just looking is the only way to get things organized. Thanks, Sara

  16. I danced for years in the part-time easel world. The muse is elusive always, but especially when she doesn’t get regular attention and dedication. To diffuse the anxious energy it helps not to bring emotional baggage from the proverbial day job for starters. Journaling has helped me on that one, scribbling/doodling close behind, art “without a why.” A small sketchbook with 5-10 minute studies allows a muse someplace to land as well (esp. on lunch breaks when I filled in the income gaps with house painting jobs). Few things get me ready for easel work better than exercise in nature.

  17. Fine article!

    In my case, I know I must do a bit every day if I expect that ideal fluidity in motion at the easel – fluidity of mind as well as ‘flick of the wrist” , so when taken out of my daily dozen in it, I return to it like a sweetheart –

    To keep from ruining the main piece on the easel – I first do six bits of warmup sketches, studies, updates . WHILE doing the warmups, my mind is reacquainting with the main act and preparing the eye, stroke, colors and poise demanded by that painting.

    Soon I know I’ll be okay at it, and I meander over to the main work.

    NOTE: I think that some artists won’t part with a painting because of the process- connectivity forms a real thing in the life and makes the artist want to keep it around. Fun.

  18. CES, been there many times. One way I’ve found to get back into it is to take my time getting my palette ready, and then start painting on less important areas that might need a bit more work, backgrounds maybe. Something that’s hard to mess up or at least easy to fix. Before long you are back in the zone

    • I’m a very busy accountant, homemaker and mom as well as have other hobbies such as dance, music, songwriting, but I love to paint and have had to try to curve out some time for watercolor. This past year I have decided to do almost daily small paintings. On the weekends, I sketch about 4 or small 5 x 7 paintings. Then I paint for an hour, maybe less every day or other day. This keeps me painting, keeps my skills honed, let’s me experiment without the fear of failure. Then if there are times in my year when I have more time, then I am ready to do a much larger painting. This works for me.

  19. If you’re working in oil and want to go back to finish a painting that has been untouched for several years, should you put linseed oil over the entire painting before you at raft? Or just start painting on the very dry beginning? Thank you for these thoughts and a chance to discuss!!

    • Hi, You should lightly oil it out with linseed oil to bring back the colors, you will have a problem matching your colors if you don’t. Cold pressed linseed oil dries slower than refined linseed oil, but either will work.

  20. I don’t know what your way of working is. I most often work from life. It’s horrible to feel you are going to mess up some wonderful work but in the past I have done just that. Sometimes at the end of a painting session I smear the work done. If I am starting on a really cold painting I’ll wash the canvas with a transparent wash and start working in or wiping with a rag — at some point I can get mentally back into the spirit of the work. I do variations of ‘ruining’ a painting to save it.

  21. When I have to be away from works in progress for a period of time, I take a rough photo of the pieces and copy them into a drawing program on my ipad, then I can take it along and work with them while away, bringing the ideas back to the studio on my return. You might be less apt to mess up the canvas as you approach it with more well formed intentions. This has proven to be a good problem-solving tool for me even if I am not far away.

  22. Patricia Wafer on

    The best advice I ever got about this problem was to PAINT SMALL and finish the painting in one session. If you are really pressed for time do a large drawing with sweeping gestures and again finish in one session. Most of the paintings may not be satisfying but the next one will eventually. Working in a series is also very helpful because you don’t have to invent the wheel each time and even though the paintings may only be 6×6 or 5×7 together they represent a larger work and you will have learned alot. Save the larger canvases for when you have developed more confidence and have the time to finish one of them in a session. If you are happier with the results you will probably find time to paint more often because it was satisfying. When I am pressed for time painting small has made all the difference in my enjoyment of painting and in learning how to see and how to paint what I see. And don’t forget to carry your sketchbook everywhere. Even a few minutes of sketching will help your painting skills, too. And it’s (nearly) free and fun!

  23. Patricia Wafer on

    Some excellent painters who paint small beautiful paintings (as well as larger works): Carol Marine, Karen Jurick, Julian Merrow Smith and Duane Keiser.

  24. I agree, and would add the following thought: musicians and dancers “warm up” visual artists have this wacky idea that we should be able to jump into our creative work at full throttle from a cold start. Allow your self some warm up, or messing around time on some paper or canvas that isn’t precious. Play. Fiddle around. Then turn to your more “serious” or intentional work all limbered up!

  25. Circumstances have delayed me for as long as a year before returning to my very cold easel. It is daunting. I decided to do a lot of the grunt work, preparing many panels in the six or seven layers before I begin playing with drips and drops. I found I could not sustain long periods of time in my studio for about three months. I kept working, staying longer until finally I started playing once again. The more I play the easier it becomes to remain in my creative space. Now, all I have to do is learn when to stop before I lose the beauty of the beginning….

  26. I often have gaps between rushes of painting. The notes to self works.. 1,2,3. However my best and most effective, and easiest, method to keep the flow is to never stand back and look at a work in progress before leaving the studio. This is hard sometimes, especially if the painting is going well. But the magic is that without that last evaluation, it seems to hold its secrets. I never know until I return, whether the painting is going “well” or not. That makes the long-awaited return exciting, and in that moment its immediately obvious what the next step is.

  27. Sorry, I’m coming rather late to this conversation…

    The best advice I ever heard about cold easel syndrome was always to stop when you know what you are going to do next. This is incredibly hard, as one tends to push on while the inspiration is flowing, and stop when the flow is slowing down or the next step is uncertain. This is especially true for those of us who have segmented time to work, as every minute seems so precious and it feels most productive to run the clock out.

    However–stop before you want to. If at all possible, stop when you’re cruising down a well-marked highway, not when you’re lost in a maze of side streets. The easel is so much warmer when you come back to it.

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