Seizing the day


Dear Artist,

Out over the dark sea, near the horizon, whales move steadily northward. People silently gather on the rough black lava and red dirt at Makahuena Point. Cameras ready, braced against the wind and crashing surf, they await the sunrise. These are not sun worshippers or members of some peculiar cult. They are neighbors, tourists, morning joggers, loners, and honeymoon couples up before dawn to witness an event.

Forest Wilderness, 1921 oil on canvas by J.E.H MacDonald (1873-1932)

Forest Wilderness, 1921
oil on canvas
by J.E.H MacDonald (1873-1932)

It’s not just that we are given our day — it’s what we do with it. Have you ever noticed that some folks keep busy from dawn ’til dusk plugging away at things that need doing? In many ways this is the artist’s mode — a permanent state of repairing. Others among us are dawdling dreamers who rather bump into things as they go. Most of us, creative or not, are somewhere in between. “Keep busy,” I like to tell artists, “while you’re waiting for something to happen.” I figure there’ve been 10,950 sunrises since we first started coming to this part of Hawaii. And just as the sun climbs inexorably in the sky, happiness and fortune rise and fall with what’s to be done with a single day.

Lake O'Hara, Rockies, 1926 oil on wood-pulp board 21.5 X 26.6 cm by J.E.H. MacDonald

Lake O’Hara, Rockies, 1926
oil on wood-pulp board
21.5 X 26.6 cm
by J.E.H. MacDonald

To make good things happen, a bit of self-organization may be necessary. To-do lists, card files, day-timers, delivery calendars, alarm watches, radio regularity, interspersed exercise, even inspirational fridge magnets. As always, having the materials ready to go is Job One. If you’re thinking about going out and buying a certain brush, you can be delayed in your progress for weeks, months or years. As the sliver of light blossoms into its full orange mango, I wonder how I might squeeze every drop from its potential.

The now sunlit shore-people are in mild celebration. Like nailing the trade winds to coconut palms, some are trying to catch the meaning with their point-and-shoots. A long-haired, surfboarder-type guy is journaling in a dog-eared Moleskine. “Are you going to paint again today?” he asks. I tell him I am. “Some dudes just do it, natural like,” he says. Walking back toward my second cup of coffee I’m wondering about that. “Seize the day,” I tell myself. I can smell the paint.

Best regards,


Cathedral Peak, 1927 oil on canvas by J.E.H MacDonald

Cathedral Peak, 1927
oil on canvas
by J.E.H MacDonald

PS: “No one expects the days to be gods.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Esoterica: Our friend’s home on Kauai is where I wrote my first book, In Praise of Painting. It’s now out of print and a bit of a collector’s item. Back in 1979 I sort of knew what I wanted to say but I had to motivate myself. Short on self-esteem and unsure I could get started or even complete, I put my ideas on file cards and tacked them to insulation boards. Like one of those mind webs the experts recommend, I spent days just moving things around. Then the cards began to make sense and take over. The sun began to shine on my project. The writing began to flow.

This letter was originally published as “Seizing the day” on January 25, 2011.

Fall Evening, 1930 oil on wood-pulp board 21.5 x 26.4 cm by J.E.H MacDonald

Fall Evening, Thornhill, 1930
oil on wood-pulp board
21.5 x 26.4 cm
by J.E.H MacDonald

The group exhibition “The Intercepting Nature of Colour + Form” opens at Gallery Jones, 1-258 East 1st Avenue, Vancouver, BC this coming Thursday,  January 30th from 5-8pm. If you’re in the neighbourhood, I’d love to see you there. 

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. 

“I have memories of the clearest crystal mountain days imaginable, when we fortunates in the height seemed to be sky people living in light alone…” (J. E. H. MacDonald)



  1. I am a morning person and Robert’s observations fit well with my orientation to a day – “As the sliver of light blossoms into its full orange mango, I wonder how I might squeeze every drop from its potential.” Mostly, these mornings are greeted alone, now that the kids have long since left home. My husband tends to sleep late so I have this early part of the day to myself. But there was one morning in May of 2002 when we were up on Machu Picchu in Peru…. we had left the Heritage park-side hotel in the inky grey dawn to watch the sunrise with a small sleepy, straggling herd of other visitors. There was no guide. We were free to quietly choose our space among the ruins and settled in as quietly as the resting alpacas. I didn’t have my paints on this trip. Only a sketch book and a film camera and no phone camera. Was it just 18 years ago we travelled so lightly? Anyway, this was a sunrise that has stuck in my long-term memory as event all of its own, as if the sun had not risen before or since.

    Sara, I was in an art gallery in Victoria B.C. recently and two of your father’s paintings were being shown for sale. I spent a long time looking at them and thinking about these letters. What a gift both are to the world! Thank you for keeping these letters available to us in this way and adding in your own thoughts. I have come to look forward to Tuesday and Friday mornings as part of having a “special art chat” before I go off to the task fo being a painter with a small art gallery.

  2. I have a question about a student who exhibits her or his work for sale that has been created in a class environment with tutor instruction.Is this a no no or would you say it is OK to do this.?

    Just curious,


    • I don’t agree
      If I do work in a class it is mine, unless the instructor has worked on it.
      When I studied with the late great Jacqui Morgan, she would take over
      my brush and chair and turn my attempt into a masterpiece.
      That I would never sell.
      Any thing else I do in class, is ethically mine all mine..

    • It would not be proper to enter a piece of work started in a workshop or under supervision in a competitive exhibition but selling them is fine. I’ve observed students selling their pieces to other students. Why not?

  3. I am glad you shared these words that were ceased in the moment prior to painting: “Some dudes just do it, natural like”. Can we too, like the greeters of the morning take this opportunity “to smell the paint” and find our natural way. What moments can we take inspiration from- there’s always something, like this morning’s letter.
    Thanks again Sara for passing along gems of Painter’s Keys – including the lovely works by J.E. McDonald. I can smell the paint!

  4. FREDA- the answer to your question is usually “no”. Professional exhibitions are specific that it has to be your work from beginning to end. Not from a class or workshop. It’s different if its a student show and the prices are reasonable.

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Featured Workshop

February 19, 2020 to February 26, 2020


If you live in the cold north like I do, this is the BEST thing you can do with a February – believe me! Join me, Hermann Brandt for my 4th annual PLEIN AIR workshop/retreat on the west coast of sunny Mexico. Casa Buena Art Retreat Center is a beautiful private residence overlooking the ocean. While our vivacious hostess, Jane Romanishko takes care of almost every need, I will guide you through the process of identifying, designing, composing and painting the gorgeous land and seascape that surrounds us. Medium: oil or acrylic.

At the end of each day, we gather on the veranda by the pool and critique our work – it’s a beautiful thing :-)

I endeavour to run a friendly, encouraging, no-pressure workshop so beginners are welcome. Minimum of 6 participants. IMPORTANT: Registration by 1 Dec 2019

I look forward to painting with you’s salvation
mixed media
60 x 122 cm

Featured Artist

Monique Jarry is a Canadian and a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.


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