Serious artist


Dear Artist,

I’m out here on a rocky Donegal foreland. Below, on the beach, one of those smart-looking black-and-white Irish farm dogs is running loose. With no master in sight, the dog has a tennis ball she tosses in the air, chases and sometimes catches. Hit or miss, each attempt is announced with a joyful bark. She’s telling me something: “Come on, Bob, loosen up. Put joy into that stuff. Get a life. Don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Everyone has heard of the “serious artist.” The term has a lot of different meanings. To a person who paints only on Sundays, one who paints every day might be one. An artist whose work is difficult to understand may consider those who paint understandable things “not serious.” On the other hand, realistic artists sometimes consider modernists to be only wanking the public and therefore not serious. Some think serious artists are those who deal with serious subject matter — poverty, war, politics, injustice, etc. Except for a bit of irony once in a while, these folks don’t generally think humour has its place in art. You may know of artists who take themselves so seriously they become significant hazards at dinner parties.

Hey, it’s okay to be serious about honing technique, learning the ropes and trying to understand the muse.

When I was younger and much more idealistic, I used to worry I was not serious enough. In my studies, I eventually got around to the critic Bernard Berenson and was relieved by his idea that art ought to be life-enhancing and not life-deprecating. I figured it was okay to please, both myself and others. Anger and angst were just fine for anyone else.

Further, I’ve always thought that in an ideal state people should do only what they love — perhaps an impossible, hedonistic position. I’m sticking to it. The pursuit of personal joy is serious business.

To experience joy one has to consider play. The British writer G.K. Chesterton said, “Children’s play is the most serious thing.” Unfortunately, age and accumulated wisdom tend to interfere with play. It’s a human condition. Or is it?

That dog down there is seriously immature, but she has a wisdom that is worth looking into.

Best regards,


PS: “We have an infinite number of reasons to be happy, and a serious responsibility not to be serious.” (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)

Esoterica: “God,” said Voltaire, “is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Obviously, some folks think all this seriousness is a byproduct of a great cosmic joke. And these little stretchy things — these canvases and the stuff we mark them up with — are truncated playgrounds of the human soul. In the end, it is we who can become the master jokers. “It is not necessary for the public to know whether I’m joking or whether I’m serious,” said Salvador Dali, “just as it is not necessary for me to know it myself.”


Meeting the challenge
by Scott Jennings, Sedona, AZ, USA


“Golden Evening”
original painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Scott Jennings

Here’s a quote that I have had to read to myself every so often: “The most important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking one’s self seriously. The first is imperative, and the second disastrous.” (Margot Fonteyn) In my mind, a serious artist is one that is committed to doing the very best he/she can with their talents. By maintaining standards and not letting paintings become a production line product. By sticking with a piece of artwork until it speaks to me and rewards me with that inner feeling of enlightened satisfaction. I strive to make every painting meet that challenge. Some do and some don’t. If it does not, then I don’t want it to go out into the world as a representative of what I want to say about myself and my art. I feel that if I am serious about my work creating within me a feeling of inspiration, awe and personal gratification, then the more superficial rewards of recognition, admiration and financial compensation will come on their own.

There is 1 comment for Meeting the challenge by Scott Jennings

From: Sue Johnson — Jun 23, 2009

Loved that quote. It’s going up on my easel. I think that your painting most definitely expresses what you wrote.


Limited time motivates
by Jessie Rasche


original painting
by Jessie Rasche

Having a young child and limited time has helped me spend my time in a way that reflects my priorities, making time for art every day. Because my time is so limited, I am much more focused when painting than I ever have been before, and have seen a lot of technical improvement as a result. It appears that for me, feeling desperately short on time is the best motivation I could have to take my art seriously.




Joyful child archetype
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA


“Saving the Dunes”
acrylic painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Cathy Harville

I have been working on learning about my archetypes, and the child is one we all share. I use my child to paint. My joyful child loves the color, the adventure, and the process. You just can’t go wrong listening to your child. I also listen to my artist archetype, who is into creating and exploring. It is only when I let the shadow side of my Saboteur get in on things, that my work gets harshly and unfairly judged. And dogs have the key to life — live in the moment. At any given moment, we are where we are supposed to be, and it is good. And, someone once said — it is our thoughts that got us to where we are now, and our future thoughts will be where we are tomorrow. For me, loosening up involves letting my divine child work, and staying in the moment.


Artist’s good gift
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA


“In Whose Flowers?”
pastel painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Martha Faires

I am very glad to see this post, especially the idea from Bernard Berenson that “art ought to be life-enhancing and not life-deprecating.” I think whatever we do should be “life-enhancing” and so am most pleased when someone says, as one of my viewers did, “Your art makes me happy,” because to give joy or happiness seems the greatest privilege in life. Boethius says in his Consolation of Philosophy that “the good is the end toward which all things tend.” I hope we as artists can see our gift as a means “toward the good.”



Imagine freedom
by Celeste Gober, Tinton Falls, NJ, USA

So often, you hit the nail on the head, and today is no exception. Dogs, especially when left to their own devices, remind us that life is supposed to be fun. That’s something we adults tend to forget, and it is perhaps one of the reasons we love dogs. Imagine a world where people truly did what they wanted, what made them happy. Imagine if kids could stop going to school if they didn’t enjoy it. New places of learning would be created that were interesting and encouraged freedom, independence, exploration and self discovery. Imagine if each kid’s school experience could be as unique as they are, instead of a mold they are expected to fit in to please parents, teachers, principals, The Board of Education and the requirements of the state of New Jersey. Imagine if parents freed themselves from the belief that a college degree for their kids is a requirement for a happy, fulfilling life. Or that living in an overpopulated, overtaxed area is necessary because of the job they must have that will pay for that college education. Imagine if people created work that gave them joy. And relationships that thrived on freedom to follow your bliss. Imagine if each person took responsibility for creating their own happiness.

There is 1 comment for Imagine freedom by Celeste Gober

From: Anonymous — Jun 23, 2009



Choose to be joyful
by Abbie Williams, Nobleboro, ME, USA

I really related to your last piece and it came at such an appropriate time to remind me to loosen up during this time of economic woes. I have always been a happy, fun loving and joyful person but life taught me if I wanted to get ahead I would have to focus and get serious. As I have gotten older and more focused I have thought a lot about the subject of Fun and Joy because it seems to be like the holy grail. The more you chase it the more allusive it becomes. Finally I’ve learned fun and joy aren’t “out there somewhere,” they’re within myself and always have been from the beginning of my life. In my painting this translates to creating an attitude that life and painting are fun, therefore I can be joyful, have fun, be a child again and just plain play when I go to the easel. It really is as simple as choosing to be joyful in the face of anything that may be going on in life. I was told by my mentor many years ago that if you paint joyful paintings people will want to buy them to bring that joy into their lives. People don’t buy art, they buy energy, your energy, so be mindful of what energy you are, it will always show up in your paintings. If nothing else, I can have fun painting instead of dragging myself to it like a dreary job. With this economy I can at least have fun making art and who knows maybe some sad soul will be touched by my joy and want to bring it home with them.

There is 1 comment for Choose to be joyful by Abbie Williams

From: Sue Johnson — Jun 23, 2009

I enjoyed reading your comments and agree with you completely. Making art from the inside out is what it is all about.



Enjoy the moment
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“October drive”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

To me a serious artist is one who has a serious interest in art. Such a person will focus more intent on the many problems and ideas of the trade, study other artists words and works and always work towards improvement. You can certainly be a very serious hobbyist. ‘Serious’ involves having a passion about something. Serious is not about frowning and being heavy. I believe humor to be a necessary tool in each human being’s tool bag. Richard Pryor, who certainly was a serious comedian, said that “all humor is rooted in pain.” Laughter helped him overcome a very difficult childhood. Laughter makes us healthier and happier and more enjoyable to others. We need to have that joy of a child or a pet to be at our creative best. Being too serious about appearing serious makes us boring, self-absorbed and tiresome and can make our paintings that way as well. Artists often use seriousness as one of their competitive categories. I paint more hours a day than he does and make more money, etc. Why do many artists take this competitive stance anyway? Better to be like the dog in your story. Have fun and enjoy the moment. Life is short and our time precious.


Shedding ourselves of knowledge
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Black eye 1”
original painting
by Elsha Leventis

There is a book sporting a title that has become my mantra — “Younger Next Year.” While the book is mostly about exercise, my interpretation is that it is crucial and life-enhancing to shed sober seriousness for serious play. As a friend of mine, poet and fabulous artist Richard Lush, puts it, “I am learning to look at life sideways in any light.” No one would dispute that Picasso was a serious artist, yet his goal was to become more like a child. No easy task after well-meaning parents and teachers have succeeded in beating that out of most of us.

My studio is shared with an amazing young portrait artist from the realist school — she is very SERIOUS and takes months to produce a single portrait with painstaking precision. She frowns on rock music and plays classical music. I smile as I write this — don’t get me wrong. I love classical music and realist art. But at more than twice her age, I’m the one that paints to Bon Jovi or the Killers, and produces a fair number of large abstracts in relatively short periods. While she’s intent on becoming a serious portrait artist, I am relishing every moment of having achieved my dream. My realist work is rolled up and stored on the top shelf of the storage unit. Living proof that we spend the first third of our lives learning all the rules and being serious and the next two thirds shedding everything we learned?

There is 1 comment for Shedding ourselves of knowledge by Elsha Leventis

From: Sue Hanauer — Jun 23, 2009

I understand this thought so well, after raising 5 children and homeschooling them all I am finally able to apply myself to what I love and that is art. I homeschooled “out of the box” and I am seeing how free my adult children are in their lives. I joined an art association to get my muse going and what I see are wonderful artists with great ideas, but some of those who are “educated” in the arts seem a bit stagnant to me. Not a lot of ingenuity or creativity in their work. I do abstract work a lot with recycled styrofoam and cardboard. My pieces are unique and interesting to even the staid landscape artists. I want to spend the last third of my life shedding most of what I learned the first two thirds and become more childlike in the way I view the world.


Be happy or not
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA

I totally agree. I can’t remember the author now but sometime when I was much younger someone told me… “Satisfaction is such a minor thing, it is really joy we are after.” After that, I did lighten up because I was aiming much too low if I was aiming at being satisfied. The funniest things change you. I remember as a young single mother watching an AT&T ad on television. In this set Ma Bell was interviewing people over 100. I remember one woman said that each day she had a choice. She could wake up and be happy or not. Life and reality might spoil it on some days but each morning she had another go at it. I thought that made a lot of sense. I practiced that for a whole year. And it works. On a one to ten scale, most of my days are an 8. That isn’t bad.

But your letter was an additional reminder. I realized I was getting way too proud at how HARD I was working. Well, if you concentrate on the HARD well that is what it is going to be, right? So thanks for the reminder and pat that dog for me. I will still work as hard to be sure but the focus will be different going forward. I think I will remember to be very grateful I get to work just this hard.


Seriously spontaneous
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA

The past summer I have realized that some of my strongest works have come from times that I have been painting consistently, but also from when I am at a level that I am in perfect harmony with my materials, and my own ideas. I have one piece that a good artist friend calls my masterpiece. I think it is largely a matter of taste, but she has brought up some good observations, one is that the brush work was laid down and left right where I put it the first time. It was one of my spontaneous and really fun-to-paint pieces, and therefore, it feels very “spontaneous.” I have realized that one has some very serious work to reach that point however.


Appreciating onlookers
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA


“Putney Ridge in Autumn”
oil painting
by Dyan Law

While conducting my annual workshop in a formal garden in Paris, France, I was aware that a sweet young French girl was strolling around with her sketchbook in hand and she was concentrating on the same beautiful flora and fauna I was. I looked at her drawings and commented “tres jolie.” She didn’t smile, but rather went about her task seriously. As I was painting the scene, she made her way closer to me. Finally she walked up behind my set-up and stood silently watching me paint for a solid 2 hours! Her mom came by also carrying a sketchbook. We attempted to converse briefly. The young daughter observed me painting until her mom beckoned her for the third time. I only managed to get one-half of my painting completed, but this endearing scenario and others like it have influenced my life so much that I continue to appreciate the onlookers and try not to get bothered by their questions and sincere interest in my work… yes, a confirmation that as artists and as fellow men/women, we can relate without barriers, without even the need to speak. We are reminded of love and diversity, the language of art and nature, and above all, that none of us are above all!





original painting
by Georges Dumitresco, Switzerland


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Mary Carnahan of Front Royal, VA, USA, who wrote, “Life is plenty serious on its own. I think it’s imperative to take advantage of opportunities to lighten up. It has certainly given me more resources to draw on during the heavier moments. Thanks for these wonderful letters, by the way.”

And also Elsa Bluethner of Sunshine Hills, BC, Canada, who wrote, “An artist should only take his work seriously and not himself.”

And also Kristina Zallinger who wrote, “I am the dog. Playfully I toss the ball into the air and generally catch it. For me, art is a serious business, but not too serious and not necessarily a business. No Sunday painter here; 7 days a week. When I’m not painting, I’m thinking about it, seeing the juxtaposition of colors in ordinary things. Getting excited with what I am working on now. I am the dog.”

And also Gale Nash of NC, USA, who wrote, “‘Serious artist’ is an oxymoron.”

And also Ron Grauer of Ben Lomond, CA, USA, who wrote, “I love dogs, especially serious ones. I’ve painted a few that I call by that name but I seriously keep them out of sight.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Serious artist



From: Gavin Calf — Jun 18, 2009

I love the Voltaire quote. Having made woman and man with the ability to procreate, God decided to architect the waste removal next door to recreation! Now that’s funny!

From: BG Poole — Jun 19, 2009

I think most people take life too seriously along with art. Art is life so maybe there is a time for both a time to laugh, a time to cry, and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo on.

From: Julia — Jun 19, 2009

I am very serious about my art. This is the most serious matter in my life as it is my life. I laugh everyday because of it, serious for me means being all in it, being dedicated, being involved. I don’t judge others for their level of being involved. Being serious means being focused and it doesn’t matter how much we laugh or joke or play – art is all that. Salvador Dali said it all. Art happens inside – results are viewed and experienced outside – by the public.

And as we are different people we do have different ways of expressing self. I have lots of fun being serious about my art.

From: Nicole Hyde — Jun 19, 2009

We have a sign on our studio door that says, “Artists at play. Make some noise!” It’s about entering a joy-zone and keeping that spirit alive not only in the studio, but everywhere. I wish everyone some fun today.

From: Sage Rose — Jun 19, 2009

This arrived from a friend in my mail box just in time — I think I gave myself today’s headache from trying to be so serious, berating myself, visiting all the internal battlefields in the fight for a sense of self worth. Robert — I can’t wait to read more.

From: Dwight Williams, Idaho — Jun 19, 2009

When my sister (the banker) retired I said to her that I probably would never retire since painting is what I do. She laughed out loud and said I couldn’t possibly retire since I never worked a day in my life.

Well, there is some work to painting and going about making a living doing it. But it is fun, even when it gets frustrating sometimes, and really does beat “working” if that means doing something you’d rather not do or even hate.

Like Robert’s “immature” ball-playing dog… the best people I know have a bright spot in their lives where they never grew up. They are responsible adults but have an innocent, child-like part that never takes life or themselves too seriously.

From: Robert Redus — Jun 19, 2009

I believe “Serious” is synonymous with “Passion”, just two different hues….

From: Bim — Jun 19, 2009

I’ve always liked the idea of playing hard, working hard, but not caring too much about what happens when it’s over. Martina Navratilova ostensibly said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” That’s certainly one way to look at the world, but it’s a rather limited perspective. I think the loser is the person who doesn’t play, or who doesn’t give it a good shot. Having fun is an issue with me, not getting the blue ribbon or the gold cup.

Once, during a discussion, someone spoke about what it must feel like to leap from an aircraft, pull the ripcord, and have the chute fail. I thought that I might expend some effort trying to get the chute to open, including taking it off and working on it on the way down. But, if it became obvious the chute wasn’t going to open, I can imagine laughing. At least, that’s what I hope I’d do. As it says in the Grateful Dead song, it’s a “long strange trip.” There’s no more sense in getting obsessed about its minutia than there is reluctantly engaging in it. If it’s not a hoot, it’s nothing but drudgery, and there’s already way too much of that!

From: Russ Hogger — Jun 20, 2009

When an artist can’t think what to paint anymore, that’s serious. Funny thing is when an artist is on a roll, serious is another planet.

From: Jeanne, Manhattan Beach — Jun 20, 2009

Playfulness is the foundation of creativity. Discipline is required to see the project to completion, even if one tires of the game. But anyone who says the life of an artist is easy, restful and all sunshine and roses hasn’t got a damn clue.

From: Jackie Knott — Jun 20, 2009

We’re serious about our art because of a lifelong love for it. Enough so, whether we make our living creating art or not, that love is a deeply held passion that never wanes. Most artists are serious enough to have a desire for excellence, serious enough we continue to strive … and laugh along the way.

We were in the National Gallery in Edinbough, Scotland. I was studying a painting while my longsuffering husband was down the gallery, patiently sitting, waiting on me. All of a sudden he broke up laughing out loud, causing several patrons and a guard to glance at him. I went to see what was so funny and beheld a grand painting of Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moses in the rushes. It was a complex composition with a half dozen figures in a lush landscape, all with 16th century European costumes …. and off to the side was the sixth figure – playing bagpipes.

Regardless of the humor it was a wonderfully painted piece.

From: Ginny Blakeslee Breen — Jun 21, 2009

Robert, what a wonderful letter this morning … you said, “life-enhancing” … this is what I choose daily! Oh yeah!!

From: Leah — Jun 23, 2009

Robert, your Serious Artist letter today has the most wonderful ideas. Thank you soo much!

From: LuAnn Sims — Jun 29, 2009


Thanks so much for this letter! I have often worried that I don’t take Art seriously enough. My son-in-law is a very serious artist, with years of training, and he is always expressing on canvas the struggles of humanity. When I look at his paintings I feel like a kid in comparison…

I simply love to paint; I got a couple books from the library and taught myself, no formal training. But it makes me so happy! I’ll never be famous, never be able to do art full-time unless I manage to retire some day. (ha!) But your letter was terrific, it assured me that it’s ok to just have fun with it. It doesn’t have to be so serious. THANKS Robert!

(In my son-in-law’s defense, he never puts down what I do and they have 2 of my ‘pretty pictures’ displayed in their house)



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