Silence is golden


Dear Artist,

Though he’s only been painting for a decade or so, Ross Penhall is now an international success. Ross’s story is a good one. Finding spaces of idleness in his job as a fireman, he took up painting as an antidote to cards, gabbing, and the tedium of waiting for alarms. To the amusement of his firefighter buddies, Ross persisted and developed a unique style and vision. When I bumped into him again the other day, he raised his arm to point to something and I noticed a small tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. “It’s new,” he said, “My son was getting a tattoo and I decided to get one too. I really don’t believe in tattoos, but this one I do.” Ross’s tattoo is a simple one-liner: “Shut up and paint.”

Shut up and paint Ross Penhall's Tattoo

“Shut up and paint”
Ross Penhall’s Tattoo

Ross is onto a good thing. The art of remaining mute is one of the keys to personal creative evolution. By speaking out and expressing our plans we often diffuse our need to do. It’s as if some of the energy required to produce the creative product is already used up by the words themselves. Here are a few thoughts:

Never explain to others what you intend to do.
Never submit half-baked concepts to anyone.
If you make written notes beforehand, don’t leak them.
Start work first and self-workshop further development.
Sanctify your working space by limiting interlopers.
Cover up serious projects until they are well along.
Learn to be your own best counsel and private advocate.
Do not be concerned when you talk to yourself.

Prior sharing leads to the defusing of motivation and can often trigger unwarranted misgivings. Even a discussion or show-and-tell that leads to positive enthusiasm and encouragement can take the wind out of your sails. It’s almost as if the approval is enough — a work of art on its own. Repeating the habit of garnering approval leads to chronic self-delusion and negative commiserating with others. While it may help you feel a bit better at the time, it will surely lead to further disheartenment. “Misery loves company,” says the proverb. It’s better to be quiet about your winnings and your losings — both in the future and in the past. Artists can learn from the methodology of successful salespeople: “Understate and over-prove.” Don’t extinguish the fire of passion by saying too much.

Broken Hedge oil painting on canvas<br>24 x 24 inches, by Ross Penhall

“Broken Hedge
oil on canvas 24 x 24 inches
by Ross Penhall

Best regards,


PS: “Never complain, never explain.” (Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Jennifer Jones, Henry Ford II, Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Parker and others) “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.” (Publilius Syrus, 1st Century B.C.)

Esoterica: Prior explanation is one of the great hazards when applying for a grant. The powers-that-be often expect a full disclosure of what you intend to do. Trouble is, by the time you finally get approval, let’s say, to harness the artistry of worms, you have realized that it’s the worm holes that are most worthy of development. With all their wisdom, the powers-that-be may fail to recognize that the further private breeding of ideas is vital not only to your creative progress but to the history of the world.


Sharing defuses motivation
by Richard Marsh, Dublin, Eire


Prior sharing leads to the defusing of motivation. It applies to my creative work, that is, fiction and poetry. I learned long ago that if I tell it to a person I don’t tell it to the typewriter. It can also be a problem when one is sharing accommodation with a woman. She tends to assume that a creative trance is a sign of laziness, or worse, reflection on another woman, but in any case she complains, “You’re ignoring me.” I mentioned this to the Belfast poet Padraic Fiacc and he said, “Ah, yes. She senses the presence of the Muse, and she’s jealous.” That’s probably the reason the Maine Coast poet Wilbert Snow built a writer’s shack 50 yards from the house on Spruce Head Island as soon as he could afford it.

Stone Age passage tombs Richard Marsh

Stone Age passage tombs
Richard Marsh


The sea is forever quivering;
The shore is forever still.
And the boy who is born in a seacoast town
Is born with a dual will:
The sand and the rocks and the beeches
Inveigle him to stay,
While every wave that breaches
Is a nudge to be up and away.
(Wilbert Snow)


Ross Penhall
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


John Ferrie and his 'Cobalt' show

John Ferrie and his ‘Cobalt’ show

Ross Penhall is hands down one of my most favourite artists in the world. I have sat back in awe of his paintings and watched not only his style develop into a Global brand, but I have watched his meteoric rise to success. There were shows where you had to be on a preferred buyers list and you had one minute to buy a painting. All the while the little Gallerina’s were running out to the disappointed waiting crowd of the pieces that have sold. Ross is also a very nice guy and speaks beautifully about his works. I am always so humbled in the presence of artists like this. But Ross puts you at ease, speaks a layman’s language and always remembers my name.


What’s the truth?
by Dave Kuczynski, Fulton, MO, USA


The Challenge oil painting, 24 x 30 inches by Dave Kuczynski

The Challenge””
oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Dave Kuczynski

Your letter is one that is at the very least perplexing to me — because on the one hand, I agree with your firefighter friend — painting is a “silent” expression and I once saw the very same words on a tee-shirt worn by a plein air painter. On the other hand, without talking about our paths, as you, I, and many others do, there would be no art schools, workshops, guidance, etc. I have a tendency to agree with Ross Penhall because painting — like religion, politics, music, poetry, and love are nebulous feelings at best. So what’s the truth Robert? “Shut up and paint” — or do a twice weekly letter talking about art — with many respondents doing likewise? It is a subject that is “food for thought”!!


Respectfully disagreeing
by Marla Ripperda, Austin, TX, USA


Hippo concrete sculpture by Marla Ripperda

concrete sculpture by Marla Ripperda

This is the first time I’ve ever been spurred to respond to a letter. I believe to talk about something happening — painting or whatever it might be, makes it “real” and more likely to happen. My talking about projects with anyone makes me accountable and motivates me to “Just Do It.” Although actual work does not always follow, I’ve completed more art that I’ve talked out loud about than the dream visions that I’ve never vocalized to anyone but my inner self. There’s also that wonderful synergism that occurs when you’re discussing projects with other creative people. The give and take of creative minds is an awesome engine. Respectfully disagreeing, this time.


Hazards of ‘accountability’
by Carol Morrison, Oakville, NS, Canada


Evening over Fundy oil painting, 24 x 36 inches by Carol Morrison

Evening over Fundy””
oil painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Carol Morrison

Your comment about the hazards of applying for a grant struck a nerve with me. In my previous life as a research scientist, we used to be able to concentrate on our research, following the leads that appeared to be the most productive. As years passed “accountability” became the mantra, and we were required to write a report at the beginning of each year describing what we planned to do, and a report at the end of the year showing how successful we were in achieving our objectives. Of course the whole concept was nonsense except to bureaucrats. The whole point of any creative act, whether it be painting or scientific research, is to follow your passion. One cannot foretell where one will end up. Is it worthwhile trying to apply for grants, or does this just stultify creativity?

(RG note) Thanks, Carol. Some people can handle the grant game, but I’m not one of them. I don’t sponsor people either. I’ve seen too many go off the rails, and that includes the artists who applied. A grant can be the kiss of death for creativity and unfulfilled obligations can lock people up for years. One woman I know finally threw up her hands and went out and blew the cash on a Toyota. My advice is to make the art first and see if any government, consortium or individual wants it. It’s a good principle, similar to consignment. Getting grants is an art in itself and I don’t care for that type of art.


Silence keeps ideas intense
by Carol Jessen, St. Louis, MO/East Boothbay, ME, USA


Eastsude River watercolor painting by Carol Jessen

“Eastsude River”
watercolor painting
by Carol Jessen

Ernest Hemingway had some insights about keeping the power of ideas and emotions intense by not talking them to death. He underscores this idea in his short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber when the title character is trying to describe the exhilaration of his first dangerous confrontation with big game. Robert Wilson, the big game hunter and guide, advises him: “Doesn’t do to talk much about all this. Talk the whole thing away.” In our enthusiasm for a new idea, we can destroy not only the incentive to act on it, but also the intensity of the emotions that would drive us to the word processor or the easel. Hemingway also once commented, “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”


Ideas only improve upon discussion
by Lorna Neufeld, Vancouver, BC, Canada


I totally disagree that silence is golden. Now, I will confess I am in the early stages of artistry, but my experience in working in the world of ideas all of my life is that they only improve upon discussion. After all, we are in the world of communication. That doesn’t mean stuffin’ stuff” down other’s craw or cuttin’ out from the universe, but. . . Prior to and after discussion of one’s ideas, pieces, etc. only leads to better communication and exchange.


It is better to shut up
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


Akard Lane pastel painting, 24 x 30 inches by Paul deMarrais

“Akard Lane”
pastel painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Paul deMarrais

Silence is indeed golden. I have been running my mouth lately and the results are negative. I feel weakened and bored with myself and my thoughts. Author/philosopher Carlos Casteneda use to preach the gospel of erasing personal history and quieting what he called the “internal dialogue’ we carry on with ourselves. He felt that we needed to create a sense of mystery that was shattered when he verbalized everything. We limited ourselves and defined what others thought about us and our potential. We made a wonderful mysterious world boring and predictable. There is some truth to these ideas. We gain power by acting not by talking. As an art teacher I am often called upon to talk about paintings and about the ideas of painters. My students are beginners who like me to come around and “fix’ the paintings they are working on. When I am in a good frame of mind, I know what to do to their paintings. Often in a few strokes of pastel the paintings come alive or are reborn. It is certainly not that I am a great artist that I have this ability. It is the ability to turn off my mind and tap into the creative process and ‘go with the flow.’ By acting on my intuition I gain power and insight. By acting I am decisive and strong. Talking robs me of this strength. I watched a James Bond movie the other day. James Bond is a male fantasy figure. He doesn’t do much talking. He acts and reacts with impeccable intuition about people and situations. It is the power of action that gives him strength. People are attracted to strength. When you tell them about your weaknesses and insecurity you are being honest but all it does is bring you down in your own eyes and in theirs as well. It is better to shut up!


Talking deflates excitement
by Helen Zapata, Phoenix, AZ, USA


Silent Passage acrylic painting, 24 x 30 inches Koi Paintings Series by Helen Zapata

“Silent Passage” Koi Series
acrylic painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Helen Zapata

It has taken me a lifetime to learn to keep my mouth shut when it comes to my art. Nothing can suck the energy and enthusiasm out of an idea faster than talking about it. Whether I’m telling my “wonderful new concept” to my husband, or my best friend, potential clients, or my fellow artists… the moment I stop talking I can feel my excitement deflating. In much the same way, I dislike showing my work in progress because either people hate it and I get insecure, or they love it and I get insecure.


Both points valid
by Alexander Petti, New York, NY, USA


Cathy original painting by Alexander Petti

original painting
by Alexander Petti

Your letter raises excellent and very valid points — ideas are delicate and fragile creatures which can shrivel and die if brought to light prematurely. However, used judiciously, voicing ideas can be a positive force. Research has shown that sometimes publicly announcing your intention to do something can be helpful as you can create a bond between you and the recipient which can keep you committed to seeing it through — or face the embarrassment of saying you did nothing about it.

This can also be especially useful for emerging artists who wish to establish themselves and their ideas. Instead of describing themselves by their “day job” (“I’m a sales manager, but I paint at night”), introducing yourself as an artist can be a very powerful force for change, as well as motivation, and within that context, provide validation for your ideas (and potential clients) as you’ll likely be asked what kind of an artist are you, or what are you working on?

I personally also find that talking about my ideas to my wife can shed light on some of my planned works, further solidifying directions, themes, motifs which then adopt greater purpose and significance.

Again, having said this, I do agree with you. Voicing your thoughts should be done judiciously and at your own peril, lest you kill that which you wanted to see grow. If you must share your thoughts, an in-studio diary can be a much better alternative.


Photography diffuses drive to paint
by Esmie G. McLaren, Vancouver, BC, Canada


I need a hug original painting by Esmie G. McLaren

“I need a hug”
original painting by Esmie G. McLaren

To add to the things that diffuse the creative process, I found out a few years ago that photography has the same effect as discussing my ideas for painting. I’ve already paid “homage to the image” once I’ve recorded it, so the drive to paint it is no longer as critical at that moment. For freshness and excitement in the painting, I need to plein-air it first, then record it in photograph for later reference.

Having said that, when I’ve “snapped” to heart’s content, and my canvas looks disappointing, at least I have the photos. Being a shutterbug allows for ample time for studying composition and trying new ideas with those photos. I later go back to them to rekindle memories and spark more creative process… this time, I do more than record the image. Now I need to shut up and paint.


Nothing wrong with sharing
by Aaron Zacharias, Vancouver, BC, Canada


Portrait original painting by Aaron Zacharias

original painting
by Aaron Zacharias

I disagree that it’s good to shut up. What you are suggesting to me, anyway, leads to misanthropy and simply reinforces the myth of the socially isolated artist. Before the French Impressionists came along, art was a much more communal affair, involving guilds, workshops and apprentices working with and alongside many famous artists. My own experience has proven that there is nothing wrong with sharing or collaborating as long as it isn’t being done out of a motive of insecurity, and even then it can still be part of the experience of growth. This has incidentally done nothing at all to stem my creative output.

(RG note) Thanks, Aaron. For more thoughts on collaborating see: ‘Collaboration’ Art Quotations.


Living up to your words
by Lawrence Morrell, Portland, OR, USA


Continere This sculpture of the world as seen from space was created with six layers of carved glass that are laminated together to create a three dimensional view of the topography and contours of each land mass. by Lawrence Morrell

This sculpture of the world as seen from space was created with six layers of carved glass that are laminated together to create a three dimensional view of the topography and contours of each land mass.
by Lawrence Morrell

Wow, of all your columns, Silence is Golden resonated with me the most. How many times have I started to describe a great idea only to never even start it, much less finish. As a long time Custom Artist making “Art to Order” I am now trying to switch over to make a body of work to sell in galleries… and yet again, I am stuck with a commission that has to live up to my words… and I am experiencing such personal resistance that I can barely finish.






Falling into the trap
by Harriet Rosen, NY, USA


I’m sure many of us have fallen into the trap now and then of seeking approval for our work from family and friends. However, if this is a constant, I can see where this can definitely be a problem and stunt our creativity.

I have sent a copy of this particular letter to a friend of mine who falls into this category. All the “nevers” in your letter — are what she always does. As a result, she never finishes what she starts and never starts what she has in mind. The pity of it is that she is a very talented and creative woman.


Networking sharpens performance
by Lois Sprengnether Keel, MI, USA


Lois Sprengnether Keel storyteller

Lois Sprengnether Keel, storyteller

I believe in networking. It can show flaws you’d later wish you caught and can also spark ideas you wouldn’t get otherwise. I value those people who understand what I want to achieve and don’t get upset when I don’t take ALL of their advice. As to talking to myself, I always enjoyed the concept that I was talking to somebody who understood me.

Workers in the arts need to find positive outlets to avoid feeling alone, unable to find the way to resolve problems, and to grow. Yes, working with others can be aggravating at times, but it can lead to progress. If it proves to be a toxic combination, get out of it, learn from it, and keep looking for others who create that positive outlet for you. As performing artists, we especially can become sharpened by such contacts.


Never give up
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA


Winter Shadows w/ Birches acrylic painting, 24 x 36 inches by Jack Dickerson

“Winter Shadows w/ Birches”
acrylic painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Jack Dickerson

Winston Churchill told the English people, when they were just about at the lowest point in WW2, “we will never, ever, ever give up.” This has been a constant reminder for me. I had a career running my own business for 23 years, and 2 1/2 years ago decided it was time to do something meaningful for the rest of my life — as Jill Kerr Conway’s father in the outback of Australia with 30,000 head of sheep told her, “Go make something of yourself.” I loved what I did in my business for 23 years, but it simply was not enough for me to feel like I had done something meaningful with my life. I have only been painting for 7 years and have never taken a painting course — not even at RISD. And two years ago I decided that I would paint full time — every day, like most people go to work — to make a living. This was a big decision, as my wife also opened a retail shop at the same time. Crazy? Maybe. Financially scary? Absolutely. Are we happier? Definitely. Crazy lives? Yes. Especially since we have two teens, one in college, and one going in the fall of 2008. The point is, you never know what is possible, or where your life can lead if you are willing to take a chance and try something. I think I can make this happen. One thing I know… I will never ever give up.


World of Art Featured artist Heinz Pirnke, Revelstoke, BC, Canada  

'Cornice Mountain (Selkirks) by Heinz Pirnke, Revelstoke, BC, Canada

Cornice Mountain (Selkirks)

oil painting on canvas by Heinz Pirnke, Revelstoke, BC, Canada


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 Jeffrey Hessing of Nice, France who wrote, “I am able to practice silence completely when future paintings projects are involved out of an almost superstitious fear. In Denmark there is a saying, “Never talk away the magic.”

And also Maxine Cassin of New Orleans, VA, USA who sent this quote: “Never discuss the poem you contemplate writing. It’s like turning on the outside spigot. It takes all the pressure off the upstairs bathroom.” (Robert Frost to his students)

And also Thomas Bowler of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “Guilty as charged! Just what I need, although I’m not quite ready for the tattoo… yet. Talk about your plans and schemes and you don’t have to do them. Takes the power away, for sure.”

And also Dale Goorskey of Blacksburg, VA, USA who wrote, “Proverbs 29:11 (King James Version) ‘A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards.’ ”

And also Diane Voyentzie of CT, USA who wrote, “Your letter about silence reminds me of something I recently saw: ‘Lord, please keep one hand on my shoulder and one over my mouth!’ ”

And also Gentlehawk Richard James of Livingston, CA, USA who wrote, “There once was an owl who sat in an oak, the more it heard, the less it spoke… the less it spoke, the more it heard.”

And also Jennifer Bellinger of Ketchum, ID, USA who wrote, “Three little Post-it-Notes on my easel: ‘Say less, do more’ ‘You can’t edit a blank page’ (Leonard Wolfe) ‘Never let too much criticism or too much praise get in your way.’ ”

And also Cassidy Kanorof Hastings, NY, USA who wrote, “This is why I find artist statements non-productive. My statement is in the work. If I wanted to “talk” about it, I would be a writer.”

And also Ion Danu of Sherbrooke, QC, Canada who wrote, “I liked and approved entirely your letter about “the silence”…and I was pleasantly surprised to read about Ross Penhall’s tattoo. Because, here is what Goethe was saying: ‘Your job is to create images, painter, not talk!’ ”

And also Adele Bower of Houston, TX, USA who wrote, “YIKES! How do you and Mr. Penhall know so much about me since we’ve never met?”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Silence is golden




From: Tatjana M-P — Aug 16, 2007

Talking about a half-baked idea is usually a sign that in the bottom of my heart I know I won’t do it – it’s just kind of a last chance I am giving it – perhaps someone else will pick up the poor thing. When a real keeper pops up I don’t waste the time talking until I have something to show. Once there is something to show I can talk about it – comments are not always pleasant or useful, but every once in a while a great advice comes along.

From: Janet Sellers — Aug 16, 2007

Well, painting and art speak loud and clear to me, words or no words. Accept the impossible as possible, and go for it in some paint. Besides, people who chatter in words usually do the same in paint. Meaningful words never bother meaningful thinking and feeling.

From: Gwen Spurll — Aug 17, 2007

This whole discussion about talking about an idea or creation versus “shutting up and painting” is fascinating. When writing, I find that there is a phase of rumination where discussion is helpful. But there is a point where the synthesis is ripe, and at that point it is important to write the thing down rather than discuss it further. Otherwise you do lose the thrust. So maybe both points of view are right, just at different parts of the process.

From: Caroline Simmill — Aug 17, 2007

I have learned from past experience that it is wiser to keep the ideas fresh in my own mind. Then work hard and produce a good body of work. Then and only then do I ask the opinions of others. I really enjoy the feedback from others as I do learn alot from their comments. What often surprises me is the painting thrown under the easel has often been brought out and examined and declared to be very good indeed. My first painting which I hid away turned out to be one of my best paintings which sold for the most money at that time…which just shows you…how much we need the feedback and encouragement of others…but only when we first produced the work!

From: Maxine Cassin — Aug 17, 2007

I feel that this advice by Robert Frost is worth quoting twice. Talking about something you are planning to write (or paint) is like turning on the outsde spigot. It takes all the pressure off the upstairs bathroom…

From: Theresa Bayer — Aug 17, 2007

I find myself agreeing with both points of view. For some it’s good to talk, for others it’s best to remain silent. Different strokes for different artists. As for yours truly, I’ve gone both ways on this question. I follow my instincts, and when it’s good to talk, I talk, but when it’s good to shut up, I do that too.

From: Cez N-U — Aug 17, 2007

This particular “letter” is highly valuable to me. I’ve been blocked for almost two years now, haphazardly letting the hours, days, months tick by with elaborate excuses to paint or just create. I spent a lot of time talking, planning, sharing ideas but the work didn’t get done at all. When I read Ross Penhall’s tattoo, something inside me just snapped into an upright position and I walked over to my drawing table and started to paint again. Everyday, I’m painting. I’ve lessened the talk to a minimum and My God, it works. I think I finally found a way to shut up the multiple selves that always comes up with excuses why I should not create. Thank you Ross and Robert! I’m back!

From: Susan M. White — Aug 17, 2007

The spark of creativity is personal. When it is held up for any reason it has made the path to connectivity much shorter, thus the spark is much more dim. What is the love of art, but a surprise to the mind… to think in a way in which it needs to explore more of the world.

From: C. F. (Frank) Armistead — Aug 17, 2007

I am just retiring to take up art full time. I’ve been doing more artwork over the last seven years and taking classes. I am now enrolled part time for fine arts courses at the local university. I have always been caught in the struggle of needing time and islation in order to create and to be involved with people and discussion in order to have creative stimulation and subject matter. It’s not a matter of either or, but of balance.

From: Dave Stewart — Aug 17, 2007

Great discussion! I tend to blab a lot when I get excited about a new plan … but it does tend to defuse it. I just asked myself, what gets me a better result: saying, “Y’know what I’m gonna do?” or, “Look what I did!” You guessed it – the second one. So, y’know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna be quiet about my plans and ….oooops! (sorry, I couldn’t resist a little humor!)

From: Scharolette Chappell — Aug 17, 2007

Speaking, writing, yelling, about it. Shouting it outloud I believe to be all part of it. Otherwise the silence will put you out of balance breeding more silence. It’s OK if what you plan doesn’t come to fruition, usually it is only part of a much larger picture(HA!) or smaller one. That is to say, be all of you, verbal, and creative (silent) for you can and will if you are living, do both simultaniously if you wish or not. The talking times lead to thinking times, like what the heck was I thinking or I’m going for this one! See, it is life as art! Saying things outloud is being human. The time will come to do the thing and nothing will stop you, nothing, not even you yourself. loveyaschar

From: Janet Sheen — Aug 17, 2007

Except for university art classes I have painted by myself, in silence, for almost forty years. Recently a gallery representing me wanted to present the image of a “living gallery” (whatever that may be??) Two others and I have begun to paint twice a week at the gallery. I am astounded by my output in ‘finished’ paintings! Yes, we occasionally chat. Yes, we encourage, critique, suggest. Yes, we paint in comfortable silences. I have had wonderful feedback in the form of ‘Stop! You’ve said it all!’ And finally, my … it is lovely to paint the hot summer away in that air-conditioned comfort instead of my hot home.

From: Marj Vetter — Aug 18, 2007

Silence is golden, the message from many of the creative people, if you talk about your inspiration it won’t happen, I believe is true. This might sound strange, but my husband does not really like most of my paintings, or my subjects (not realistic enough). But I realize we can’t all have the same tastes, and it doesn’t bother me. So I never defuse my muse by discussing the paintings in my head before I paint them. An old friend, Joe Abbrescia, told me the Fall before he died, don’t ever let anyone comment, good or bad on your works in progress. So I don’t.



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