Dear Artist,

Choose a format, medium and subject, and like Claude Monet and his haystacks, get to work at refining your style, technical agility and expression by way of this one, specific route. For Monet, what gave his one-track investigation depth were the light and environmental conditions thrust upon his subject: take a bale of hay set in a golden field and let the day cast its shadows from dawn until gloaming. After a few hundred passes, you’ve got an MFA in colour.

No Hat #559, 2019 Acrylic on canvas panel 14 x 11 inches by Jean Smith (b. 1959)

No Hat #559, 2019
Acrylic on canvas panel
14 x 11 inches
by Jean Smith (b. 1959)

Vancouver musician Jean Smith, at 56, pivoted from punk rock and a day job at Home Depot to portrait painting. In the spirit of her anti-establishment aesthetic, she stuck to one small format and eschewed the art world, instead offering her portraits, mostly of strangers, almost all of women’s faces subverting the viewer’s gaze, for $100 each on her Facebook page. Each is 14 x 11 inches, acrylic on canvas panel, and offered one at a time. In four years, Jean has saved $200,000 and is now starting a free artist’s residency — world-changers only are welcome to apply.

Here are a few ideas for your own project in specificity: Select a subject that can be both exhausted and also offer an infinite variety — something in nature that accepts a multitude of conditions, or the endless possibilities of the human face. Staying small keeps your process fresh and commitment low. For this idea, volume is the key to growth and experimentation. Never underestimate the power of an obsession. As it did for Jean, this little project has the potential to unlock your larger, most audacious artistic callings.

No Hat #371, 2018 Acrylic on canvas panel 14 x 11 inches by Jean Smith

No Hat #371, 2018
Acrylic on canvas panel
14 x 11 inches
by Jean Smith



PS: “We shall not cease from exploration / And in the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” (T. S. Eliot)

Esoterica: Between the Autumn of 1890 and the Spring of 1891, Claude Monet painted 25 haystack paintings — each exuding a mystery and character that seemed to encapsulate his painting life, overall. Between 1840 and 1926, Monet also painted more than 30 versions of Rouen Cathedral — again following the light and atmospheric conditions thrown upon his stationary subject at different times of day and year. For Jean Smith, her faces are pulled from the Internet as photo reference and appear to be assigned interior lives, occupations and purposes beyond existing merely for the viewer. More interesting than this, however, is Jean’s handling of her palette and brush. In this way, her portraits could be haystacks — they carry, as a subject, the same practical function of getting her from A to B in a personal exploration of vibe, conditions, surface quality, brushwork, expression, colour surprise and a satisfying, exhaustive repetition of motif. “I would like to paint,” wrote Claude Monet, “the way a bird sings.”

No Hat #434, 2018 Acrylic on canvas panel 14 x 11 inches by Jean Smith

No Hat #434, 2018
Acrylic on canvas panel
14 x 11 inches
by Jean Smith

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“Paint what you really see, not what you think you ought to see; not the object isolated as in a test tube, but the object enveloped in sunlight and atmosphere, with the blue dome of Heaven reflected in the shadows.” (Claude Monet)





  1. Could you run that math by me again She would have to sell an average of 136 paintings a DAY to make that kind of money. Maybe she has an incredible financial advisor? It just doesn’t make sense.

  2. I think that is a brilliant idea. I get a regular auction email called Postcard from Provence ( or some version of that). The guy does fabulously executed kitchen still life’s (fruits, veggies, etc) which are in oil and small. He gets around $100–300 and does workshops too. His technique is wonderful, and he does well, it seems.

    Wish that I could have an auction (FASO doesn’t do it, and I like the rest of their work. Interesting idea, and love the artist in residence part too.
    Kolsoum Ginney

  3. No mention of taxes incurred nor living expenses here….does this woman have time to bathe?
    As far as “changing the world”….fast and furious (and cheap) canvases will do as much toward that noble cause as did punk rock….Like Vicious & Rotten said, “No Future!”

  4. Karen R Brown on

    I love the idea but I have problems with the logistics. The article says she saved $200,000 in 4 years. Did she have some other income to live on? Also selling 2,000 painting, regardless of the price, is hard to fathom.

  5. I “get” the message. Focusing on one subject allows the full expression in different instances of light, mood, distractions, physical and emotional hunger.
    Definitely something to consider. Thank you.

  6. Ditto for the work. A new approach! I love portraiture but cannot stray from some conventionality.
    I really liked the first sentence of this letter. Projects on the back burner have got to be started.

  7. Aaaah, a happy story on how the internet and Facebook can provide an artist a way to funnel their artistic talents in a positive way. For a cynical elder folk like me, I appreciate this story. I also really appreciate her work, very expressive and dynamic, quite wonderful in an off putting way. Wow.

  8. Proportion is everything in portraits. !!

    Some people have it, some don’t, I agree, very fine work, sophisticated details.

    Seems effortless, once you have the touch; and would not take long in a well organized studio.

  9. Morgan Johnson on

    Claude painted to learn light and how it plays on a subject. Presented here, Jean paints to make money, possibly to learn a subject one time, but not explore it’s depth or potential.

  10. Solid lesson for all. Volume is your best instructor. Volume requires commitment and commitment pays off one way or another.
    Thank you, as always, for the inspirations.

  11. wondering if someone could define CAD and NYT?
    re: this article….
    …any way we slice it, it’s all a part of the creative life and for each of us to find our balance as individuals…
    Robert was amazing in his output and the love and encouragement he gave to others. Have no idea how much he made, but he was able to travel the world, with painting equipment, sat phone and laptop in tow, start the Painters Keys, write a book and these letters, engage with his family, and “paint.” Truly incredible!
    My weekly habit of browsing galleries online nets wonderful work by thousands of artists which sell for 18.00 per posters (open editions) to originals for 10’s or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The net (or gross) total for art purchases world wide per annum being in the billions. YEAH!
    It’s just cool that as our creative life goes on, we can choose to sleep (or binge on Netflix, lol) more than paint and create one a year, sell flowers or tacos at curbside to pay for rent, or paint up a storm and proliferate the market, meet lots of people and improve and makes lots of money…and we have such a glorious freedom to do so at our leisure. Holy smokes!
    Sara, thank you for this great article. And thank Jean for another way to view portraiture!!

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