Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Janice Robinson-Delaney of Ellenwood, GA, asked, “Have you ever experienced what Picasso called ‘sterility’? If so, where does it come from and how do you prevent it?”

Thanks, Janice. On the surface, it might seem that Picasso would be the last to worry about this particular problem — he of many periods, prodigious output and overlapping media. Fact is, he was the poster boy of fertility.

Sterility is where you find yourself running on empty. It’s not to be confused with “artistic senility” — another condition where the brain, often in old age, begins to run on memory rather than experiencing each work as a new event. We actually learn sterility during our teen years, as societal demands and peer pressure begin to stifle the audacity of the natural child. The sterile adult has feelings of barrenness and loss that can bring on a state of panic.

Fertility, the opposite of sterility, is learned. Curiosity and experimentation are adopted attitudes, and while they fluctuate and at times appear loony, they’re largely voluntary.

Picasso was one who understood the private search for “new” because he felt the weight of the public “old.” This view may not sit well with artists who honour traditions and time-worn subjects, but even in those there is room for new excitements and subtle evolutions. While we may recognize that a quick antidote is not always going to work, there are ploys that, taken individually or in combination, can do the job. Here are seven:

Change your media.

Mix your media.

Change your working environment.

Change your tools.

Exercise your body.

Study your favourite artists.

Jump around a lot.

If you are a slow worker, speed up. If you are a speedy one, slow down. Above all, grab something and get started. The learned ability of renewal is as necessary to the creative mind as holding a brush. And as brushes are often replaced, there can always be another love.

Best regards,


PS: “Love what you do. Believe in your instincts. And you’d better be able to pick yourself up and brush yourself off every day. While life is not always fair, it is manageable. It’s a matter of attitude and confidence.” (Mario Andretti)

Esoterica: You might also try a nightly affirmation such as “Just for tomorrow I will hone in on what I really want to do.” Repeat ten times and run backwards around a moonlit tree at midnight — anything that shakes you up and shines lunar light on your true passions. “People are not lazy,” says motivational guru Anthony Robbins. “They simply have impotent goals — that is, goals that do not inspire them.”


Neutralizing fear
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Adriennes #11”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

Sterility is caused by fear. Artists can be paralyzed by fear of rejection. This fear can cause them to operate in a “safe mode’ like computers do. Better to do exactly what has worked in the past. It’s human nature to seek comfort in times of stress and most artists are under stress. It is more difficult to innovate when you are under the gun but you must venture forth in order to grow. Recently I was a guest at a Bill Hosner workshop held in my town. I got to sit in on a critique at the end of the workshop and better yet had the opportunity to talk to Bill. He works very differently than I do and had some different strategies and ideas. I am anxious to try out some of these ideas. New ideas are the seeds that can sprout to new directions for a painter. You won’t have a worry with sterility if you are looking at paintings, reading about painting, thinking about painting and talking about painting!


Maintaining inspirational friendships
by Cindy Kovack, Phoenix, AZ, USA


“Fly with me”
acrylic painting
by Cindy Kovack

I’ve always defeated artistic sterility by maintaining friends who are positive, creative and productive. Going to art museums on a regular basis, Art First Friday’s, taking classes to further my artistic ability, watching bio’s of artists, going to arts and crafts shows, seeking out supplies at garage sales, thrift stores or hardware stores for my work, touring artist’s galleries and belonging to a productive, like-minded art group have all worked for me over the years. I believe creativity breeds creativity. Be with those people who inspire you, enlighten you and nourish your soul.


Abstracted out of the rut
by Cristina Monier, Buenos Aires, Argentina


original painting
by Cristina Monier

After 10 years of painting realistic still life and the odd nude and landscape, I switched to abstraction to free myself from the model and I must say I enjoy every second of it. Financially it has been an even greater success than the realistic period and the acceptance in galleries and competitions was great, which translated in good sales and many awards. As for me, I felt I was in a rut and now I feel free to really express myself. I could go on and on but I will only add for your many readers: Do not be afraid of change and experiment, if it does not work you can always go back to the style you are familiar with, but if it does work the rewards are awesome.

There is 1 comment for Abstracted out of the rut by Cristina Monier

From: Mishcka — May 08, 2009

I had a similar experience. I’ve been a realist forever and I was getting bored, but I saw an exhibition of the abstract paintings of Josh Goldberg and was blown away! I decided to study with him and it’s exactly as you describe it. My realism is even better as a result so I do both.


Giving birth to something new
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA


watercolour painting
by Terrie Christian

It is a choice to let images come from within and to not repeat the same tired subjects. That is a big reason that I began doing more abstract work a few years ago. I have fun with the creation and fun with naming them. Sometimes I have a subject in mind when I start, but often I just put down shapes and colors and let them tell me who they are. The point is that when I was doing more realistic subjects, I did have the feeling of sterility, and now as I play with design and color I feel that I am birthing something new that is all my own.


There are 3 comments for Giving birth to something new by Terrie Christian

From: Liz Reday — May 08, 2009

Right on! As my work veers toward semi abstract, I feel there’s more “me” in it, for better or worse. The result is much more original and totally absorbing in practice. Pure unfettered creativity flows out.

From: Shannon Jones — May 09, 2009

Thanks for the reminder of fun! These days we need this so much!

I love your abstract – “Horsey-horsey” – it makes me smile.

Thanks again for keeping it fun!

From: Shelby — May 13, 2009

Terrie, aaaah giving birth to something new…I love it. I knew in college you were a talented babe but this is fabulous. I love the name because it fits with the painting. Well done my friend. xo


Using up canvases fast
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA


“Late afternoon palm”
original painting
by Cathy Harville

After throwing out several canvases and floundering under several more, I really think I do need to do a moon dance. I think I may just use my fingers for a while, and progress to credit cards, which I can’t use anymore anyway. A grater may provide some texture, while a whisk may whip up some new colors. I am experimenting with glazing. Just layering transparent colors is pretty cool. And lumpy gessoed surfaces are also interesting – you can find all sorts of things hiding in the hills and valleys. Regardless, I hope this phase disappears soon, as my supply of canvas dwindles!

There is 1 comment for Using up canvases fast by Cathy Harville

From: Anonymous — May 08, 2009

Paint on top of the old canvasses!!


Changing your environment
by Lanie Frick, Licking MO, USA


original painting
by Lanie Frick

The business of changing your working environment works for me. I recently made a change in my studio by swapping out a small couch for a round table with chairs. It was a decided functional change on my part but the stimulating effect was a welcome surprise. My studio went from “isn’t this a nice place to paint” to “this is a happening place where creativity flows.” I get an instant charge from the new atmosphere every time I go in my studio. Another way I’ve been able to keep sterility away is get outside and be with nature. I go out and ride my horse as much as possible. It has always inspired my creativity.




Get into the ‘now’
by Lynne Schlumpf, Chugiak, AK, USA


Eckhart Tolle

To defeat sterility, I remember what Eckhart Tolle says in his book The Power of Now. To forget the past, forget the future and just listen to the sounds around me and observe. It is in the past and the future that we replay past failures and worry about future failures. Observe the way the walls look or observe how the sounds of cars come out of silence and go back into silence or whatever sounds are around you. To be ultra sensitive and just keep pulling myself back into the now — which is the only thing I really can create inside of anyway. And that exercise thing really works, too. I go to the local middle school and walk around the track exactly 8 times (2 miles) without listening to music. Just listening to the birds and the wind and just relaxing my mind. Lots of ideas come out of that.

There are 4 comments for Get into the ‘now’ by Lynne Schlumpf

From: Ralph Legros — May 08, 2009

I love Tolle!, a lot of good advice for someone who wants it! and good for you! Have a good day Lynne!

From: Grace Cowling — May 08, 2009

Tolle is a precious gift to this planet. Add Tibetan singing bowls and for to uplift body, mind and soul — and brushes of course.

From: Karen Martin Sampson — May 08, 2009
From: Gentlehawk James — May 08, 2009

Tolle’s insights,tapes etc. are wonderful! I wonder how many artistic folk are aware of his work and others, like Wayne Dyer, who has also been quoted in Robert’s column. I feel that “Awareness” and “Creativity” go hand in hand. Namaste!


Workshops for relief
by Annie Cicale, Fairview, NC, USA


“Best face forward”
watercolour painting
by Annie Cicale

This may seem self-serving, but taking classes is the best way for many folks to jump-start their impotence. I am a teacher, natch, so I would say these things. But I take workshops whenever I can, with people whose work I love and whose ideas I respect. It does two things: reconfirms what I already know to give me a nod of OK to keep going, and gives me concrete things to try next, many of which are on your list. Teachers can:

Show you new tricks with your old media.

Show you new toys on the market that you haven’t figured out yet.

Force you to work in a new place (workshops are often in beautiful places).

Exercise your body by making you schlepp all your stuff to the workshop site, and by making you want to take that walk on the beach or in the woods.

Inspire you since they are probably in that group of your favourite artists, but also by giving you insights into others.

Force you to try ideas you’ve never considered.

Most importantly, workshops and classes develop community, and we all thrive when we spend time with like-minded souls who love what we do. Students share among themselves, and sometimes that’s even better than what the teacher has to offer.

There are 4 comments for Workshops for relief by Annie Cicale

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 08, 2009

Dear Annie- I disagree with you 100%. Now- do yourself a favor and don’t take that personally. I’m fully comfortable with my own work and my own evolution and I don’t need any teachers or other workshop attendees assisting me with my unique totally original work. I have no interest in sharing what I do- and no interest in having anyone share back. I am not interested in creating the kind of community you are. No- we ALL do not need community to thrive as you are suggesting. My community experience is completely different from yours- and it comes out of having no community at all for a very long time because of early rejection by a heterosexist society- as I’m not a heterosexual. Carrying a sewing machine around anywhere is mostly pointless. I can’t afford any new toys- so being presented with them is also pointless. Also- I can’t afford the ‘beautiful places’ or the lodging attached. I’m 100% POTENT. Because I did an enormous amount of self-healing along the way- I receive direct inspiration virtually every day- whenever I need it. Most of it comes from within- but I look at everything coming at me from without- and am often inspired that way as well. But I’m ahead of the game- and have no interest in learning anybody else’s methods- as I don’t need them. Just wanted to make you understand that the way YOU think isn’t the way every one of us out here thinks. Thanks.

From: Jim Oberst — May 08, 2009

I know that people are very different, but Annie, I’m with you. Workshops almost always energize me, and I learn new things that find their way into my “normal” painting style. I learn from the other students too, and just enjoy meeting other artists and talking about art. Each to his own, I guess.

From: Anonymous — May 08, 2009

J.Bruce Wilcox – whoa, read it again:

She said – “The best way for MANY people”, not all people.

ALL people are unique, but many of us are the same, in ‘types’, when it comes to learning. Some learn by seeing, some by doing, etc. etc. What is true is that NO ONE lives in a vacumn.

We all learn from others, whether we like to admit it or not. Sometimes we are the teacher, sometimes, the student.

From: Liz Reday — May 08, 2009

I have noticed a lot of folks taking workshops nonstop who are unable to create art on their own. After several years of taking workshops they become very articulate and rather than setting up in their own studio, they begin teaching art workshops to more beginners. Blind leading the blind? As Robert says: Go to your room!


Lifting a black curtain
by Jeanne Gillis, Lethbridge, AB, Canada

Your letter made it so clear, the feelings that I have been experiencing these last few months. I shared studio space with three other younger artists and when they moved to another space these feelings started slowly at first then became overwhelming. It was like a black curtain enveloped over my eyes. Very sad. Although other artists took their spaces, the feelings were still there. I felt so isolated.

It really came to a head after 4 years of hard work to get ready for a solo exhibit last November. After the opening, the feelings started. I have spoken with other artists and some have experienced similar thoughts.

Enough is enough and I decided to move to another space with other artists. I move in on June 1 and am looking forward to the renewal and re-awakening. I have also started another type of subject matter and different media and started teaching classes one night a week. The class is wonderful. It is so inspiring to see new students have that “Aha” moment!


by Virginia M. O’Connor, Anza, CA, USA


oil painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Virginia M. O’Connor

How do you deal with sterility that becomes depression? Sometimes it seems everything is going so wrong there’s no end in sight. It’s hard to create when you just want to lie down and die because nothing is working.

(RG note) Thanks, Virginia. These days a lot of folks say they are “depressed” when they are sad, frustrated or just having a bad hair day. This state of mind is a lot different from clinical depression. The latter can be chronic and debilitating, requiring the understanding intervention of a certified healthcare professional. The simplistic remedies offered by myself and others may not apply to these situations. Counseling or medication, or both, may be in order.




Feeding time

oil painting
by Mian Situ, California, USA


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 Karen Cohen who wrote, “Sterility afflicts those who won’t take risks. Art, like Science or Technology makes no progress unless the artist acts on the question, “What if…?” When an artist ceases trying to find better ways to express his/her thoughts and feelings, sterility has already set in.”

And also Sonja Taber who wrote, “You have no idea how much I enjoy your Twice-Weekly letter. Your letters give me a great lift. You always strike a chord in me. I so look forward to the next one.”

And also Allan P Welscher who wrote, “Fertility is knowing there are still lots of things left to invent.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Sterility



From: Debby Kaspari — May 05, 2009

Add to the list: change formats. Try working different sizes and dimensions; tall and narrow, wide, square…anything but the usual. Compose within in a new shape to start up creative thinking.

From: Sarah Clegg — May 05, 2009

I wonder if this ‘sterility’ or artist’s block is actually just another word for procrastination (at which I seem to have become something of an expert of late). Yes I know I should be trying all Robert’s useful suggestions – indeed have made a list of them already, along with lists of subject matter to have a go at, lists of canvas sizes in stock, lists of paint in stock, lists of frames to re-use – the lists are endless! I’ve even invested in untried materials and supports, but I just can’t get started on anything new or different and instead end up taking the easy option of doing the tried and tested saleable old style. I don’t know whether this is credit crunch syndrome or simply lack of self-confidence, but either way it leads to nothing but frustration.

From: Rita Brace — May 05, 2009

Sterility is a new word to me, but I know I have it. I’m totally different at work shops and classes. People call me prolific. I think it is because of the competition, I want my teachers to be impressed and they are. That does not help me at home though.

From: Dwight Williams — May 05, 2009

Back in the late 40s and early 50s my high school art teacher in Kansas City, Mo. (Miss Flora Wright and I’d hug her now if I could) would not tolerate just sitting around wondering what to do. She’d stay on your case to get moving. If nothing good enough was in your head, get moving anyway.

Actually it works. For all of the decades since, when I move first things begin to come. There’s nothing better than a wise teacher!

From: Beth Christensen — May 05, 2009

I think that is a universal truth, Dwight, just get moving. From ancient eastern religion, to modern self-help books, to the “just do it” of Nike commercials, you first get moving. I would add to that, the thing that keeps me moving is to suspend judgement (this one takes practice!) as you work. Don’t allow your inner voice to be saying that this looks like crap! Some of it will, but still the seeds of something superb will be germinating in there somewhere.

From: Rick Rotante — May 05, 2009

Picasso’s genius comes in his changing medium every day. Everything he touched became art, even his food. He was known to take the bones of his fish lunch and press it into clay to create work. Later he’d fire it, paint it and shazam! ART!

I find when things are going too well for a long period is when the danger of becoming stale emerges. That’s true with me. You’ve hit a stride and everything is flowing. This is exactly when you should think of changing medium or subject.

With the economy in shambles and people looking for affordable art, I’ve changed my size to smaller works also if you’ve been noticing art is becoming more traditional and less expressive. Here again I have tightened up and added more finish to my work so those with no art understanding can understand it. Also it gives the work a quality people are looking for.

I did an outdoor show where I always sell something. Well, this time nothing sold, so that has to tell me something. This is a perfect opportunity to try and evolve “again”. Artists need to always look ahead. I know art for art’s sake, but we all need to make a living. If I have to sell smaller works in lieu of one large piece, so be it. I still do my larger pieces for when the economy becomes livelier.

If you become sterile, look to the masters, make copies (for yourself) re-invent the wheel. Paint things you would never consider paintable. If you try even a little you will be fertile again.

From: Rick Smith — May 05, 2009

And go through your old sketchbooks. [you do keep them don’t you?]Old ideas that have been discarded or unused can be reworked into new inspiration.

From: Rick Rotante — May 07, 2009

I wanted to share an experience that applies here. In a nutshell, I went to an exhibit of an artist friend; my wife invited her co-worker and boy friend to join us. After meeting him for the first time I mentioned to him that he should sit for me because he had a unique face. Strong, chiseled. Two weeks later he called about sitting, we set a time and date, he came to the studio, twice, and the result is spectacular if I have to say so myself. I found out he is a boxer, so I added gloves to his portrait and the painting is done. I asked him to sit again this time in a boxing pose.

The point here is this, be open to new ideas and circumstances and prevent artist sterility. This is a whole new area of subject for me. It also fits with my going back to basics with my figure studies while the economy is slow. Working with a physically fit boxer will improve my anatomy skills. We have to be open to situations when they arise and run with it. In this way we will never get stale.

From: Katherine McLean — May 07, 2009
From: Gwen Fox — May 07, 2009

Robert….What a great subject to discuss. Sterility haunts us all and is usually accompanied by fear. I am an abstract painter and love what I do. However there are times I stand before the canvas and wait for the muse to come. When several days pass and she is requiring me to be patient I start asking questions about my art and how I paint. Is it deep enough, does it have its own voice….what else could I say if I were open to something new?

Last summer my beloved German Shepherd, Annie, died. She, like all our dogs are personal gifts from the gods. They love and cherish us without question. Since we were so close I wanted to do something special to honor her. Having never painted a dog I decided to give it a try only to discover my hands and mind worked together to capture the heart. After painting Annie I decided to go to the local Humane Society and photograph the shelter dogs. The idea of doing a series of shelter dogs excited me as this was a whole new world. My mind had to think different, my brushes were forced to apply paint in a different way. There was a soul waiting for the paint to share.

The dogs actually seemed to enjoy having their photograph taken. After all, they each had a story to tell. I did a series of shelter dogs that literally painted themselves.

This experience expanded not only my ability to paint, but allowed me to see in a different manner. It put a zest in my step and opened the door to a new world of possibilities. I thank the dogs everyday for their gift. It is only when we are open to try new subjects, new mediums, new ideas that we grow as an artist. When we decide to accept this challenge of an unknown journey we also need to embrace the word…”failure”. It is only through failure that we are able to step into a new psyche that screams “artistic success”.

From: John Stevenson — May 07, 2009

I am an artist that paints every day, with a 8-5 working time for my love. But the ideas you share have some good to be taken. With that in mind I am today going out on a ”Walk about” with my water colour kit and do some different scenes. I am normally an Oil Painter, painting entirely with palette knives. So this morning’s journey will bring me back to another time (when I was an ”illust’rator” when I used brushes a lot more.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — May 07, 2009

Perhaps there are lapses when our muse may not inspire us at the time. We take a pause from our painting and take walks or observe children and adults as they play or involve in any activity may stimulate us to new ideas or just observe our surroundings an old broken down barn or animals in the pasture. People with pets or just any old objects in our own home environment may generate ideas for our subject. I have a lot of ideas in my mind just thinking how to compose them is a challenge. I think that would at least stop us from being sterile. Take interest at even the most mundane things around us they may even excite to creativity.

From: Robert Wade — May 07, 2009

Hi Robert…

Ecclesiastes 7:5 says “Better to be criticised by a wise man than praised by a fool” So maybe nothing has ever changed!

From: Karen R. Phinney — May 08, 2009

So many inspired people, and inspiring ideas! Bless you all for your insights shared through this wonderful newsletter. All the best to everyone, struggling or otherwise!

From: Susan C. — May 08, 2009

Thank you, Robert, and all the artists that contributed today. I really needed to hear all of it. I will now go into my “Lonesome” (for me) studio and stir up some mischief!

From: Win Dinn, Painted Turtle Gallery — May 08, 2009

One of my favourite ways of beating the sterility blahs is reading these bi-weekly letters. I also comb through the illustrations that accompany responses, and copy my favourites to my computer, utilizing the images as shifting screen savers to remind me of what is REALLY important. Beauty is everywhere in creation, and can even enhance a computer!!

From: Liz Reday — May 08, 2009

This letter/forum has done so much for me in inspiring creativity, and Robert is so right in saying that it’s an inside job. No class or workshop can tell you how to reach down inside yourself for that wellspring of ideas- that will only happen if you’re already standing at your easel, scraping up old paint, squeezing out interesting colors, noticing different combinations and textures on an old used paint rag or exposing yourself to that barrage of sensory information that we call modern life. The teachers and the classes are there to get us started or give us and idea of how others go about making art, it’s not about being the best painter in the class or critiques, or being on first name basis with a famous artist. Sure, shows and receptions are good occasionally to get out of your studio, but I’ve seen a distressing preponderance of people totally dependent on the workshop, art class and art club activities to the detriment of getting back into that studio alone to “listen to the sounds around me”. Tolle is great, he really gets to the meat of art, creation and being the conduit of the divine.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 08, 2009

What has motivated me all these years was the movement of many artists away from realism and into creating totally unique to the individual – never seen before abstract work – work that can have all the qualities of good design, exquisite color interaction & interesting technique (not just painting) but in all art forms. And artists I’ve most admired over the years have had an ability to express something new. But we live in a world where folks will tell you it’s all been done before. I disagree. While I am a fiber artist and love great fiber work that pushes the boundaries of everything – most fiber artists don’t push any boundaries at all. This may actually apply to most painters too – but I don’t know that. You can all ask yourselves whether or not your work is in fact unlike any work that has come before you. My opinion is that most work isn’t unique. Yet my understanding of what constitutes a truly great artist – a MASTER – if you will- is that quality of uniqueness.

I’m self-taught. At this point in my life I’m very proud of that fact. Early on I read available public library books. I finally – from the 8th grade – had public school art instruction. But my best teacher in high school saw that I was both self-motivated (already) and working in a media that he had little connection to – and he supported me by letting me pursue what I was interested in – not by forcing me to do what everybody else was doing. I then made it through one year of college – which was all my finances would allow – having little to no familial support – and 10 years of non-stop public abuse because I’m gay. What I learned in college was to not pursue art. And I wouldn’t actually discover just how destroyed my self-esteem was for 20 more years. One gets up in the morning and does one’s best to hide the despair and depression to prove to one’s self there’s a reason to continue to live. Healing that inner blackness took a bit of work- work I’m also very proud of having been able to do. Of course – it turned me into a person who challenges bulls**t the instant I see it – but oh well.

So – Robert says – go to your room. Go to your room and create. Go to your room and make art. BY YOURSELF. Art that is unique to you. But society says – take another workshop – at least if your finances will allow it. Mine won’t. Take another workshop so you can have a fun time with your hobby and make new friends and share and play with each other because making art is in fact all about your community experience – right? I hate to say this – but this is mainly a female perception of things – where it’s all about community and sharing. And of course – making art is about all the beautiful places you get to visit while taking workshops – right? And art making is of course – all about your new toys – because you’re still in grade school – right? Wrong. People who do little but attend workshops never make any work that isn’t derivative of their teachers. But the teachers are making a living off intermediate artists – so I guess there’s that. But when – oh when – do you graduate? And go to your room and create unique work? Oh that’s right – HARDLY EVER. It’s too much work to think for yourself and actually have an original thought.

I know there’s been a substantial discussion on here recently – thanks to a gentleman named Tom – about hobbyists & middle-aged empty -nesters & retired folks and artist wannabees who start out late in life. Some of us were not afforded that reality. The need to create was too strong and along the way we gave things up in order to continue – instead of having some non-art-related job or spouse support us. And often that road was filled with darkness. Some of us – a very few – found our way out onto the other side of that darkness – and we persevered – and still – we gave more things up in order to continue. And that reality is what informs my art – not some silly workshop I’ve taken to learn a new technique – and another – and another – until I have all the techniques available to the entire world – but still can’t paint myself out of a unoriginal bag.

And truly- that reality never even touches upon the idea of MASTERING what you’re doing. Until you stop taking classes from everybody else – you will never get anywhere near mastery. Until you stop looking outside yourself for the answers – you will never become a master. I’m a person pursuing originality and excellence – and I’m degraded for being arrogant because I am in fact very good at creating something ORIGINAL.

From: Schaulee — May 15, 2009



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