That’s all I need


Dear Artist,

I always like that scene in the movie The Jerk where Steve Martin leaves home saying, “that’s all I need…” He takes only a chair. Then he takes a lamp. He apparently doesn’t take a belt because out on the sidewalk his pants fall down. I think I identify with his situation because deep in my heart I know I can do quite well with less.


“Wheatfield with Crows”
oil painting, 1890, 19.9 in x 40.6 in
by Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

This time I left home without any art materials. I knew there was a box of old art materials in the closet of our friend’s home — enough to get started. Then I bought the basics in Liquitex, a brand I haven’t used for a while — I lucked into the only art store on Kauai. Keep it simple, I said. Limited palette. I couldn’t resist the Alizarin dark hue — haven’t tried it yet. And their Naples yellow. I was just curious. A few stretchers and a roll of Fredrix Polyflax — never tried that either. Just curious. I bought a staple-gun — I needed that. Gesso, molding paste, medium, gel, varnish, a small roller; you really can’t run even a Spartan studio without them. A new little easel. I needed that. I had to buy a throw-sheet so I wouldn’t mess up the patio. Had to have that. Oh, and Mozart. I need him. Portable CD and earphones. I’m all wired up. This all leads to a kind of virgin feel to the stroke. Simplicity perhaps in the work as well — a better design. Experience, yes, but somehow new. A new start.


“Vincent’s Chair and Pipe”
oil on canvas, 1888, 36.6 in x 28.9 in
by Vincent van Gogh

It’s brilliant out here on the patio. Golden days. Simple, simple life. Oh, and I had to buy a bag of birdseed to keep the birds coming. My camera’s primed and ready beside my new palette. 400mm lens — I need that. Time off for shots of Java finches, cardinals, zebra doves, white-eyes, mynas, white-rumped shamas, overhead a long-tailed tropic-bird. What a place. I need the little tape-recorder. Also the bird-book, cell-phone, and this laptop. Oh, and a flask of wine. That’s all I need.

Best regards,


PS: “How difficult it is to be simple.” (Vincent van Gogh)

Esoterica: The idea is to avoid true clutter. Here, there’s a feeling that everything at hand is being used in its proper time. Nothing is extraneous and the only real distraction is the personal inadequacy of the human spirit. “Out of clutter, find simplicity.” (Albert Einstein)

This letter was originally published as “That’s all I need” on January 18, 2002.

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“If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.” (Charles A. Lindbergh)



    • It’s amazing how much we all “need” to keep going and paint our paintings! And, if we don’t have what we need, somehow we just can’t get our thoughts together and make do with what we have. Except that I was painting one night (all stores were closed) and couldn’t find my blue paint, not just a certain blue paint but any blue paint at all. So, I made do without it. This sounds weird but I mixed a certain purple and a certain green together and I got blue. I figured that each color had certain properties that cancelled out the properties in the other color. Probably couldn’t do it again, but it worked!

  1. Elaine Campbell on

    What a wonderful feeling to read this piece, this morning
    My husband and I have now returned from Kauai after three months
    This year marks our 34 th winter on Kauai!
    I know exactly the feelings, sentiments and experiences expressed here by your late Dad.
    Many thanks for this.

  2. Inspiring to read. Just wish things were a little different so I could have time to paint. I would love to be able to paint everyday. It will happen, when the time is right. Thank you

  3. It’s in the details. Einstein captures the sentiment for me. In the small things, a universe unveils in a drop of water or a grain of sand. Thank you for this column!

    • I think William Blake said this more poetically:

      “To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower,
      hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.”

      • Absolutely the truest perception of simplicity! We all can’t have the luxury of choosing the bare painting essentials but we can be rich as minimalists with clear uncluttered vision

  4. what a great upbeat letter! It made me feel all set to go. I go out to Friday Harbor in Puget sound twice a year r to paint the ferries. I take very little and sometimes am missing something, but it never matters, really. just terrific. thanks.

    • Sitting on the ferry and reading this days letter has driven me to rifle through my purse for a piece of paper and pencil/pen? There’s a seagull on the wing needing to be sketched ! I love the simplicity of nature!

  5. SARA, thanks for letting us hear Robert’s voice now and again. This is a delightful piece and I will send it to my brother to get him back in his painting groove. The setting and the ingredients listed should be enough to get him going … specially a sip of the vino with some Mozart and sunshine.

  6. I haven’t painted for quite awhile so when I got this email this morning I thought “it’s time to unsubscribe”. Instead, I read it all of the way through. I really don’t know why, but I did, and it touched my heart. I’m the type of person who has to have everything in its place before I can do the job. This challenged me to try to work with less and be surprised with the results. I’ll have to get the painting supplies out and give it a go again. Life and painting would be a whole lot more satisfying and rewarding if I could do this. Thank you!!

  7. I had to laugh, reading this one again. As a plein air painter, my goal is always to take only what I “need”, but what starts out as one bag of stuff soon becomes two, plus the easel of course, and you never know when a couple of extra canvasses might inspire a masterpiece….and so on. Thanks for reviving this one, Sara. I pictured your dad’s wry grin as he was writing it.

  8. I love this letter – I remember Bob walking around with two cameras around his neck and a couple of electronic devices hanging off his belt. It didn’t prevent him from painting the most delightful pristine paintings. :-)

  9. I can empathize, after 9 weeks wintering in San Miguel de Allende we’re all packed up and I can’t believe how much stuff we’ve accumulated in such a short time. I think if I stayed another month I would be designated as a hoarder.

  10. Robert J. Coleman on

    Sara, thanks so much for bringing back this message of your father’s, which hits so close to home for many of us. I read this to my wife and she said; “Oh, that’s YOU!!” I struggle on every trip to cut down the watercolor travel kit and have finally crammed it all into a canvas bible cover! The beauty of watercolor is that you can cut back to a Moliskene book, mechanical pencil, travel palette and a #8 travel brush. Water, cups, Kleenex etc usually be found on site. So the rule “Simplify, them simplify again!” works for me!

  11. Love this quote by Henry David Thoreau:

    “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

    I found this quote while working on a graphic design project in school in 1990. Since then, I’ve attempted to simplify my life. Not easy, because the mind always justifies our desires — “of course you’ll need that!” :-)

  12. I know the feeling well. I can’t drive by the Blick store here with feeling an, almost magnetic, pull on the steering wheel of my car. “Do I need anything today? What do I need? What do I need?”

    It’s usually with great sadness that I realize that I don’t need a darn thing and keep on driving.

    But wait, there’s a Hobby Lobby between me and my house. Hmmm ….

  13. Maxine Erickson on

    Wow, thank you for sharing these words today, it truly is the Universe telling me to decide what I truly need. I will start by cleaning this table my laptop sits on which is piled almost as high as the open laptop! All I need on this table…. is?

  14. The idea of simplifying helps to clear out my inner clutter. However, I acquired and am very grateful to receive from four different people (both Dads) art supplies from those who passed away. I have more than I’ll need in this lifetime,; I’ve also donated art supplies to several children’s programs and I still purchase items that I think I need from my fav art stores. Ugh, I have too much! This letter reminds me to use what I have and improvise what I don’t have. This way of thinking will help me to focus on the real plan! Simplify. Thanks so much, Sara!

  15. I wrote this today before receiving Robert/Sara’s letter. How interesting that so many of us think alike when we allow ourselves the time.

    “I’m thinking of you now as I do my daily ‘wake up’ with my coffee and cup of internet. It takes me way too long but I don’t really mind. The view off our son’s upper porch and deck is indeed idyllic. A cloudless haint blue sky with just the slightest ripple on the water, punctuated by occasional military jet contrails, sets the stage for the painting in my mind’s eye. A pair of mallards swim in tandem, back and forth, up and down. Shiny tiny strobe light sparkles glimmer and dance on the lake’s surface. A pair of Canada geese eat and crap on the neighbour’s lawn. Across the way, glimpses of vernal green peek from behind the coniferous trees, confirming that Spring is underway at Lake Lanier. An American flag fluttering off the top of the neighbour’s pier reminds me of where I am. I cherish each and every image as I cast my glance every which way. Reflections in the water mirror the identical scenes on the banks above. How wonderful it would be to put brush to canvas and attempt to paint what is before me in the ‘now’; a camera lens cannot even begin to come close to capturing what the human eye and brain register and conjure. A virtual miracle, really.

    How nice to have this brief but special time where nothing is expected of me and I can languish without (too much) guilt. My legs are receiving a bit of a sunburn, the warning sensation camouflaged by the gentle southern breeze laced with a titch of almost-cool. Now that I have fed my soul and awakened my mind, it is time to go inside and nourish my physical Be-ing. And then, the day is before me………..

    Best wishes to all,


  16. And yet you painted! and you created! By feeling the moments, writing your feeling and sharing them with all who would listen with their eyes. To be able to read the world around you is a true artist. Thank you Robert and Sarah.

  17. The first year I painted in Hawai’i , I took the whole kit and kaboodle. The last time I had paired down to a number 2 pencil for sketching, a sketch book that would accommodate watercolors. a tiny travel kit with eight pans and a folding brush. I still enjoy looking a the little paintings and sketches I made. Was marvelous fun.

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