The interrupted life


Dear Artist,

At the easel yesterday I was listening to a stockbroker on the telephone headset at the same time as my assistant Carol Ann was holding some cheques for me to sign. Just then one of the city fathers came in the door. “When do you find time to paint?” he asked. I told him that sometimes it seems like I do my work in my coffee breaks. Then, inwardly, I had a little silent epiphany: “If you’re having interruptions, you need them.”

Las Meninas, 1656 Oil on canvas 10′ 5″ x 9′ 1″ by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)

Las Meninas, 1656
Oil on canvas
10′ 5″ x 9′ 1″
by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)

The idea of nice clear times of solitude when you can get deeply and privately into the joy of work for hours or days on end — maybe doesn’t exist. Much of the time this studio is as busy as an advertising agency on deadline. Then I was realizing that many respectable artists run complex businesses, farms, even empires from their easels. Women (and men) run homes and families from the position. Is it a possibility, I wondered, that the proper balance of interruption and productivity is what is needed in order to keep the muse flowing and the hormones balanced? Maybe it’s a foot in the real world that keeps us real. Life’s total purpose is surely as important as art-making. I was remembering James Russell Lowell‘s remark: “Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character.”

When I was first starting out as a painter I wondered if anything was ever going to happen. It seemed like I was blowing my clarinet into a big void. Gradually, mostly by working hard I think, I’ve proved my neurotic fear to be false. Now I’m addicted to the complexity I’ve set up. I can’t claim to be victimized by it.

The Triumph of Bacchus, 1629 oil on canvas 5′ 5″ x 7′ 5″ by Diego Velázquez

The Triumph of Bacchus, 1629
oil on canvas
5′ 5″ x 7′ 5″
by Diego Velázquez

The city father was on charity duty. When it’s a good cause, I’m just a guy who can’t say “no.” Watching my yellow ochre drying up, I told him that I’d work him in. Then Edwin (5) and Wilf (9), who happen to be staying with us, came in and asked politely if I might have a “very large piece of paper or cloth to make a flag of the world.” I told them I’d be right with them.

Best regards,


PS: “Art has to do with the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” (Saul Bellow)

Esoterica: Interruptions can be somewhat controlled by putting “Artist at work — do not disturb,” on the door or “Go away,” on the mat. Another system is to rudely keep on working while people are trying to organize you. Funnily, “I’m in the middle of a wash,” seems to get respect, even if you’re not. “Excuse me, I’ve gotta go, my easel’s on fire,” does the trick for the telephone. One rule I have for visitors is to never offer them a drink of any kind, hard or soft. And put books on your chairs.

Diego_Velázquez_AutorretratoThis letter was originally published as “The interrupted life” on July 9, 2004.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Purpose in the human being is a much more complex phenomenon than what used to be called willpower.” (Rollo May)



  1. Norman Ridenour on

    I came to art late. I had been a destroyer officer in Vietnam. Life was a constant adrenelin rush mixed with boredom. I knew that a ‘normal’ life would never do. I need that rush. Art with resultng precarious economics has sufficed. Artists are nuts and I love them thus.

    • Fred Paulson on

      I’m pretty sure thats the treatment I received when I visited Bob’s studio. Of course I didn’t realize it until years later reading this letter. Makes me laugh to think of it now. I’m still grateful for the experience!

  2. Kathleen Lightman on

    I’m finally learning to work a couple of hours at a time and even to grab a half hour here and there. It gives me a chance to keep reviewing work with fresh eyes and is a lot more productive than waiting for a chunk of uninterrupted time to work. It never comes. You can clear people out of your studio or off the phone and cut back on board meetings, but life’s basic responsibilities are not so easily dismissed unless you want unpaid bills, overdrafts, unsent invoices, a chaotic household and an empty fridge. Balancing time for my art and other tasks throughout the day has allowed me to ditch the resentment and enjoy the tasks that the good fortune of having a home and a first world life afford me, not to mention my supportive partner and friends. No more weeping over whole unproductive days in the studio.

    • I appreciate this comment. I think it is a skill that I, too, need to learn. It was easy when I was doing drawings. I could just pick up whatever I was drawing with and make changes to works and move quickly on. I am finding that to be not so easy with oil painting with the need to set up palette, colors, etc., etc. Too bad that it seems people are just not interested in drawings….

      What medium are you working in, Kathleen?

      • I put my oil palette in the freezer – in a plastic box – so that when the opportunity comes I can be painting again quickly!

  3. There are many interruptions already in the hours I am not painting. When I am in the studio, no one but the occasional sounds of a logging truck interrupt me. No telephone, no computer out there. I suppose it depends on one’s creative process. I paint from the inside out so need to go deeply with no distractions.

  4. Yes! When I was too busy, with many distractions and other obligations I was at my most productive. Now I have hours of uninterrupted time. I often use them productively – doing laundry. Interaction with others – even pests, is stimulating, and makes private time all the more precious.

  5. I figured out what I was meant to do when I was pregnant with my first child. But I struggled to my feet and went into the garden and picked some flowers and painted them. I had a second daughter and had one hour a week to paint.
    However, I kept the creative pilot light on and eventually had two hours a week and half a decade of plans to make materialize.
    I believe in making it all a gorgeous reality.
    Happy painting everyone, plights and joys and all!

  6. Jean Kilburn on

    Another way to discourage visitors, Robert said at one time, is
    never answer the door without a brush in your hand.

  7. My daughter reminded that there’s a quote from the Bible that says: “…..If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” This is from James 4:15

    This is so true. We can be at our easel and then off somewhere else to do something else and then back and forth to “do this or that.” It all works and we really can’t escape going from here to there.

    Sara, thank you for the again terrific re-post of Robert’s words. I LOVE his sense of humor and I always seem to find it in his writings. RIP Robert.

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August 1, 2019 to August 7, 2019

Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, Wolf Lake, Site 301

Six days in the Ontario backcountry. Locations accessible only by canoe. Canoe, camp, cook and paint like the early North American plein air artists. Every day we do a short paddle from our base camp to a painting location and spend the day capturing the scene. Workshop leader Keith Thirgood has been teaching adults to paint for 12 years and canoeing and camping for most of his life. Keith teaches a step by step approach to plein air, which makes capturing a scene easier than you ever thought possible. He also teaches Modern Colour Theory using his special, limited palette. This set of colours is useful not only en plein air but also in the studio.

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For more information, visit’s salvation
mixed media
60 x 122 cm

Featured Artist

Monique Jarry is a Canadian and a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.


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