The joy mode


Dear Artist,

Being happy with your life is one thing — being happy with your work is another. Between snow-capped peaks, by satellite hook-up, some email responses to the previous letter ‘Happiness’ made me pay attention. One thing leads to another, so over the weekend we were onto the late British potter Michael Cardew’s oft-discussed concept of The Joy Mode. Cardew said; “If you’re lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you — without you having too much to do with it.” This insight is basic to many of our daily sorties into art. Luck, long life, and the trust and understanding of materials are givens — but it’s the old instinct thing that often has us face down in the snow.

Bowl, 1950 Reduced stoneware 115 × 260 × 260 mm by Michael Cardew (1901–1983)

Bowl, 1950
Reduced stoneware
115 × 260 × 260 mm
by Michael Cardew (1901–1983)

Some, it’s said, have a simple instinct for getting into the joy mode. I’ve always thought it had something to do with competence — the better you are at it — the more you automatically do it. It seems confirmed incompetents have been known to be joyful too. Here are a few suggestions for artists of all stripes:

Permit the brain to separate from the hand.
Soften your vision, focus beyond and before.
Allow yourself to be “entranced” by your work.
Feel a “process” rather than an outcome, and…
Live in the life of the brush, chisel, roller.
Prepare to be surprised by your prowess.
Labor to make things look not laborious, and…
Take your time to be fresh.
Come into the wonderland of “Flow.”
See that your “touch” is where you touch.
Know that you sit before an altar and are a servant of something greater.

Soya Sprinkler Bottle, c.1955 Reduced stoneware 90 × 90 × 90 mm by Michael Cardew

Soya Sprinkler Bottle, c.1955
Reduced stoneware
90 × 90 × 90 mm
by Michael Cardew

Best regards,


PS: “I have touched with a sense of art some people — they felt the love and the life. Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy for an artist?” (Mary Cassatt)

Esoterica: It’s a lofty dream: We modestly desire to turn work into play, minor joys into greater values, and our outpourings into a contribution toward the general good and by a stroke of outrageous luck into our personal profit. “Art is man’s expression of his joy in labor.” (William Morris)

This letter was originally published as “The joy mode” on September 4, 2001.

“Joy prompts courage.” (Hans Christian Andersen)



  1. Wonderful message as our eyes, brain and heart flow through the brush, a joyful process I discovered many years ago. And these past two years allow a playful energy to emerge. Thank you for posting this, Sara!

  2. This weekend I did some sketching using a black pen, a small travel box of watercolour paints, a small sketch book. I captured images of our beach fron and the delights of Van Duden gardens. It has been ages since i travelled and colour sketched….yeah covid. I could not believe the joy this simple looking and drawing brought me! I HAD FORGOTTEN HOW WONDERFUL IT COULD BE. NO EXPECTATIONS, JUST LOOK AND DRAW. Hoorah for art.

  3. When my soul mate husband best friend and lover died after 34 years of magic together I was devastated and it took me two years to engage my life in my studio again. I walked in started a new piece of fiber art sitting at my sewing machine for the first time since his passing and a wonderful thing happened! I experienced pleasure and a warm sense of joy. I was in a safe place and I never looked back> I was grateful to feel JOY again and felt myself healing!!………………….Linda.

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