The mother of all tips


Dear Artist,

It seems that a struggling young composer asked Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to give him a few tips. Mozart told him to go home and work at composing for a few years. “But,” said the young man, “you didn’t have to work at it for years.” Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t have to ask for tips.”

Dancer at the Barre study (1877) by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Study for two dancers at the Barre,  c. 1868-80
oil on green paper
by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Whether this story is true or not, my memory of it was prompted by a subscriber who wrote to say that many would-be artists confuse interest with aptitude. Interest alone does not a great artist make. Otherwise, art museums would be full of artists. Most of us who would make art need a bit of talent, a dose of character, and good work habits. Having said that, we’ve all noticed how some go far with little, just as others go nowhere with lots. That’s one of the reasons why those of us who like to encourage others must be even-handed in our distribution of tips. One never knows from where the stars are going to arise and shine.

To find potential in someone we must look for an intrinsic something called “attitude.” The artist’s attitude determines how she acts as her work is in progress. “Thinking while on a roll” invites ease, audacity and derring-do. Engrossed in a self-anointed process, these artists become part of the terrain they’re attempting to render. They accept the gift of art, surrender to its puzzles, and know that their own solutions, if not perfect, will be appropriate. For some reason, they’re often nuts about their jobs. “Writing music is my one and only passion and joy,” said Mozart.

The Ballet Class, 1871-1874 oil on canvas 85 x 75 cm by Edgar Degas

The Ballet Class, c.1871-1874
oil on canvas
85 x 75 cm
by Edgar Degas

“Respect” is another word for those who might excel. This means respect for the stars that have gone before, as well as current travellers in the Brotherhood and Sisterhood. “Follow the advice of the masters, but do something different,” Edgar Degas wisely asserted. Our own Resource of Art Quotations is a community of masters — yours and mine. A human frailty, perhaps, but we do tend to respect the ones we admire.

And then perhaps creative excellence is a brain thing, like the ability for math or spelling. Some have it, and some don’t. In my private searches among my masters, many I’ve admired have simply and smartly divined the mother of all tips: It’s the work itself that gives the best tips.

Dancers at the Barre, c. 1900 pastel on paper by Edgar Degas

Dancers at the Barre, c. 1900
pastel on paper
by Edgar Degas

Best regards,


PS: “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791)

Esoterica: The image of Mozart as a divinely inspired effortless creator, dramatized by the film Amadeus, is an unlikely one. The idea that he never changed his compositions is refuted by looking at Mozart’s many heavily-revised manuscripts. Mozart was studious and a hard worker. His extensive knowledge and abilities developed from his study of European musical tradition. Nevertheless, the myth goes on. Albert Einstein said, “The music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely looked around and found it — that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe.” Good tip though.

This letter was originally published as “The mother of all tips” on June 27, 2006.

DegasThe 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.

“All I insist on, and nothing else, is that you should show the whole world that you are not afraid. Be silent, if you choose; but when it is necessary, speak – and speak in such a way that people will remember it.” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)



  1. Leonard Bystrom on

    There are many factors to success but the key one seems to be practice, practice, practice. But practice not for the sake of putting in time, but practice to improve, change, grow. That takes the second aspect: effort.

  2. Luc Poitras, Pierrefonds (Montréal) on

    Unfortunately, there is no magic in creating a work of art; only an unrelenting commitment to working at making art and the willingness to learn from our mistakes will get us there. The destination is where the real joy is, but you have to do the journey to get there. That’s rarely an easy task.

  3. What a wonderful article! Of the elements suggested that contribute to success … attitude seems most important. I’ve witnessed “greats” with little respect for fellow travelers although suspect they would have been greater with a dose of that. Happily, if the elements are all important … I’m on a great path myself — constantly learning, experimenting, finding solutions, growing, loving every moment, letting discoveries lead me to the next ones and respecting my sisters/brothers/foremothers/forefathers in art. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • Great advice and one that is practiced by my cohorts and myself to the max. Unfortunately lots of money doesn’t always occur.
      But if someone likes my efforts and wants to have a painting in their home that I have created, there’s the prize for the journey as well as the learning during the journey.

  4. John Francis on

    The Beatles became ‘really good at what they do’ for several reasons. Passion for the Music. Natural talent. However, they also spent literally hundreds of hours on the stage of the Star Club in Hamburg. Playing *other people’s songs* to an enthusiastic crowd of beer-drinking dancers. Many would have been students. All night long. Every night for months. Their first album was predominantly ‘covers’. The same goes for the Rolling Stones. Each in their own way was a student. Meanwhile, Musician and prolific Composer Pete Townshend was once asked: How would you describe your Music? Renowned as ‘one of the sharpest minds in the industry’, Pete replied to the journalist: I wouldn’t. That’s *your* job!

    • I’m afraid that’s too true. I learned that when my kids were in 4H.
      It was all about schmoozing and salesmanship. The best product may have won the ribbon but the sale came from contacts.

    • What do you mean by “the REAL art world”? Are you just talking about a job????? That comment would apply to people looking for a job. Do you do art just to sell?

    • Winter Ross- I clicked on your name and briefly visited your website. Since we’re both fiber artists and shamanic healers we should have a lot in common. But your statement here is ridiculous- sorry. The real art world? You mean the high end art world of famous artists and art dealers and billionaire art collectors? That real art world? Because that’s not the real world at all and frankly you should know that.
      The real art world is what’s going on in cities across the world- like here in Denver- where the city is brimming with creative people making art and doing the best they can to get that art out and seen and yes- even purchased. The real art world is built into classes and workshops and and training and teachers everywhere- people educating others on the reasons behind why they feel compelled to produce art against impossible odds- and just doing the work for the sake of doing the work- showing it because it is meant to be shared- and sharing/selling it whenever possible.
      One can become a *famous* artist (a potential goal) at any moment in time- alive or dead. But if you never create the work- that will never happen. And yes- knowing people can help. But for all the artists who know someone- there are millions who will never know someone. Yet we still create. And we create where we are- because that’s where we are.
      So personally I’m never going to let who I know or who I don’t know get in my way of creating. The work exists for a reason- far beyond my lifetime. Selling it has always supported me on the ground level- not the lofty 5th Avenue penthouse level. While one might strive to reach that level- the only reason to create is because I have to. And it is MY inherent talent- and MY acquired skill level- that guarantees MY success- not who I know.

      • J. Bruce, what a terrific response! It made my heart glad to read such a positive entry from you, because all of us who are ‘regulars’ on this forum, know that you have had your periods of significant doubt. Such wisdom and truth in what you wrote this day!



  5. “some go far with little, just as others go nowhere with lots”
    A college degree in “art” is often the required stepping stone to entry in important “art” venues. A resume often takes on more importance than actual work….if an MFA is in effect, then the work is expected to be worthy, regardless of masterful technique or presentation. If one is concerned with making a viable living from art with no sponsors, spouses, retirement plans, trust funds and the like, then my tip to them would be a degree. If making art is “my one and only passion and joy”, then by all means….make ART! Unafraid, Unabashed, Unadulterated, Unleashed, Unfiltered, Unknown.
    Respect yourself.

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