The power of pressure


Dear Artist,

With the unmistakable breeze of authority, Dad said, “Never underestimate the power of a little pressure.” At the time, I took it as many aspiring artists would — that production pressure was a gift from the outside world, a reprieve from the echo chamber of your solitary room. But what he meant was that you need to put pressure on yourself. By doing so, you override the helplessness of creative dependency on external minders and convert yourself magically from a reactive artist into a proactive one. Here’s what I mean:

The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), 1923–24 oil on canvas 25 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches by Joan Miró.

The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), 1923–24
oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches
by Joan Miró

Pressure is really just a training ground for developing work habits. And pressure can be manufactured. Are you willing to answer to the authority that is you? If you’re looking for a template, refer to something familiar: economic or physical pressure, pressure to improve quality or ideas, pressure to get it done in time and making the time to do it. If pressure to be good is tripping you up, remember that you don’t have to be good to begin, but you have to begin in order to get good.

First, approach your creative life not as a response to external assignments or collaborative accountability, but as a complete and perfect one-man or one-woman universe. It exists because you will it into being with your love and toil. It ceases to exist if you ignore it.

Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird, 1926 oil on canvas 29 x 36 1/4 inches by Joan Miró

Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird, 1926
oil on canvas
29 x 36 1/4 inches
by Joan Miró

Embrace the idea of course correction. Almost all the actions in life can be safely altered. Scrap the lists, pros and cons, and simply begin, knowing you can abandon, find better tools or pull a 180 if you need to. This action requires some bona fide self-belief. The secret is that you build up faith in yourself through accomplishment, which requires action — there is no other way that I know of to get it. If you’re low on accomplishment, fantasize as best you can what it’s going to feel like — and begin.

If you’re waiting on someone or something in order to start work, complete a project or promote your latest, rethink how to better serve your calling. “To delay,” wrote French philosopher Jean de la Bruyere, “is injustice.”

Women and Bird in the Moonlight, 1949 by Joan Miró

Women and Bird in the Moonlight, 1949
oil on canvas
32 x 25.9 inches
by Joan Miró



PS: “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” (William Butler Yeats)

Esoterica: Dad called it, “Relaxed Pressure Scheduling” — a little bit relaxed, a little bit pressured, a little bit scheduled. By designing it yourself, you make it fun and sustainable. Break your creative process into parts and arrange them in a circle, understanding that you can begin at any part. Recently, as if channelling, I’ve had flashbacks of my dad at his easel, early to rise, staying late, always calm, solving problems at his creative altar, often humming to himself in a kind of impenetrable state of self-anointed independence. The idea of freedom for an artist comes with great responsibility — and a good share of pressure.

the sun eater

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.

“Keep busy while waiting for something to happen.” (Robert Genn)

“Make a delivery.” (Robert Genn)



  1. Perfection. Every word in this feels like it is speaking directly to me. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed by the (necessary?) wide net that one casts in creative practice. I often feel the struggle with organization and focused ambition as a personal failing. You speak to the universal here, as well as the particular. Thankyou.

  2. Leslie Hancock on

    Hi Sara, many times I copy a quote from your letters into my sketchbook as reminders of what is important, but today I will have to copy the whole letter and highlight several passages because they are so relevant to me. Thank you!

  3. Yes! Working in a circle. Very sustainable and exciting. At the moment life has derailed me once again. Yet I know I can begin at any given moment, like this morning. I will steal maybe thirty minutes in my studio before the whirlwind takes over for today. And next week I will have my regular hours. Bliss!

  4. “The idea of freedom for an artist comes with great responsibility — and a good share of pressure.” – Can’t be said better!
    Great post, again. Thank you!

  5. Does this apply when contemplating the how/when/why of completing tax returns in time for a looming deadline? Anguish!!!

  6. Brilliant! I needed to hear this. I’ve been feeling stressed out lately and I didn’t understand why. I am doing what I wanted to do, so I thought. But the stressed was affecting my physical and creating pains I couldn’t figure out where it came from. I played with my arts for a week, drawing and painting intuitively, in the spirit of experimentation, not responding to any expectation from the external or the internal… bearing an attitude of “devil may care.” I noticed that my stress level went down and I slept better. Then your email came and suddenly it hit me, “external assignments or collaborative accountability”. Yes, those are my stressors! Hah, so subtle I almost missed it! So grateful to have read this email and to learn that I can always change my situation. I am now “embracing the idea of course correction” looking to drop and let go of things that no longer give me a spark of joy. Thank You, Sara, for your kindness and generosity in sharing this wisdom. You are my life saver! Blessings.

  7. Thank you Sara, so inspiring! I have to listen closely to your dad’s adjectives: a “little bit” pressured, and “relaxed” pressure, and indeed that does come when I consider how to follow my calling, because the creative advice for that walk and how to deal with too much pressure, is in these words:
    “Be anxious for nothing,
    But in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.
    And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippeans 4:6-7

  8. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. You’ve kind of rescued me from a self-induced feeling of inadequacy brought on by my upcoming attendance at a portraiture workshop this weekend. I’m an abstract painter normally, an experienced one too, but honing my observational skills on a real live human being takes me out of my comfort zone. And then I read “remember that you don’t have to be good to begin, but you have to begin in order to get good.”
    I’m sorted now. Phew.

  9. Perfect !! I’ve been trying to figure out my painters block ….just jump in and do it do anything artistic and don’t even think of the outcome because it will come !!

  10. Thank You, Sara .
    Your words are wise and very well written. For me, this is timely and will help guide me towards goals. I haven’t read a post for some time, but it is good to have looked at this one. I have a busy life and am a slow reader but have always appreciated the gifts that You and Your Father have provided through the Painter’s Key.
    Thank You

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Have you ever wanted to take the essence of the figure and present it in a way that is sensual and thought provoking? When you are abstracting the figure you don’t have to worry about anatomy but are more concerned about shapes, value and color.


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