The zen of art


Dear Artist,

Recent activities have helped with an understanding of what goes on in the art-making brain. The encouragement of Zen-like lapses can be useful both in the studio and the great outdoors. We start with the understanding that a relaxed brain more easily accesses natural creative tendencies.

Group IV, No. 7. The Ten Largest, Adulthood, 1907, Tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 10⅜ by 7¾ feet by Hima af Kilnt (1862 - 1944)

Group IV, No. 7. The Ten Largest, Adulthood, 1907,
Tempera on paper mounted on canvas,
10⅜ by 7¾ feet
by Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944)

In the preparation phase, minimal anxieties, few regrets and a state of well-being preheat the oven. Shuffling of the recipe cards is also valuable. Here are a few ideas:

Have an attitude of low expectations and nothing to lose.

Try to make deliberate, thoughtful, rhythmic movements.

While not necessarily alone, be solitary.

Allow yourself to dream, flow and indulge your fancies.

Be philosophic about your weaknesses and creative faults.

Let your tools and your media do the talking.

Let your work tell you what it needs.

Let yourself yin and yang between thought and no thought.

Accept imperfection. Try for the spirit of attaining.

Teach yourself to teach yourself as you go.

Be in the now, but look gently ahead.

Be not lazy in your relaxation.

Group IX/SUW, The swan, no 1., 1914-15 Oil on canvas 150 x 150 cm by Hilma af Kilnt

Group IX/SUW, The swan, no 1., 1914-15
Oil on canvas
150 x 150 cm
by Hilma af Klint

In the mystery we call life, certain work can be certain joy, and it has something to do with surrender to the more primitive, playful and automatic parts of our brain.

It’s like the convention of retirement, only in shorter and more frequent increments. The idea is to calculate and bend a sense of leisure into specific creative times. Like retirement activities such as golf, boating or woodworking, work is required. In the Zen-like mode, work is not so onerous, but it is still work. Persons of any age with a desire for independence, who are disposed to squeeze and produce, can access this mode.

I’m not trying to be funny here, but artists need to develop a feeling of privilege and a sense of good fortune, even if the feeling has to be artificially induced. This self-foolery, a sort of mental levitation, brings on a state of mind that facilitates easy-going exploration. The active seduction of one’s own mind is a significant key to creative progress.

Group IV, The ten largest no 3, youth. 1907 Tempera on paper mounted on canvas 321 x 240 cm by Hilma af Klint

Group IV, The ten largest no 3, youth. 1907
Tempera on paper mounted on canvas
321 x 240 cm
by Hilma af Klint

Best regards,


PS: “We must take situations as they are. We must only change our mental attitudes towards them.” (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)

Esoterica: I’m painting on the forward deck of M.V. Mareva on the west coast of British Columbia. This morning’s bay was full of eagles. Laboured flyers, they fly in a “flap, flap, flap — glide” manner. I interpret the flaps as the purposeful, thinking mode, and the glide as a period of less commitment but continued progress. Later in the morning, the eagles are at great altitude, soaring effortlessly.

This letter was originally published as “The zen of art” on July 4, 2008.

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“The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.” (Hilma af Klint)



  1. Marilyn Yates on

    Wow, this one hit me as so many of Robert’s writings have. I’m long past the average retirement. I’m privileged to still be competing in a hot market with many young eager artists. Being solitary is not a problem, and thankfully I’m not having to scrounge around for food. I’m still too much of a perfectionist, but still I have over 50 years of knowledge to tell me what a good painting needs. I guess I just need to relax and let the joyful and playful parts of my brain take over.
    Thanks to Robert for his insights!

  2. A great reminder to pick up our tools and media and … let them soar like eagles. Even the birds must flap hard until they catch the updraft – squeezing paint is not that hard. Hilma af Klint’s paintings feel like they are flying. Thank you for this letter.

  3. I am a late discoverer of the Painter’s Keys, but in reading this, I am thinking that your father must have been a lovely and inspiring man. Impressed that he knew about Hilma af Klint before she became more well-known, too.

  4. Reading this reaffirms my view that the best artists are also insightful philosophers and observers of life. I enjoy Robert’s and Sara’s writings very much. I’m very grateful to you for sharing these wonderful writings. They help me in life and in my art.

  5. Thank you. We are some, alive today, working as Hilma did. She was asked to do this communication channel painting commission by the High Spirit Gregor, and she was in .The Group of Five. Five women who also “took down” from the Spirits. I know. Because even though my paintings/expressions differ, mine are of the fabulating kind, they come to me through my hands, like with Hilma. Mine like in shamanic non-drugs, too. Can be named that too. Mine: two years with the late Cezanne, then two years with el Greco. I know these/my paintings painted directly with these in spirit will live after l go. Like with Hilma’s paintings, they are for encouragement for Earthlings. You may read and see more here: (and here:, see Info in English. LivE’Art-Dream’Art Space’Art’Discovery’too, Oslo Norway, exhibibiting around the world.

  6. What a beautiful message Sara, especially encouraging for those of us who’ve reached a certain age:) Bob’s wisdom and words have such a quiet joy and rhythm. Even in the way he type-set them! And ending with a shout-out for gratitude leaves me with a huge smile.

    I’m going to cut and paste the bones of his list and stick them on a studio cupboard, somewhere I can see them in the coming days and remember….

    Peace and love to you and Bob’s wonderful spirit, Ed Hughes, Victoria, BC

  7. Robert’s words and Hilma’s huge paintings are such a treat to read and experience. I’ll take into consideration the ideas of a ‘relaxed brain’ to gain access to the creative spirit. Thanks Sara!

  8. Shushana Caplan on

    A book I read recently explains this process in clinical terms. In “Before You Know It”, John Bargh explains this process as “priming” . He shows that it allows us to access the power of our unconscious and use it to increase the ability of our conscious actions exponentially. He calls this the basis of all genius in any field of endeavor. It is the state of being “in the zone” that we’ve all heard of in sports. As your aricle shows, it also applies in the field of art. Thank you for this important information.

  9. Sandy Bogert on

    A wonderful concept…so well described….as usual…thank you Sara for continuing in your father’s steps..have always read every one!!

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