Time to choose?


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, my studio computer jingled with a question that concerns a lot of us. Antonia Mitchell wrote, “While I’m an established artist, I still have a problem. I’m continually compelled to experiment with different forms of art. When looking at your work and that of others, I’m impressed by the distinct styles, and wonder if I need to settle on some one thing. The last teacher I had at The Art Students League in New York City, said to me, ‘You need to choose.’ I chose, in a fashion, but I hip-hop. Do you have any thoughts on this?”

Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 Oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61 cm by Mary Pratt (1935-2018)

Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975
Oil on Masonite
50.8 x 61 cm
by Mary Pratt (1935-2018)

I sure do. With my near-fatal combination of ADD and the persistent delusion that I’m Leonardo da Vinci, my chronic scatterings have become a way of life. But I know I’ve got company — a lot of us find that hip-hopping comes with the territory. Of course, a few iron-willed souls specialize intuitively — others are what I call “specialists by default,” — their natural range just happens to be fairly narrow. But scatterbrain rabbits also thrive, and may just happen to lead interesting lives.

In the long run they may contribute more, as well. By trying more, they may end up doing more. Also, when an artist lives in her chosen processes — however many — and gives them the blessing of time — focus tends to come automatically. When you feel yourself doing well, you find yourself doing more of what you do well. I’ll swear on a stack of Leonardo’s notebooks that it doesn’t have anything to do with cash flow. For many of us, there’s nothing sunnier than a land of challenging variety and a flirtation with uniqueness. I agree with the old hippie who said: “If it feels good, do it.” Style will find itself in its own sweet time. And, for sure, style discovered gives more joy than style appropriated.

Salmon on Saran, 1974 Oil on Masonite 45.7 x 76.2 cm by Mary Pratt

Salmon on Saran, 1974
Oil on Masonite
45.7 x 76.2 cm
by Mary Pratt

My advice? When you are going in a certain direction, go hard. Give it everything you’ve got. Also, look at your focus work as exploration, not product. When your flame burns down, smile, start again on another. Leonardo knew that finding yourself is not one of the main things you have to do — it’s the only thing you have to do. It may take longer than you think. So what?

Best regards,


PS: “My work became intuitive and interpretive. Work demands an absorbing concentration and takes you away from a self-conscious, arbitrary style into work that is really your own.” (Beth van Hoesen)

Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly. 2007 Oil on canvas 40.6 x 50.8 cm by Mary Pratt

Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly, 2007
Oil on canvas
40.6 x 50.8 cm
by Mary Pratt

Esoterica: A problem I’ve found with hip-hopping: When no satisfaction is immediately gained, “between-inertia” can set in. A curious lethargy and inaction prevails. Going guilt-free is best — I’ve found it important to press on and quickly prime the next pump. “Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity, and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

This letter was originally published as “Time to choose?” on July 25, 2003.

“The effect was an erotic charge. After that it was as if all the windows and doors opened and there were images everywhere that just ground themselves into me. I just had to paint them.” (Mary Pratt, CC, RCA, who had been painting in an impressionistic style and struggling to find a theme, upon being taken by the sight of the sunlight on an unmade bed and its red blanket.) 



  1. I LOVE this! I am prone to saying “I never met a genre I didn’t like”, both in visual art and photography. I have always had many interests and I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone force me into choosing a narrow focus!

  2. The statement in “esoterica” describes my situation to a “T”. Between- inertia sounds so much more complicated than painters/writers block, but it has the same result. I still sketch and plan. I have many , I think, great ideas for paintings and thoughts about how the proposed piece should look but it either doesn’t come up to my expectations or it never gets started.
    Thanks for this letter. It will help to get me refocused and paint simply because of the joy it gives me rather than listening to all the voices and critiques inside my head.
    Cheers Marty

  3. The statement in “esoterica” describes my situation to a “T”. Between- inertia sounds so much more complicated than painters/writers block, but it has the same result. I still sketch and plan. I have many , I think, great ideas for paintings about how the proposed piece should look but it either doesn’t come up to my expectations or it never gets started.
    Thanks for this letter. It will help to get me refocused and paint , simply because of the joy it gives me rather than listening to all the voices and critiques inside my head.
    Cheers Marty

  4. I’m still trying to find my ‘style,’ many years after graduating with a degree in illustration & graphic design. Then as now there’s a ‘catch-22’ situation: you need to have an identifiable style to be successful, yet very few graduates are ready, and need time to find themselves. Long story short, paralyzed by ADD, with both art directors as well as gallery owners advising me to find my ‘style’ before contacting them–I pretty much gave up on a career out of making art. Unfortunately, the commercial aspect of art also made me concentrate on painting what would sell instead of what I wanted to paint. After a long hiatus, I’m now (retirement age) playing around with all the materials I’ve collected over the years, process-oriented instead of product-oriented, with no intention of showing/selling my artwork, thereby eliminating that old phobia about pleasing other people instead of myself. Better late than never, I guess…

      • I don’t have a website, nor do I want one, especially since it costs money and I don’t intend to sell. I have found a few facebook art groups that I may post some of my art when I create it. I’ve noticed that some of the readers on these groups ask if something is for sale. Mine won’t be so I hope I don’t elicit negative responses because of that. Also, I may post on Instagram just to get exposure, but not sales. I don’t mind constructive criticism, but there are way too many ‘trolls’ out there. It’s hard enough to create without negativity from others. I don’t know which is worse, a negative comment or total silence (cue the ‘crickets sound’). This has happened several times, so now my ring tone on my iPhone is the sound of crickets (an inside joke only I know about)–until now. ;-D

      • I am another one in that club! Catering to others’ vision and expectations does have its own rewards, but my earlier “voice” got buried beneath all the detritus. I wish us all the best in unearthing that unique vision, however we feel the urge to do that. This acknowledgment, and knowing I am not alone, is the first step in healing, I think.

  5. Such a great letter and message on developing your artwork.

    I started art late, had zero ‘style’. Decided to give myself four rules: no commissions, no galleries, no portraits, no judgement. This proffered complete creative freedom sans stress.

    Tiny 2” X 3” thumb sketches quickly ended up large 4’ x 6’ canvases. Who knew?! In the beginning, anything pre-planned ended up being scrapped – the moment I put paint to canvas. I followed that lead.

    One early, unplanned discovery was finding The Zone. I didn’t know it existed. I would unknowingly block everything out and ‘come to’ awhile later.

    Some of my best early works unexpectedly happened because of a ‘waste not’ mentality and lack of funds. Rushed for time to pick up the girls from school, reluctant to let the last bits of paint on the palette go to waste, I hurriedly filled smaller canvases with the remains. Such unexpected outcomes redirected my work into the abstract and ended up my future place of comfort of endless exploration, which I know now, involves ‘energy’ – physics. I shake my head.

    Cindy Frostad
    PS I broke two of the first rules:
    – I accepted one commission – and physically shook the whole way through to completion. Not worth it.
    – I allowed a small new store several months to show several pieces, three of which were way overpriced. However, the largest and best work to date ended up being the main centrepiece in the store. They’d even painted the wall to match and told inquiring customers – one of whom was my (undercover) sister – it wasn’t for sale. I reclaimed them all the next day.

    • Hello friends,
      I am new to sending comments but its worth it this time.
      I am a great admirer of Bob Genn, a friend shared it few years ago.
      Bob has helped me tons with his mystical sensical sense,
      so simple you can sing it along.
      Here is my contribution to this gathering of searching Souls.

      Back in the early 70’s in Puerto Rico, then NYC for 20 years,
      I lived for several decades out of my abstract-surrealist art the old fashioned way:
      Do it for fun (seriously I mean), get the “”0 G-Gravity gut feeling that makes us fly-spark;
      Let others, teachers & friends, help you choose when sending to competitions;
      Stay by my piece during openings;
      Word of mouth and self promoting;
      embraced comunity art educating efforts (park shows, fairs, etc.)
      avoided doing commercial art (advice from ad people);
      use public service spots in paper, radio and tv (interviews);
      Manage your public relations (be helpful attitude and mini gifts to sensible individuals);
      Be ascesible but not “pushy”, don’t force sales, they just flow;
      Always remember you are actually marketing Relaxation/creativity to bored people and boredome is the source of human problems and sufferings.

      On the inner training: being doing Yoga and Chi cong breathing/relaxing since college (on and of).
      Many times It kept me going sensical in a nonsensical world .

      Thanks Sara for keeping and renewing his legacy.
      I wish I had had the golden chance of meeting Bob!
      Thank so much artfamily!

      Carlos Sueños Ortiz
      Puerto Rico.

  6. I saw a Mary Pratt retrospective at the McMichael Gallery a few years ago and was completely gob smacked. All of the above pieces were in it. O yes, but then I felt the same way with Edward Hopper, Prendergast, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh and I could go on for days. I paint in 3 mediums, oil, watercolour and acrylic. Master really of none. I tend to approach each piece with a hope that it will transmit the feeling and joy I felt when I first felt inspired. This letter is so hopeful. Though I’ve been reading and participating in Robert and Sara’s newsletters since forever, I don’t remember this one. It must be working to a degree as I do sell. But I always want to go bigger and beyond present skills. Doing it now with a fairly large acrylic piece. Fingers crossed.

  7. Thank you for this.
    From a painter, mixed media maker, photographing and singing artist with ADD who is constantly shifting and wondering between it all and the rest of life’s relationships and experiences. I feel a bit less anxious and validated now.

  8. So much to unpack. So wonderful and stimulating! My guess is what do you want to get out of it? If you are reinventing yourself, it may be beneficial if you go off in a bit of a different direction that you can create a body of work that will group nicely with the new work. And Leonardo da Vinci was the best, wasn’t he? The more often I reflect on his life and work, the less i thin it applies to me. We see him from such a distant and analytical vantage point that only a few hundred years can provide. It may be beneficial to compare to something a bit more contemporary. Maybe a musical artist. Look at any musician who stood the test of modern times. The needed to stay close to their work, but reinvent themselves at the same time. Bono said at the end of U2’s Joshua Tree tour that they needed to go away for awhile, “and dream it all up again”. They have reinvented themselves time and again, while growing their audience rather well. Such a sage. Anyway, apologies for the ramblings. Hope everyone has a terrific week!

  9. OK, I’m going to vent a bit–the problem is, you can find yourself at 71 years old, having messed around with oils, pastel, watercolor, calligraphy, flowers, landscapes, illuminating, illustration. I’ve done all these things. I am still having to work outside jobs, none of which pay well because I’ve never gotten expert at any other work either. I’m decent at many things but have not enough to live on, now needing to get a website set up, find galleries, have little in the way of professional credentials such as shows. And damned little self-satisfaction either.
    Yesterday I was looking at some of Pamela Kay’s work on Pinterest. She’s been doing mostly still life for decades and finds new ideas all the time, in every season, tiny flowers and large interiors, some garden scenes to round things out. I could pick her work out from scores of images. I’m also painfully cognizant of your father’s comment after his diagnosis– “I thought I’d have more time”. He may have had ADD but I haven’t heard that he was forced to wait tables or work retail sales for hours every week sucking up his creative time. He found a path that was broad enough.
    I see artists whose work I admire, who are really prolific; one works in oil and pastel, all landscape; another exclusively oils but does landscape, seascape, animals, and some still life, and just added gouache. I wish I’d picked SOMETHING years ago and decided to give it my entire regard for some period of time, at least a couple of years . That “something” might have a reasonable scope but nevertheless be a commitment. It might have been, say, pastels, but do both landscape and still life; or flowers, but large and small, or oil and watercolor–you get the idea. Just give SOME structure to the exploration. I feel that the problem was that I stalled every time a problem arose whether technique or materials, rather than committing to pushing through. “Well I guess I’m not really good at this”… well duh. I wonder how many artists’ ADD comes from restless dissatisfaction over their own perceived shortcomings when we are not instant geniuses in the latest field?
    //OK, end vent.

  10. I too experimented in every medium as I took all the classes in high school and then University directed me away, to become a stage performer (although I painted all the sets). After my Acting career and with small children I came back to painting and discovered teaching and suddenly remembered print making, that I had loved in my unusually advanced high school class. My young students loved it. Amazing, my style hadn’t changed. The landscapes I was struggling to paint like everyone trying to be the Group of Seven melted away. My teen ideas now work for me as a senior – carving the linoleum, applying the inks, Chine Collé, now collage and even beading – printwork is my expression! (And even sells and wins awards…just finding that niche).

    • Wow, thanks Lowrie!
      Sharing meaningfully is our emphathic human trait that I hope will strive and evolve to save us from our inherited monkie brain.
      20 years in NYC now back home,
      I do multimedia: painting, printmaking, washes, collages.
      Also dance mime, narration, video and anthropology enthusiast (also acute ADHD) Thats where Yoga and Chikong comes in.
      Somehow sharing in a meaningfull relationship is good for our spiritual/emotional evolving.
      It requires love, valor and persistance with a view to enrich us.
      As Piaget said: To stop playing is stopping to learn and grow.

      Carlos Suenos from Puerto rico.

  11. Your style is yourself. I have played with modifications of my style but how I paint always reverts to who I am. However, occasional worksHops help me find ways to paint a better me. And for those workshops I am very grateful.

  12. Oh I needed to read this! Thank YOU! I spent the weekend chastizing myself for a life lived jumping from making art to writing and feeling like a failure because I hadn’t concentrated exclusively on one : making art or being a novelist. As a journalist I met + interviewed uber successful people in their fields (jewlers, photographers, crafters etc,) and what they all had – without exception – was an ability to focus intensely only on THEIR work. After spending a weekend helping out a jeweler at a show we had a goodbye coffee and in the middle of my sentence the jeweler got up and walked away – I was already forgotten as she envisioned and moved towards her next piece. I saw this too often amongst people I’d interviewed for magazines who rose in leaps and bounds in their fields not to realize that this complete focus on their work is what separates the successful from those who play… at painting, or any creation. Which brings up the question why do you paint or write or make anything? For the sheer pleasure of it or to make a living at it? Thank you for helping me see I don’t have to choose!

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/shawn-jackson-artwork-landscape-mountain-trees_big-wpcf_300x247.jpgMelanie Islet, Desolation Sound
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