Times are bad


Dear Artist,

Every so often someone lets me know that times are bad for artists. I’ve been receiving this message for years. The carriers of the bad news warn me in recession and depression — as well as in times of economic boom. I had another notice yesterday. This message of doom must be a function of the bearer, I thought. I’ve heard that even when there’s nearly full employment the use of food-banks still goes up. I’m thinking it’s more to do with “attitude.”

Autour des Lacs, 2019 Tapestry 50 2/5 × 70 1/10 in 128 × 178 cm Edition of 3 by Etel Adnan (1925-2021)

Autour des Lacs, 2019
50 2/5 × 70 1/10 inches
128 × 178 cm
Edition of 3
by Etel Adnan (1925-2021)

Maybe it’s always bad times for artists. But why do some of us see a half-full glass — while others see a half-empty? Attitude. I’ll swear on a stack of Lexus brochures that these times aren’t bad. Yesterday, another artist wrote that her art group was about to discuss — overcoming the current bad times.’ She wanted to know if I had any “guidelines.”

I thought about the individualistic attitudes of the great and successful artists that I know. On the other hand I remembered how “misery loves company.” I remembered how artists who are blessed with good times crawl wearily into bed at night with a kind of benign optimism for their tomorrows. And when tomorrow comes they have a gentle, easy-going sensitivity and love for what they’re doing. They may live in their imagination — maybe even in a fantasy. They may be a big bunch of self-deluders. They’re not much for luck. They have the weird idea that quality works in all seasons. They tend to favor escape and cozy up in their studios or their landscapes. They have respect for their own processes and push themselves to extract what they can on a daily basis. They are private workers who pay little attention to the competition. Some of them are roaring workaholics, but their work feeds them like no other addiction. They may be self-focused, but that focus tends to be on the brain-hand axis. It may be tedious stuff to others — but this compulsive busyness magnifies and recycles their creativity. You might even say that some of these folks may have a mild brain disorder. They fail to see the reality of it all. Their stunned and disoriented condition keeps them too amazed and excited to notice or believe that times are tough.

Untitled, 2014 Oil on canvas 12 13/16 × 15 13/16 inches 32.6 × 40.1 cm by Etel Adnan

Untitled, 2014
Oil on canvas
12 13/16 × 15 13/16 inches
32.6 × 40.1 cm
by Etel Adnan

Best regards,


PS: “What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination, and third, their industry.” (John Ruskin, 1884) “The harder I work the luckier I get.” (Samuel Goldwyn)

Esoterica: They may be stunned, but they know that it takes the efforts of others for the completion of their dreams. Our brotherhood and sisterhood extends to those who supply our tools and to those who have the ability to share our magic with others. Nobody said it was going to be a rose garden. But it can be, and for those with the right attitude it is pretty darned rosy right now.

Poet and author Etel Adnan in her studio in Paris, 2018. Her paintings did not draw attention until she was in her 80s. James Mollison photo.

Poet and author Etel Adnan in her studio in Paris, 2018. Her paintings did not draw attention until she was in her 80s.
James Mollison photo.

This letter was originally published as “Times are bad” on November 19, 2004.

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“I always had a few people who liked what I did, and that was enough.” (Etel Adnan)



  1. Thanks for this letter. Robert’s letters are timeless. There will always be those who see the cup half empty. But these times are good times for artists if my circle of artists friends is an indication. I have had the best year ever in sales and have heard this from others. My advice is to imagine life (art, sales, etc.) to be what you want it to be. Don’t notice that it has just not arrived yet. It is on it’s way if you keep the faith. Their are buyers for every type of art, it just sometimes takes a while for them to find you…or you to find them. If you put yourself out there in a positive way, it will happen. Do the work, put it out there and keep the faith.

  2. Maryann Kovalski on

    This was perfect this morning.

    I started life as a visual artist, an illustrator, but now in my third act, I have discovered writing fiction. I have been at it for ten years now and will not likely be published. Ever.

    My friends are realists who think I am wasting my time, said more gently than that. Writing blogs say that these could not be worse times for writing fiction, especially if your stories are oversold tales of white middle class angst. They are probably right.

    But for the person who must make marks either with words or pictures it can’t matter what level of acceptance one gets. Just do the work as if your children’s lives depended on it and an odd thing happens: you don’t need the outside world’s blessing and cash. Simply to be able to do it is reward enough.

    It’s been proven- if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, it still makes a great thundering sound.

    • I say yes to this! I’m in my third act too – it looks a lot like the first two – creating with words and making with everything from twigs to cashmere. I always wanted to be published and will seventy in a month. Guess what? I’m being published in June of 22 by a traditional publishing company no less. So you don’t know where your art will lead you but give up? Yes, give up on “never” but not your art, your writing, your passion! The world might be shitty or glorious but however it is being I’m happier creating than sulking.

      • Jan, you said it!

        “The world might be shitty or glorious but however it is being I’m happier creating than sulking.”

        I couldn’t agree more!

        • Patricia Brown on

          Absolutely agree also. At 83 this year I’m learning there is no right or wrong way to make art – just good or bad composition and workmanship. And maybe composition can only be judged subjectively according to the ‘eye of the beholder’. So I am learning to follow up on my own ideas and find ways to give them life. And totally enjoying the discoveries I am making. So on I go – happily ‘locked down’ for now – bliss indeed!

  3. Hi Sara – Your father once said to me “Just remember, if your art isn’t selling, go back to your studio and make better work”. He didn’t mince words. This sage bit of advice has been very helpful to me as it puts the ownership of success on my shoulders and no one else’s.

  4. If people do not want to buy your work, it means they don’t want to buy your work! You can respond to this in one of two ways: either adapt to the prevailing market or carry on and wait for the zeitgeist to catch up with you, examples of the latter are Van Gogh, Cezanne and Ben Nicholson. Lesser mortals, like me, try to adapt. I can already hear the screams of those who hold their ‘artistic integrity’ to be precious, but all I can say is that artists like to eat, just like everyone else. If your neighbouring artist is s Ellington and you are not, it usually means that you have to take a close look at what you are doing and work harder. We do not produce mass market products, and in any case, our buying public is a tiny pe. Recent age of the population. Selling or not has nothing to do with good economic times or bad.

  5. The question remains: To paint or not to paint… Robert’s words ring true: “Attitude” / “Focus” / “Busyness”
    I also believe that our work can “magnify and recycle (our) creativity.”
    And if it helps to talk about it then do…like in this painter’s key community.
    Thank you for the continued insights.

  6. I am so grateful for those who support my art. They just know I am an artist. Its only a few but, just enough to buy more supplies to do my art. Maybe soon I can once again go to farm markets and display my garden art, called WindWhimSeas.

  7. I believe that no matter how you feel or not keep creating, painting or do sketches. No competition
    Follow or go with the flow . Take that first step . We are Artist “ born to create “ beautiful things people enjoy. Also this times we should be creative to generate extra income by doing We “enjoy “

  8. Melinda C. MOLLIN on

    Always informative, inspiring words, from Robert and the community ..I give thanks to all, and for your continuous support in keeping it going.
    Love& Light

  9. Deborah Wear-Finkle on

    What a wonderful and timeless piece! I’ve found that as long as you are creating art you love (not what you think people will buy!), continually work hard to improve and start each day with gratitude, your passion will shine through and attract others. If you think you’ll fail, you will!

  10. A news detox is always a good thing as well. I’ve found that when I don’t watch the news or read news (or social media) online for a while, the world becomes a much better place in general.

  11. All the valleys we hit in life are best travelled with a positive attitude. Hard to muster up such a thing when our hearts are heavy with challenges. I have come to learn, tho, a deep breath and quick contemplation of all that I am thankful for will give me energy to carry the weight. Art is top of the list. It never fails me, failures may happen, but the act of making art is always number one on my Gratitude List.

    • Patricia Brown on

      Absolutely agree Mary Ann. A little gratitude check can turn our day and our mood around so quickly, as can picking up the brush – even (or maybe especially) when we really don’t feel up to it.
      Failures always show us something if we look hard enough.

  12. I once commented that I have been very lucky in my career as a visual communicator and someone responded, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Also I’d add that if your lemonade stand isn’t getting any business it might be time to relocate it. Diversify the work and /or the venues.

  13. Hi Sara, I took a closer look at the remarkable Etel Adnan only to find that she died a mere four days ago… that must have been your touch to your father’s older post. I find your influence in these letters bring them closer to my heart. Thank you for the thoughtful work you put into them!

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Evening-Flight-24-x-18-OC-wpcf_300x300.jpgEvening Flight
oil on canvas
24 x 18 inches

Featured Artist

Essentially I am representational painter, with a real appreciation for the design aspects of abstract art.  By emphasizing strong shape relationships and connecting bands of textural color, I am able to paint the natural world in two dimensional patterns while striving to create interesting three dimensional compositions.  Andrew Wyeth, a realist who has influenced my work, painted very abstract watercolors that helped him explore the possibilities for unusual compositions.  Like him, I value the drama of a strong composition, solid drawing, complex textures, and sumptuous, rich color while attempting to ground the painting’s design in essential, free form shapes.  Past Masters who have shaped my artistic direction are: Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, Richard Diebenkorn, and the California impressionists. Richard Schmid is a contemporary painter whose instruction has contributed greatly to my ability to capture the light, intimacy, and subtle textures of the hidden landscapes.
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