Voluntary graduation


Dear Artist,

Yesterday Leslie Kimball of Tehachapi, CA wrote, “I paint with a bunch of wonderful women. We are a tight group, no envy, etc., but I have begun to understand my needs better. I need more but I’m afraid to hurt feelings. Plus, if I leave I have no place to go. I don’t fit into any mold. In the group my style is all over the place. I’m not satisfied. What do you advise?”

Thanks, Leslie. I’ve noticed that it’s often the artist with the courage to leave who makes the most headway. But “voluntary graduation” can be difficult. There’s something to be said for a group of like-minded friends. However, clubs are not for everyone. It sounds like you want out.

You do have a place to go. It is the place that all evolved artists must at some time go. It is to the world of your private imagination and personal development. This place is not lonely and it does not prevent you from having friends. Actually, you’ll make another kind of friend who will bring you just as much joy. You need to say to your group, “I dearly love you all, but I’m going into retreat for a while to see if that might beef up my quality.” Some will think you have rejected them, but down deep they will know that in the big picture a group is only a passage. I believe your decision will be respected.

When artists decide to go it alone, they have different stuff to think about. The ideal is to identify your particular and unique needs and then try to fulfill them. Outsiders can’t help you very much. Some artists need to shake off aspects of their art training, poisonous pedagogy or habitual methodology. Others need to reapply what they already know. Some just need to buckle down and build a pile. Some quickly learn they are not cut out for the job and need to get on with something else. In a way, this is success as well.

Ideally, you ought to have an audacious understanding of your own direction. Successful loners are folks who are able to find out what turns them on and how to become their own best critics. The private studio becomes the school, the clubhouse and the laboratory. Setbacks can be expected, but graduation ceremonies will take place every day. Self-anointed diplomas will be issued frequently.

Best regards,


PS: “I am now quite cured of society, be it country or town. A sensible man ought to find sufficient company in himself.” (Emily Bronte)

Esoterica: Proficiency in art is a contract with your self and the empowerment of your self. Not all of us demand or even desire proficiency, but for those who do it’s necessary to temper the influence of groups. And while some artists think history is bunk, the historical evidence is overwhelming: “In my isolation I grow stronger,” said Paul Gauguin. “My work is always better when I’m alone and follow my own impressions,” said Claude Monet. “If the artist is serious he must sink himself in solitude,” said Edgar Degas. “Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong,” said Winston Churchill.


Value of the group
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


“Wednesday, Wednesday”
acrylic and oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
by Alan Soffer

There is the plus side of painting with a group. We learn little tricks and techniques from each other. We get to hear how others are responding to our work. A group is a kind of market research. And certainly everyone has their own way of working, but there is the downside of the “herd mentality.” We want approval by our friends and colleagues. This has a way of modulating the work toward prettier colors and acceptable images. That is OK, but not really expressing the authentic person you are. So at some point if you are feeling pressure from the group in that way, you must break out. On the other hand, if you are merely feeling disturbed by honest feedback about your choices, maybe it is worth going back occasionally to keep honing your technique. Life is never easy.


Struggle of the lone worker
by Ann Hite, Smyrna, GA, USA

At some point, we have to lock ourselves away and do what we do best, especially us writers. We have to stretch our muscles and sometimes dive into waters unknown. Each morning I go into my study for another day’s work. No one makes me. I could get a ‘real’ job at anytime. But this is what I love. But some days I feel so disconnected from the world. Your letter helped me see this is all part of the process. If I can continue graduating, who knows where I’ll be in another year?


Work with a master
by Jennifer Horsley, Cherry Hill, NJ, USA

Your letter comes at a time when I, myself, have been thinking that I need more than my group offers. I’ve been painting with them for 2 years now and I am feeling what Leslie is feeling. My style is also all over the place and I feel that “the group” hinders the development of my own process. Robert, you have said so many times, “Work on your process.” I don’t even know what my process is. I have decided it’s time to go one on one with a master. It will be challenging and that is what I need to go from painting “nice” works to painting great works. I will still paint with the group once a week — I have a home studio but with 4 teenagers the distractions are many and I need to leave the house to focus. With a mind to my own process, voluntary graduation is just around the corner.


Exploration key
by Ed Pointer, Afghanistan


“Adobe With Crosses”
watercolor painting
22 x 32 inches
by Ed Pointer

We artists work hard to build our proficiency and ability. We work hard to overcome the influence of other painters we admire (influenced is not a bad thing) and are many times filled with doubt about our ‘talent’ yes, and even wonder about our association with other artists. I can identify with Leslie — I know many artists who are very talented but whose style of painting hasn’t evolved and who, while becoming more refined in technique, have not explored beyond their current knowledge. This lack of creativity and exploration seems again to be popular. An hour or so spent with Art magazines will demonstrate the bland sameness of subject matter and technique. Occasionally there will appear in those pages someone who is an explorer and it is like a cool breeze on a hot day, refreshing! Yes Leslie, by all means get out and explore and be creative and work on your style and absolutely be yourself. It’s important if one has anything to say… and so is solitude.


Solitude on the tightrope
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada


oil on linen, 28 x 36 inches
by Brigitte Nowak

I maintained a home studio throughout my “real” (read: salaried) non-art career, where I worked once the kids had been put to bed and the chores were done. But when I retired from this “real” job to spend more time on my art, I needed to get out of the house. I rented a small studio in a space shared with other artists behind an artist-run gallery. It fulfilled my requirements at the time: it legitimized my art-making, allowed for camaraderie among like-minded individuals and provided both stimulation and connection with the art world. I am in the process of giving up this space. While there were external factors which precipitated my moving out, and while I probably wouldn’t have made the move without those factors at play, I know that it is the right move. I have matured as an artist, am more self-motivated, self-critical and self-disciplined. I know what I want to achieve with my art, and it no longer requires group support. There is a tightrope, and I need to find my own balance. There is a journey, and I need to make it by myself.


Feet in both worlds
by Janet Checker, Galena, IL, USA


“Tree in the meadow”
pastel painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Janet Checker

I live in a small town and although there are many artists, I enjoy being by myself and painting in my studio. I also visit museums, galleries and openings, and I belong to several artist organizations. I also read art books (actually I really just look at the pictures). These are all very helpful. Classes or workshops with artists you admire are a bonus. I see how other artists solve problems that I may be having at the time and different techniques being used. But I still enjoy being alone and concentrating on my art. My social life tends to be with non-artists, and that in itself gives me ideas for my art.


Canvases do the talking
Pam Craig, Memphis, TN, USA


“Ladies in Waiting”
acrylic, oil pastel, charcoal, and watersoluble oils
original painting, 48 x 48 inches
by Pam Craig

I once was with a group of artists. There was lots of talking, laughing and sharing while we worked. In fact some liked the talking much more than the working. At that time, I thought group painting was a necessary step to gathering information on where I wished to go in my own art style. I saw being with others as a motivator to actually painting. To me the group was almost as inspiring as going to a workshop. Being together with like-minded individuals was a joyful time for me. One day when I saw someone copying my work, I realized it was time for me to go it alone. I do miss the laughter and some of the talking, but the silence in the studio fits me well. My canvases now do all the talking, along with my paints, and I am learning to listen well and I am continuing to be inspired by the simple act of working.


Selfishness and bravery
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


watercolor painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Helena Tiainen

Being happy in life takes a healthy degree of selfishness and bravery. After all, we each live our own lives and should not make our decisions to please others alone. This is harder for women than men since women have been mainly brought up to take care of others, even at their own expense. But in order to take care of anything or anyone we first need to take care of ourselves. I firmly believe that one can only genuinely give from fullness. Be it fullness of a heart or fullness of finances. Everything else becomes self-sacrifice and martyrdom which does not really make the giver happy. Too many of us are too spent. Nurturing our selves is very important and learning to be responsible and feel good about our own decisions is part of nurturing. We are never going to please everyone. The best we can do in life is try to please ourselves. Then maybe, if we are lucky, we will end up pleasing some others as well. This goes for life as well as any form of art. I am not talking about extreme selfishness here but about a healthy balance of give and take without self-denial.


New studio does it
by Kelley MacDonald, Tiverton, RI, USA


“White Rose”
oil painting, 6 x 8 inches
by Kelley MacDonald

I understand what Leslie is going through. I recently got a new, perfect (for me) studio, and I feel like I’m cracking wide open. I think my local painting friends are a little put out, although I have offered to have them paint with me here at times – there just isn’t enough time in the day to do all I want with my own work. For the first time I feel centered, focused, and jealous of my time in the studio! I feel selfish (for the first time in my life – my 3 kids are grown and my husband is completely supportive) but I can’t feel bad about it! The hours fly by as I work. I’m not always happy with what I’ve produced, but I am happy and absorbed while painting! I think this is one of life’s greatest blessings… and I wish it for all artists.


Capable of flying solo
by Janet Sheen, Lethbridge, AB, Canada

Last June I quite by luck fell into a painting partner relationship. It was very good for me as I developed more self-confidence in my approach and style, and learned much from my partner. She was wonderfully supportive, but able to give a good critique. I was hit by a ‘creative high’ and able to turn out many more finished paintings due to the nature of getting to the easel on a much more regular basis. My work matured by leaps and bounds. After about nine months she has taken a different job that cut our joint time back to once a week, or less. Although I already miss the camaraderie I know this enforced change will also be good for my art. I needed to be ‘pushed from the nest’ and this is a strong reminder to me that I am capable of solitary flying. Now I’m excited to show my painting partner what I created in her absence and know I don’t need her support throughout the creative act.


Friends make the balance
by Sharon Will, MI, USA


“Pine Tree Reflections”
oil painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Sharon Will

I paint en plein air with some wonderful people, but the real motive for the work has to originate outside a group, in the quietness of one’s own soul. Only then can we come together with a healthy perspective and expectation of a group. Everyone has their own goals and I find it a rarity for these to be equally shared by everyone in a group. But what can be drawn from a group is the discipline and inspiration to paint, the camaraderie, people to bounce ideas off and a few laughs with friends to balance out the isolation of working in the studio or field alone!


Book arrival
by Michal Ashkenasi, Israel


acrylic painting, 80 x 100 cm
by Michal Ashkenasi

After I was not counting on it anymore, today the long awaited Love Letters to Art came! I can’t say how happy I am! First of all because your book is very special and secondly it came as a surprise! It took two and a half months! Until now I didn’t want to write again about the book not arriving, because I didn’t want you to think of making it up or something, but I don’t like to trouble people and I know you are very busy. Anyway, I am so glad to have your book. It is everything I thought it would be!

(RG note) Thanks, Michal. Overseas mail has been a pile of fun for us. We decided that the reason the postage was so expensive was that the Post Office was also charging for storage. All of us in the signing, wrapping and shipping department sincerely appreciate the patience everybody has shown in this matter.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Voluntary graduation



From: Rick Rotante — Apr 25, 2008

For a very long time I tried to find likeminded painters with whom I could commune and paint with. After years of looking I managed to find four painters who though different in style and ability agreed to commit to paint together regularly for over eight years. After a time I found the group became more a social club and less and less interest was being paid to poses and conversations were beginning to happen even when the model was posing. Sometime the model joined in. To make a long story short, I eventually called it quits and went on my own. But I have to say the experience of a regular group has its advantages. Money for models, routine, habit, regular painting even when you didn’t want to paint. And we shared cost of paint when we ordered large amounts and got quantity discounts.

I found having likeminded people to bounce ideas off invaluable. Also we alerted each other to shows we knew about. And the group kept the standard higher, until towards the end. I now mostly paint on my own and do a non-instructed workshop once a week and find this satisfies my need for community.

From: Anonymous — Apr 29, 2008

I like the fringes of a group. Join to get the 20% discount at the local art store. Or the shared cost of a model.

From: Suzette Fram — Apr 29, 2008

I too have found that there came a time when I had to stand alone in order to find my own way. But, groups can be wonderful, if you make them part of your life in the right way, as dessert rather than the meal itself. While it’s true that artists must stand on their own and be their own teacher, inspiration and judge, one cannot exist in a vacuum. What happens if you work in isolation and don’t have the opportunity to share your work with anyone? Do you grow and evolve, and by what standards, and how do you know if no one sees the work? There is real benefit in association with other artists, and with the viewing public.

From: Sue Johnston — Apr 29, 2008

Loved the letter about voluntary graduation. It reminded me of Brian Doyle’s comment when asked about writers’ groups. He said that being in a writing group is like taking a shower with a friend…you have a lot of fun but don’t get the job done.

From: Kaye — Apr 29, 2008

I do art projects with my 6 yr. old grandson and pretty much give him free rein. I also do art projects monthly with children in his kindergarten class who marvel at my skill in drawing, cutting, and using a glue gun. My grandson says, “Nana, you’re the best artist in the world and if you were in an art contest with God, you would win.” How’s that for the highest praise.

From: Anne Alain — Apr 29, 2008

Since I became serious about art in ’98(at 55), I have painted with 6 or more groups both instructional and for relaxation. There certainly was value in a multi-talented environment, I soaked it all up like a sponge until about a year ago, when I realized that it was time to fly on my own. There is freedom now partly because of the shared energy and practical knowledge from experienced artists. I am in love with painting!!!

Sincerely Anne Alain

P.s I love Robert’s letters!! They remind me often of why I do this.

From: CM Cernetisch — Apr 29, 2008

I think it’s as inevitable as when children leave home — granted, some never do,(eek!) but most leave and find their own way. I think the same happens with artists — we need a ‘family home’ til we are grown enough to find our own way.

I have been involved with various groups in the past, and at first had guilt when I left them, but they seemed to no longer ‘fit’ me. Then I started taking some workshops, where the ppl were a bit more ‘serious’ about their art, with less social aspects. Now, I find myself in the position of being home full time, and with less cash flow to fund workshops, have found I am thoroughly enjoying my solitude. I find I am experimenting more, and simply enjoying my own company. A quiet home, cup of tea and a studio full of supplies — what else could a person want??

From: Marj Vetter — Apr 30, 2008

Read your school experience. I laughed and laughed, last year I was a “guest” cartoonist at a Sylvan Lake kindergarten. (I was a political cartoonist for 14 years). Same kind of questions, they totally wore me out. It was hilarious. Also I found out to my dismay, they don’t have “black” boards in kindergarten!

From: Pat Meyer — May 14, 2008

This letter I am sure speaks to many artist but it spoke volumes to me. I have gone thru this situation several times. I have graduated from one group to grow on my own but then found a group of artist that met my current need. The hard part is leaving the friendships and inter actions of the group but find that you try to conform when in the group. When leaving and experimenting on your own the growth is so satisfying that it helps to replace some of the loss of the group. Continuing to grow and change is the joy of life.

From: Suzi Long — May 14, 2008

I paint with a plein air group once a week or less. I am not a great painter, but I sell my work because I lucked out on renting a gallery space. Recently I was informed that my help while out painting was not appreciated.

An exact incident doesn’t come to mind, but as I walk around to look at other artist’s work, if I see a glaring error in perspective, for example, or notice that a flat painting could use some aerial perspective with a little bluer hills off in the distance, I will suggest a tip or two that might help. Is this wrong? Do I just MYOB? or do I suck it up and/or move away from this group?

From: Liz — May 14, 2008

What a fantastic piece of writing! Really hit home, and I look forward to sharing it with artists I know.

From: Lorelle A. Miller — May 14, 2008

I can see both sides from here. The need to sink into the deep nature of my own process and development, as well as the peeking out into the world and camaraderie I find with other artists. It is not a one sided affair for me. I believe you do always have to come back and simply face yourself and your direction, but I feel that I gain from exposure to others from time to time. You realize that you are not an island, that their is a common ground to people of like mind.

For me there is a comfort in knowing that many of my quandaries and

struggles have been shared by multitudes of others. Seeing how they handle

the hurdles gives me clues and saves me valuable time in floundering around some of the same issues. Yet I know I must always come home, back to myself and my own presence of mind to find the truth in what I am seeking.

From: Bob Vorel — May 16, 2008

Very nice response to Leslie’s question, but maybe a tad too definitive. I also have a group … actually two groups of plein aire painters; one on Thursday and one on Friday. They both are very different and extremely supportive, especially the Friday group which is just as much a lunch group as it is a painting group. Conversations generally revolve around painting and all of the usual tangents. But, and it’s a very large BUT, I have the rest of the week in my studio. There it is very much as you describe … solitude and personal critiques. In the studio my painting is very much different from the plein aire and yet I can see a melding of the approaches and a congruity of the styles coming together. I guess what I’m saying is that Leslie can have it both ways if she wants. Artist friends are, in my own experience, essential for growth and sanity. No one else understands the frustrations that an emerging artist goes through. I feel like having a group or groups and a dominance of studio time is the best way for me to evolve … maybe for Leslie as well.

From: Linny D. Vine — May 16, 2008

My experience is that, at worst, a group can be a gathering of individuals re-enacting their unresolved familial roles.

At best, a group is a gathering of individuals who support and encourage each other with each other’s growth, even when growth requires an individual to leave the group.

A group is only as healthy as its least emotionally healthy participant.






The Pink Church, Guanajuato

oil painting, 45 x 60 cm
by Tom Dickson, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Rick McClung of Atlanta, GA, USA who wrote, “I have met many talented people who have spent years going from one workshop to the next. I have always given them similar advice: Learn from others but seek your own way. Miles of canvas later you will see the results of your efforts.”

And also Janie Prete of Clayton, NC, USA who wrote, “As much as art friends are invaluable for bouncing ideas, sharing techniques and generally commiserating, I find only when I am alone can I ‘graduate.’ Thanks for your insight into the wonderful world of isolation.”

And also Susan Brooks of Ambler, PA, USA who wrote, “Another choice is to sit down with such a group and try to redefine the purpose of the group: why they meet, when they meet, what they want to do with their time together. Check out if the group is open to reconsidering their options.”

And also Kate Jackson of Merced, CA, USA who wrote, “Do you feel this is true of ‘co-op’ gallery membership as well?” (RG note) Thanks Kate. While some co-op galleries in some areas work like a hot damn, most gradually decay to a lower level of internecine strife and petty jealousy as the better people gradually seek and find the perceived legitimacy of mainline commercial gallery representation.

And also P. Super of Merrimack, NH, USA who wrote, “Voluntary graduation can also mean voluntarily opting out.”

And also Teresa Hitch of Saltspring Island, BC, Canada who wrote, “Thank you very much for publishing the story about my accident and its happy result in the last clickback. By noon on the first day it produced 499 views to my website. There are 37 visitors on it at this moment. How fun!”

And also Omar Shaheed of Columbus, OH, USA who wrote, “I have practiced solitude for the past 13 years. I couldn’t create any other way.”




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