What success?


Dear Artist,

While wandering around in Romania, a question came into the inbox: “I guess I know the answer to this, but do successful artists pretty well sell everything they paint?”

She-Goat, 1950 Bronze 46 3/10 × 56 3/10 × 28 1/10 inches by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

She-Goat, 1950
46 3/10 × 56 3/10 × 28 1/10 inches
by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

I can’t attest for all artists, but in my case it’s a low percentage that sell quickly. My work is too erratic and varying. Also, as a lot of what I do is based on experiencing life and experimentation, all works aren’t “ships of the line,” and collector whiz-bangs.

On the other hand, I’ve known a few artists whose every work seems to be always spoken for or eagerly anticipated. One was Hugh Monaghan. He was essentially a painter of ducks coming in for a landing. He told me several times that he didn’t like painting very much, but I have to say he was darned good at it. Hugh was passionate about hunting, fishing and hanging out with his buddies. When Hugh passed away his estate consisted of one half-finished painting. He lived from easel to dealer to mouth.

It all has to do with perspective. A lot of us didn’t get into art to make money, but we grew fond of the position. By keeping at it we built a reasonable following. The advent of cash flow further propelled the creative hand and gave permission to the exploratory nose. Many artists see selling as part of the art, and I guess I’m one of them. “Art,” said Frank Zappa, “is making something out of nothing and selling it.” If a decent percentage of work eventually finds a home, you can live on it.

Bull, c. 1958 Plywood, tree branch, nails, and screws 46 1/10 × 56 7/10 × 4 1/10 inches by Pablo Picasso

Bull, c. 1958
Plywood, tree branch, nails, and screws
46 1/10 × 56 7/10 × 4 1/10 inches
by Pablo Picasso

Art might be a tangible “thing,” but it’s also a process. It’s been my experience that you need to get the process more or less right and the other stuff sort of takes care of itself. My approach might be called the “shot gun effect.” Because I enjoy the process, I make a lot of art. When works are finished I try to make a small commercial decision as to where I might send it. I’ve taken a lifetime to build a stable of trusted dealers. Sometimes they groan when they see my stuff come in, even though I thought it was a good idea at the time. If the work doesn’t find a home in one gallery, we’ll eventually get it back and send it to another. Sometimes it ends up in my personal archives, and that’s not bad either.

Best regards,


PS: “The best things in life aren’t things.” (Art Buchwald)

Guitar, 1924 Painted sheet metal, painted tin box, and iron wire 43 7/10 × 25 × 10 1/2 inches by Pablo Picasso

Guitar, 1924
Painted sheet metal, painted tin box, and iron wire
43 7/10 × 25 × 10 1/2 inches
by Pablo Picasso

Esoterica: I’m writing this from beside a country pond near Constanta, Romania. Ducks are coming in for a landing. A few yards away there’s a young girl wearing a black and red skirt and a button vest. She’s tending a goat. I’m wondering why she isn’t in school. From her perspective I’m a sorry sight — tapping from time to time on a laptop while dabbing at a little canvas that includes a wide Romanian sky and a distant Orthodox Church. I can tell by the look on her face that she thinks I’m a loser. Maybe she’s right. Unlike the goat cheese around here, I’ll probably never sell this thing.

This letter was originally published as “What success?” on October 28, 2008.

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.

“Action is the foundational key to success.” (Pablo Picasso)



  1. My problem is that I like my finished work so well that I often keep it although I have a gallery that will hang it. I do manage to sell quite a bit, people coming to our house, seeing a painting leaning on the wall and ask i that is for sale.
    Sometimes it is. It may be because no two are alike, I have a variety of subject matter and catchy titles. I guess I can say that if they are around long enough they become ‘family’. AND I love creating them.

  2. Love this post and my sentiments lean towards the Frank Zappa quote! I do make a living with my painting but it is not what drives me to pick up the brush. I am a landscape painter exposing the mystery in an ordinary day. Stripping away the human illusion of our separation from nature is at the core of my work. This illusion extends to a presumption of a separation between land, water and sky. I explore the interdependency of these natural elements. During the creative process, I am repeatedly reminded of humanity’s dependency on nature. Trees speak to me as if we shared a breath. I long for the rhythm of the sea or the flow of a river. The sky is like music to me. In my art I am compelled to express these connections.

    Moments of engagement with my everyday world are portrayed in these paintings. These works primarily reflect the surrounding landscapes though occasionally a still life becomes the subject of my work. The brushstrokes render the light, shadow, movement, smells, sounds and emotions I am experiencing as I paint. The resulting paintings are my complete sensory experience, expressed.

    In the paintings, there is an ongoing conversation between myself and the viewer. The work is an invitation to join me in exploring the relationship between the innate elements of our environment and ourselves. My intention is for the viewers to find themselves within the landscapes as I have – filled with curiosity, wonder and discovery.

    And the work does sell and find homes with art collectors and for this I am grateful – even if that alone would never be enough to get me to the easel by itself. Thanks as always for each of these excellent thought-provoking posts!

  3. HELP………..I tried to subscribe but I got a message my email is already submitted. I want to receive The Painters Keys. What can I do to subscribe. (I may have years ago, but I have not been receiving your emails.

    Please let me know.

  4. The pop up ad for Vancouveroncanvas.com offering “100% hand painted oil painting” from photos seems to me to be at odds with what Painters Keys is all about. Thoughts?

    • Different strokes for different folks, Sue. The art world is a huge place. What they offer is not my kind of thing but they must have a certain clientele in mind to offer this.

    • Hi Sue,
      The Google ads you see on this site are targeted by Google, based on your individual browsing history. As you can imagine, sometimes the ads are generalized and at times, off-base.
      While we are able to omit specific types of undesirable ad content, we cannot target ads ourselves. Our small ad revenue contributes to the production of this website. I hope this information is helpful.
      Thanks always for your friendship, and to everyone who takes the time to share their insights…your input is so valuable and appreciated.

  5. A depressing but authentic reality. If you want to make money consistently, then commercial art has potential. Fine artists, on the other hand, face a paradox that includes an expectation of innovation, discovery, and exploration. along with the pressure of creating “duck” like paintings that satisfy the supply/demand equation. Having spent a career as a technical illustrator I can tell you that I was very often terribly bored, but able to make a living. Being bored is also a problem for the fine artist, but with a different creative potential if the artist is open to it. Can a fine artist risk failure?

    Yet, failure isn’t limited to fine artists. Life is about risk. The stress of risk is helped by a cohort of supportive people, from collectors, dealers, friends. Imagine how different life would have been for the Impressionists painters without Paul Duran-Ruel.

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