Your big idea


Dear Artist,

An artist who wishes to remain anonymous called to say he’d fallen out with his creative partner. As a result, he was bogged down with disappointment, bad blood and a logjam of paperwork needed to release a big idea, now begging for a clear-headed, singular captain. Apparently, this idea was special enough to be fought for, but mourning, reworking and cleansing it has drained his bank account and put a hold on other creative options, paralyzing his happiness and momentum. At the risk of simplifying his problem, I suggested he get to work right away on something else. “Ideas are like rabbits,” said John Steinbeck. “You get a couple, learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”


“The Artist in His Studio”
oil painting by
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

I’ve often observed with admiration the process of my twin brother James, a TV and movie director, as he analyzes a germ of an idea, meets with other writers to workshop a script, casts, preps and blocks a story for filming, then shows up on set to direct, only to later participate in a careful edit. The process can take weeks, months or years. He once described how many times an idea — one idea — must be “sold” before being considered, developed, put into production, made, marketed and released. Investment of time, energy and funds can be enormous, and many people may be touched by the idea along the way. It surely takes a lot of love. Through the collective effort of a patient team, James’ world seemingly orbits each time on the strength of one big idea.


“The Art of Painting”
oil on canvas by
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)

Painters, by comparison, are the purveyors of multiple, simultaneous, mini-earthquakes that often go off in private at minimal bother of others. Ours, ideally, is a less-pressured affair except when we have time constraints. Returning to the beginning of the creative lifecycle as quickly as possible speeds up soil-turning and guarantees evolution. Get to work. Your big idea could be one in a million.



PS: “To make ideas effective, we must be able to fire them off.” (Virginia Woolf)


“An Artist in his studio” (Ambrogio Raffele) 1904
oil on canvas by
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Esoterica: Performance coaches propose that the big idea is not what paralyzes action, but rather the overwhelming mysteries and obstacles that may arise when tackling the smaller steps along the way. If you’ve imagined, but not yet made, your masterpiece and are already waiting for help or stuck on the details, potential problems, politics, expenses or looming failure, pick up your tools. Go back to a place of ideas and refine and strengthen them through the much less dramatic activity of work. Above all else, in the protection of your dream, finish something. By completing the cycle alone first, however modest or unseen, you’re proving that your big idea is there for you, to be summoned without the help or hindrance of an outside force. As a bonus, you’ll be prepared with your very own polished gift to offer the world, should the opportunity arise to share it. “The idea is in my head — to put it down is nothing.” (Milton Avery)


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” (Oscar Wilde)



  1. Good timing! I recently had to end a professional partnership that drained way too much time and emotional energy, even though it also provided amazing professional opportunities. I finally realized it also drained too much energy for making my own work and creating my own opportunities, and in the process, blew up the friendship (the other person’s decision, not mine.) The blessings? I’m more focused on my own direction and opportunities. I’m more grateful for the blessings I already have. I recognized a flawed relationship before I built my entire professional world on it. And now that I have more peace in my heart again, the ideas are flowing. THANK YOU, you have reaffirmed my commitment to the work of my own heart and hands, and you made me laugh with Steinbeck’s rabbit metaphor!

  2. The Painter’s Keys never disappoints. Always appropriate, topical and well written. On this topic I would like to share a quote from my favorite teacher Jim Rohn – We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.

  3. Just a thought: when The Big Idea wakes you up in the middle of the night it’s best to haul yourself out of bed and get it down on paper.
    Otherwise, by morning, the Big Idea has slipped away with the last dream… or nightmare.

    • How sadly true! Though I discovered years ago, when I used to keep pen and paper beside my bed so I could jot those brilliant nighttime ideas down when they woke me, not all of them look so brilliant in the clear light of morning!

  4. higgs Merino on

    “Get to work. Your big idea could be one in a million.”
    So there might be 7 others working on the same idea in the NYC area?’w

    Stay away from the ‘wow idea’, (they see like novelties) better off focusing on the ‘aha idea’.

  5. Funny, this is exactly where I was a little over a year ago. A 7-year artistic collaboration went kapoof, leaving me angry, bitter, disappointed, hurt, grieving (it killed the friendship) and scared – would I be able to go it alone? would I be able to swing the studio solo? would I come up with any great ideas alone? Am I good enough? Turns out having ideas is not the problem – these are as plentiful as pollen – but making something of them is a whole ‘nother ball of wax… Well, the bottom line is, I have survived. Not only that: I’m flourishing. I learned to go with the flow – MY flow – and I am beginning to reap the harvest of all my hard work. I also learned that it’s ok to ask for help. You just have to think about the next, the right step – you don’t have to climb the mountain in one leap.

  6. One lone Monarch Butterfly with very faded, pale-colored worn wings came to my tiny milkweed plants so early this spring and I was surprised to see one so early. She was very old and her wings had faded to the point of almost no color. I watched mesmerized for several minutes as she ignored my presence and flew to one of the tiny plants, lighted upon its leaf for a few brief seconds, then continued to another ignoring all the other spring weeds and grasses growing everywhere alongside. She was going from one to the next of the small 4 to 6 inch young soft, blue-green plants with only a few leaves on each one. I was mesmerized. What was she doing? Why was this faded, old looking Monarch Butterfly going to each one of these young plants? The next day I walked back again to the wild garden I have created mowed paths through, and there she was again, doing the exact same thing. She looked so old but she looked like she had a purpose and was recording something in her mind. I can only guess what she was doing, but it seemed very important. Will she be carrying location information somehow to her species that these plants are growing here? She is gone now, and I have not seen another monarch in several months since then. I know the wildlife in our world is so threatened. The milkweed plants are now several feet tall. I wonder of those new plants felt her delicate legs touching each of them as they were beginning to grow. I look forward to seeing young ones as the pass though later this summer. I have heard that milkweed is important for Monarch Butterflies. We mow our lawns, we spray our weeds, and these wonderful plants have all but disappeared from the landscape. I did not plant these. They simply started growing when I stopped mowing. I hope she tells her young friends they are here, and I wish I could tell her, I will always let the milkweed grow.

    • I think that Sharon said it all. Gorgeous message. I have found creative partnerships a very dangerous, costly trap. When they break up they can influence our surrounding creative relationships for YEARS. I had four “friendships” implode during my first one-man show in a gallery. I was stunned and unable to go into my studio for two years. However, my work now is my own. I have not shown it yet, but I am very, very proud of myself. I had the guts to stand back up-on my own two feet-and become myself. Alone.

      • Wow, I just read your note after re-reading mine and realized just how much my time alone is necessary. That is when I experience all these things I write about that are most important to me and that give me my wings to wander about with them aimlessly. I share my life with a husband and a dog. Giving my ALL to them when they need it, but I ask them, ” Can you love me, but not take more from me than I am ready to give to you?” I build back up when I am alone, The unseen ones gently guide me along my path. Aimless wandering that always takes me back home.

  7. How can an artist be short on ideas?
    Haven’t you been keeping thumbnail sketches with notes in a drawer for years?
    No? Why not?
    You should have a folder bursting at the seams with images torn out of magazines, old photos, rare books,
    old catalogs, etc.,etc.
    No? Why not?
    You should be drawing CONSTANTLY with the occasional wild idea written off to the side.
    Where is that stack of drawings?
    No? Why not?
    Keeping notes from dreams is very important not because of the image but because of the emotional content it comes with. THAT’S what you really want to capture.
    Inspiration is an angel that comes to an artist when they are WORKING not when they are sitting around wishing.
    Stay active! Get to work! Even if it’s only practice.
    Peter Paul Rubens worked his ass off! Everyday!!!

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Featured Artist

My art represents an artistic journey that has been on-going for more than thirty-five years with help and guidance from many wonderful artists. Now, with years of plein-air painting experience, study and solo exhibitions, I believe that my current work has reached its highest level, reflecting the depth of my absorption in the wonder and beauty of the world around me.  I have learned that, as an artist, I will never stop looking for better ways to express my feelings in art and that struggling to more fully understand myself is integral to my painting; a philosophy that was part of every workshop I taught. Still is.

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