Your first year


Dear Artist,

Rajat Shanbhag of Ohio wrote, “I have been sneaking every chance at work and most of time between paintings to read much from The Painter’s Keys. Next year, I am planning to take a hard right and move from  the US to Canada to begin my painting career. I began painting nearly 3 years ago while I was getting my Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering and have been working really hard at it every moment since then, and now I really do feel confident I can make a living out of it. I am looking for any light you can shed on steps to take the very first year. Since my mental decision to go for it, I have been looking for art residencies and thinking about connecting to some galleries and sharing my work. Anything would help. I absolutely know no one in Canada, so trying to prepare myself well before the move. I hope all is well with you. I love your take on the New Alphabet series. Seeing Bashō’s name reminded me of his butterfly haiku.”

The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (ca. 1830–32, Edo Period) Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper 10 1/8 x 14 15/16 inches by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)

The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, c. 1830–32, Edo Period
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper
10 1/8 x 14 15/16 inches
by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)

Thank you, Rajat. “Come, butterfly, it’s late — we’ve miles to go together,” wrote Matsuo Bashō in 17th Century Edo period Japan. Bashō, gently urging, captured in nine words the universal, imploring longing of all transformers. Here are a few ideas:

In your first year, with the goal of working on a professional plan, begin afresh, realizing your new home, with its new vibe, will bestow upon you gifts of subject, tone and theme. Think of yourself as an explorer, making a record of your new life by pulling from and internalizing the environment. Avoid the trap of adopting the ubiquitous style of the region. Your job is to summon the uniqueness of your interpretation and communicate it in a new, special language. In your first year, aim for 100 new works.

Kirifuri Falls at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province, from the series “A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces, c. 1933 1828–1838 Medium Color woodblock print; oban 15 x 10 inches by Katsushika Hokusai

Kirifuri Falls at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province, from the series “A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces, c. 1833
Color woodblock print; oban
15 x 10 inches
by Katsushika Hokusai

In your first year, go to local galleries and museums to explore the artists who came before you and who are working today in your midst. You may want to join a plein air club to meet friends and painting buddies and to get to know the scene. You can apply to residencies and workshops to paint in a location-specific, totally immersive environment.

In your first year, you can comb through local calls for entry, submit to galleries and try to show. You can show, non-stop, by sharing the progress of your new endeavour on your own online feed. Resist the temptation to fall back on previous creative incarnations, or make a pitch with work that no longer reflects your time and place. Your greatest achievements in art are ahead of you, post-metamorphosis. “The journey,” wrote Bashō, “itself is my home.”



The Lantern Ghost, Iwa, c. 1831-1832 Colour wood block print 7.44 x 10.375 inches by Katsushika Hokusai

The Lantern Ghost, Iwa, c. 1831-1832
Color woodblock print
7.44 x 10.375 inches
by Katsushika Hokusai

PS: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” (Matsuo Bashō)

Esoterica: I’ve noticed, when taking a leap, that the first year is often the most creatively transformative, if not the most feedback-rich or lucrative. The secret for agents of change is to instigate a first year as often as possible. The first in a new place, a new studio, a new subject or medium, a new solitude, a new gallery or new configuration of any kind that shuffles the deck of possibility. “Nothing in the cry of cicadas suggests they are about to die,” wrote Bashō.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” (William Butler Yeats)


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.

self portrait as a fisherman


“No matter where your interest lies, you will not be able to accomplish anything unless you bring your deepest devotion to it.” (Matsuo Bashō)




  1. 100 works in a year? As a fiber artist- if I finish 10 I’m overjoyed. I’ve never finished 10.
    Just trying to illustrate a painter’s bias. But more power to you.
    I just have to continually produce so I can produce as much as possible before I die. And yes- I had to give up a job/career to pursue my art-making full-time. And yes- that meant it took 25 years to fulfill what most *business* people think of as their 5-year plan. And yes- I’m still living in what most people would call poverty. But I’m still creating- still producing- still manifesting- and I have contracted for my next one-man show in March 2020. And yes- that wouldn’t/couldn’t happen if I wasn’t producing full-time. So I’m producing full-time.
    100 works in a year? hahahahaha…
    What I would suggest to Rajat Shanbhag of Ohio is to realize ASAP that no one knows how long it takes. So even while following a 1-year- or 5-year plan- artists have to throw some of the plan out as time progresses because in 5 years- the artist we are now will have died a thousand deaths and then magically- we aren’t the same person anymore. Evaluation and reevaluation is constant on ongoing. Plans are at times relevant- yet often irrelevant. Creativity can be constant and ongoing- and you can still get hung up by a myriad of things happening in REALITY that force you to alter your plan and re-access both what you need to do next- and even where you are going. Be flexible. You’ll end up happier…

    • Agreed. Sadly, for most people, the opposite is true. With dreams of painting the days away, single and care-free youth makes way for the hard-hitting reality of becoming the sole breadwinner for the household. 100 paintings a year? Not a hope in h.e.double hockey sticks! I’m now semi-retired. I can find a little more time to pursue creative passions, but I’m still the sole financial provider, mortgage not paid off, millennial child still at home… I create to stay sane.

    • Thanks for your comment Bruce. I completely agree on what you said about having a general idea on where one wants to go but also being open to other opportunities that may arise.
      Best of luck on your show :)

  2. This has been one of your most meaningful posts for me. God Speed Rabat: May your journey remain one of adventure and security at the same time. “Come Butterfly, it’s late— we’ve miles to go together.” Sara, your choice of the Katsushika Hokusai prints and the “first year”ideas… points well taken. Thanks.

  3. I love the notion that the “First year” can take many forms. The notion of 100 paintings is more of a state of mind than an actually reality. For me, is is the encouragement to summon the unique voice without investing too much in each creation.

  4. Sara, I think that your article is so filled with beauty and poetry that speaks to my heart. To me your gift of the written expression, filled with fabulous quotes and paintings, is gratifying. You share your knowledge and experience with others and they can take away what they want. It seems to me that there is always something that an artist can apply to themselves. Thank you, thank you…….Suszanne

  5. Sara, your Dad once held a critique session for beginning artists. Starting basically from scratch, I showed him photos of my first paintings. I told him I was going to do 100 – he raised his eyebrows, then advised me to return after I’d finished the 100.

    I set out having made a mental plan of one pact and three promises:
    Pact: I gave myself permission to paint whatever came out the end of my brushes – no judgement. I was experimenting after all. There were lots of surprises.
    Promises: No Galleries – I had heard stories; No Commissions – I couldn’t handle the stress; No Portraits – I knew I wouldn’t have the time needed to do them justice. When I broke the first two, I learned valuable lessons about the art business and to always trust my gut. Since I had eliminated portraits – it afforded me greater freedom to discover
    1) I liked working large 2) I was moving toward the abstract. Who knew?!

    By more luck than planning, and fit in the spaces of an intense life of high reality raising two daughters, one with complex care needs (basically a 24-7 job – for life) it actually did take a year to complete 100. I found I had to make hard, crucial decisions about what to do with my art and backed it up with a business plan researched in the local library.
    At year two and a generous, unexpected offer of a venue, I held a debut exhibition. Over three quarters of the work sold in three hours. To this day, I think it was more my “story” and passion than my art that brought people out.

    Decisions, planning, practice, and luck.
    I raised my eyebrows after Robert suggested I come back after completing 100. He hadn’t critiqued my work. But as I walked away, I realized he had offered me wisdom veiled within that challenge. Master and the student.

  6. Rajat; you might want to plan to locate in a large urban center like Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal in order to get your career off to a flying start here in Canada. In less urban centers it’s pretty hard to live on your art income in the first year. Plan to hook up with local artist groups. You can join before you move and see what’s available in each area as far as shows and galleries. If you have artwork already, connect with galleries online. Get your work out in shows and in the summer go to as many fine art shows as you can find.

  7. I have a friend who along with others in her group painted a painting a day for 30 days. I could never do that and wouldn’t want to.

  8. Karen Blanchet on

    Ah yes, thirty paintings in thirty days. Actually I managed double that. Only 8x8in. Still. Wonderful exercise and it opened all kinds of doors to energy and inspiration. Your advise Sara, to resist the temptation to go back, especially to whatever was “successful” before, is filled with wisdom. Looking back will turn us to salt. I keep looking forward, making new discoveries and continue to be totally fascinated with what I do. May you be steeped in the same essence Rajat. And welcome to Canada.

  9. Great column and just what I needed to read this morning. The essence: just get to work. The measuring tools are confusing. 100 paintings is a goal. You know it takes 10,000 before you can produce a good one.

  10. “Come, butterfly, it’s late — we’ve miles to go together,” wrote Matsuo Bash… A beautiful way to to begin everything… a day, a painting, any beginning, with intensity and joy. A very inspiring column! Many thanks.

  11. Mary Manning on

    You quote my favorite poet and published some of my favorite art, Sara. Your advice to Rajat goes for every artist on every day. Butterflies, birds and hummingbirds are my constant companions, and they have led me throughout life and art. This year feels like a major transformation, spreading new wings after breaking the chrysalis and I am saving this column as a beacon into the future.

  12. Dear Sara, thank you for this beautiful letter. I think you have provided something that I can follow for the rest of my life. I am so happy with pairings of Bashō saying that you have included.
    Being a plein air painter, the idea of new place or environment is central to my process of creating work. Four years into it, now I feel more at home by being outdoors. Your advice on submitting to local entries and visiting galleries is duly noted. I am taking the literal definition of 100 works or more in first year as an absolute task. I have always thought working quick and spontaneously, out in nature, is one of best ways to learn. And the metaphor behind 100 works or 10000 hours is well taken too. I have begun applying for residencies and hoping something will work out. If not, mostly a small studio would work I guess, at least to get something started. I haven’t been more excited in life before as much as this change. It is funny that I am still not sure how things will turn out, but I know the road I need to take. I will doing my due diligence in making this leap, and I hope the butterfly will join me along.

    Rajat Shanbhag

    • Hi Rabat,
      A beautiful part of the world is Gibson’s, on the Sechelt Pennisula in B.C. It is an artists colony. I lived in Garden Bay, BC for several years, about an hours drive from Gibson’s Bay. There is a wealth of locations to paint! Also, only a Ferry ride to Vancouver…about 45 min.
      Best of experiences on your journey!
      Patricia Lynn

    • Laurie Waller Benson on

      Hi Rajat, I looked at your web site and it is amazing – and so many pieces sold and on hold! This in just a short time – you are well on the path, I think! I didn’t start showing and selling until I was semi-retired. You are still young and energetic and taking this new step. I hope you love the West Coast, it is beautiful!

      • Thanks Laurie. I just happened to start showing once the work started to occupy my living room. maybe it was a good thing!
        thanks for your kind words. keep in touch :)
        do comment on my website, if you get a chance

  13. Wow–does everyone here actually think you can make a living as a painter? I’ve been a practicing artist since I graduated and am now 70, and could never have supported myself… unless I painted what sold and not what interested me. And if you can sell paintings of flowers, but hate making them, it’s no different from any other tedious job. I really don’t know many artists who can support themselves without another job, or without a partner with a regular income. Just finding affordable living space (and studio space) in Vancouver or Toronto is extremely difficult. So while Sara’s letter is beautiful and encouraging, the world of selling art is not. I hate to be discouraging– maybe you are one of the few Rajat who will succeed in living off your art. But be ready to live low, and paint what most people want on their walls and not necessarily what you love to paint.

    • Someone once said, “T’is better to aim for the stars and hit the fence, than aim for the fence and hit the dust”. I have always chosen to aim for the stars.



      • George Stewart-Hunter on

        Thankyou for all your “Letters”, I enjoy them very much. Especial thanks for a line from one of my favourite poems..”.Had I the Heaven’s embroidered cloths….” Even at an advanced age I remember most of it and occasionally quote to company.

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