Your thinking words


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I know by experience that art-making is a conduit to something higher than workaday life — but I’m finding it harder and harder to overcome depression about the low status of my day job and the low status of visual artists. It’s not just that painters are viewed with some contempt; increasingly, our work just isn’t viewed at all. Look at the entertainment section of any newspaper. It will have articles on just about every other art form but painting. It seems that painting is terminally ill or dead. At age 42, I have the typical dream of wanting to build a full-time career as a painter, but I’m increasingly pessimistic about that ever happening. The work may be meaningful, but it seems you need a monk’s or nun’s vow of poverty and hardship to engage in it.”


“Boys in a Pasture “
oil painting, 1874
by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

As is my habit, I put down my brush and wrote back: “There’s a possibility that you may be using too many of the wrong words: “Poverty, hardship, pessimistic, workaday, depression, low status, contempt, ill, dead.”

Then, within a minute, this letter came in from another subscriber: “Before Martin Seligman et al there was Victor Frankl, a German psychiatrist who spent most of WWII in an internment camp. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote that everything was taken from him except his power to change the way he felt. In such terrible circumstances he realized that the simple act of changing his vocabulary — the words he used in thinking — was enough to change his attitude, his feelings and his sense of being an individual who loved and was loved. This, he concluded, was why he survived when stronger men didn’t. His book has affected thousands of lives, mine included. When I despair that my painting isn’t going anywhere — you know: ‘What ever made me think I was a painter?’ — I change my thinking-words: ‘What made me a painter?’ Let me count the ways.”


“Woman Seated”
charcoal and watercolor, 1880
by Winslow Homer

These two artists are practically neighbours. They should meet. They have now. What a medium. Let me count the ways, indeed.

Best regards,


PS: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering the attitudes of his mind.” (William James)

Esoterica: I rather like the idea of “thought police.” Many of us maintain our own precincts. The constable on duty stands guard against the moles that undermine our temples. He arrests those who would steal our potential. He runs surveillance on what comes out of our mouths and gives warnings to the unruly felons of our heads. The wise among us pay attention to his ticketing.

Click here to go to Desirable words list.

This letter was originally published as “Your thinking words” on January 24, 2003.


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“Dwelling on the negative simply contributes to its power.” (Shirley MacLaine)



  1. Pingback: painters keys letter - Successful Photographer

    • Martin Cochrane on

      Yes it’s a matter of the approach and how to handle the situation or attitude if you will. I’m a working musician and a painter. Some would say that’s a double whammy but I think I’m doubly blessed !
      I get to express my emotions and my art in two mediums! How great is that? I sing and play what I like and I paint what I like. Sometimes you connect , sometimes not. But if you succeed to duplicate what you hear in your head or what you see in your head that friends, that is magical
      Keep painting , making music or sculpting or whatever your passion might be!

      • How beautifully you write what I feel. I am happy practicing for my next “gig” on the piano or flute or sitting at the easel fully committed to starting anew or fixing a piece.
        You and I are never bored! Finding time to do the mundane is a problem but I am sure we both manage that, too.

    • Absolutely you should paint for your ownself, but one needs to succeed to continue to buy supplies and one needs validation to continue to have good feelings about your painting. One cannot grow as a painter just painting for oneself.

  2. A great letter quickly covering both sides of the issue.
    Art feeds the soul but not always the stomach. Food, shelter and clothing are things that my wife insists on. Thus they are also important to me … but Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which rates the motivation of beings, puts “Self-actualization” at the top of the pyramid. That’s where we want to get to as artists. It would be nice if society really supported artists on this solitary trek.

    • Venkatarao P Rao on

      Isn’t Canada on the path to experiment inrrpoviding the citizens with basic needs like some Nordic counterparts. That experiment will be too much for the Rt wing of our country

      • I live in Canada but we are looking at moving to the US. We don’t have the cradle to grave security that some Northern Europeans no have. That kind of security comes with very high consumer taxes on cars and liquor. We are one step closer to that kind of care. Those countries also create investments which sustain their safety net system, they pay into it first. What I am noticing is the US has a huge middle class and pay is very low in all jobs but top postings. The basics in life are less expensive than in Canada. So we pay much more for everyday needs.

        What I notice in your country is an enthusiasm for excellence and incredible work ethic.

        I think if you have a habit of producing art you are 80% there.

        I think you need to find a way to make your skills as an artist pay you more by teaching or exposing your art to the people who can and will buy. There was a female Canadian painter who painted for the masses. She found a way to paint very small images which didn’t take much time during the depression and sustained herself.

        Or if you notice entertainment is getting the money start to paint for the movies. Some very skilled people make the sets and painting for movies about painters and they are artist getting paid to make art. Find a way to make more money with your skills but keep painting.

        With all your experience your skills have value. Start giving a small amount of work to charities where people have time to look and appreciate your work. Find new ways to expose your work to a new audience.

  3. Rgenn said it….”As is my habit, I put down my brush and wrote back: “There’s a possibility that you may be using too many of the wrong words: “Poverty, hardship, pessimistic, workaday, depression, low status, contempt, ill, dead.””

    At “upper midlife” I have seen the great white light on this topic – every day , many of us talk ourselves to life or talk ourselves to death. As for the poverty – snap out of it – go take arts marketing courses and get busy or find a gallery to sell your work while you paint. BELIEVE in YOU and get busy.

    Painting had a meltdown when Photography emerged, but …..

    Happy Spring Everyone …thanks Sara and Peter


  4. I am fortunate that 60% of my paintings have found a home on the walls of family, friends and neighbours and occasionally art lovers who have found me. Since my prices are modest, the sales have sustained my paint & canvas and wine supplies but my sales will never be the equivalent of a living, and I am okay with that now. A life funded by my art should have started 50 yrs ago, but it became something different and I am satisfied.

  5. Mary Wiggins on

    I quite like this letter. And through synchronicity, I heard what I would consider a companion piece to it on a podcast called, “Good Life Project,” Eric Zimmer on “Feeding the Wolf” this morning. Take a listen.

  6. Don’t exclude making sculpture either indeed anything classed as ‘creative’ is tough to live from. However it is the honesty of your intent that makes your direction. I was fortunate to be able to go study at art school. The one question I never had an answer to from the tutors was ‘how do you make a living, survive at it?’ They would always look at me and walk away. The penny dropped, they were there being paid to teach others to be as confused as they were about this problem.

    You do what you must do what you wish to do and the problems like everything else come along and you find a way, painful at times as it is, and the positives begin.

    It’s akin to would you rather get on a merry go round or take the journey on a heater skelter.

  7. Thanks! I needed this today. I am a painter but I support myself through teaching. I am a full time Art Teacher. I’ve exhibited and sold my work but had gotten myself into a funk of sorts. Last summer I began a low residency MFA program for many reasons, but mainly to recharge my art making. Also I can see retirement on the horizon and I would like to paint full time and maybe teach a little on the side. Strangely it is a Fine Arts/Choreography MFA with half of us fine artists and half choreographers. Most of it is good, but there is a strong message that art has to be more than painting. We have to make it into an “experience” now. Lately I’ve been wondering if this is true. I just want to experience painting and do not care so much about making it an “experience” in order to sell or get into some “blue chip” gallery. I am working extremely hard on the coursework, my artwork and my teaching. The artwork is the most important to me at the moment. It feeds my soul.

  8. My wife and I publish a digital magazine called Inspire U and a big part of our mission is to support artists and have their work viewed by people who appreciate art and creative human endeavours. We believe that people want to appreciate art and we have featured many painters. If any artists would like to have their artwork featured we actively promote their work for the betterment of artist and art lover alike.

    Aaron Beck

  9. This is a timely letter for me. I have been in a royal “funk” regarding my painting. The feeling that I will
    never live long enough to reach my potential or be the artist I want to be. So…I am just going to chill out
    and enjoy the ride of painting for my soul. I am in a gallery but feel that I have been painting what I
    thought would sell in the gallery. I am now going to go back to painting what I love. I am going to paint
    for ME!

  10. I have come to the conclusion that to truly succeed as an artist you must have a compulsion to paint/create whatever your medium, no matter what, just having the ability to do isn’t enough. Once I lost the compulsion to paint it became something I could do and enjoy when I’m in the mood this doesn’t make a career. Those that are hungry to paint or whatever their passion is will find a way to do so, it is wonderful to sell, but there are many ways to earn ones keep so to say. In my neck of the woods it requires someone to help, like an indulgent spouse :), until you get a reputation to make a profit selling ones work and I didn’t have the time as a single parent to do both. Yes I’m an artist, now in my senior years I paint in a acrylics and pixels and enjoy both as to being rich and famous it’s not going to happen.

  11. As galleries are no longer available to mid-career artists, the personal web site, the Facebook page, and the blog are the next options. One can display work to the world, and receive feedback. I find that interaction with viewers is more fun than showing in a gallery. Sales (for me) are similar… rare.

  12. Barbara Belyea on

    No doubt these many responses were prompted by the intensity of the letter you publish (and its persuasive literary style). Emily Carr’s life and work comment on both sides of the issue raised in the letter. Although Carr went to art school and defined herself as a painter, for years she ran a boarding-house and received zero recognition of her artistic talent and passion. Her art took off again when she came into contact with the Group of Seven; Lawren Harris was especially supportive and influential, though she wasn’t tempted by Harris’s degree of abstraction. Carr’s “vision” was intensely personal; at the same time it was nourished by her contact with fellow artists. You could say that she “painted for herself,” yet she also needed to be part of an artistic community. And making a living? Carr was never rich. She lived modestly; she was eccentric; she had a rich inner life. She never compromised with her own nature and her own aims.

  13. I find it so interesting to try to figure out whether or not the entry is one from Robert or Sara. Quite often I have it right but more often I have it wrong. This is one of those wrong ones. I heard Sara’s voice in this entry. not Robert’s. So there you are. Why did I have it wrong? Because I had the misconception that Robert would not have these doubts — that he was always self-assured in his art journey and Sara, being the daughter that followed in her father’s footsteps, would maybe be the one with the misgivings. Just goes to show you that it doesn’t matter on what side you find yourself — we all have that language in our heads. We’re the only ones who can change it and benefit from the change.

  14. On my first ever trip to bc and Vancouver Island. Can’t help thinking of you and your dad Sara after all these years of reading about these majestical places, i am finally xseeing first hand what so inspired you both as well as many others including Emily Carr. Wish I had the time to visit Surrey.

  15. As a painter, and practicing psychotherapist, regarding this topic…I am encouraged by recent discoveries from cognitive neuroscience. For example, it appears that our “ME” center is located in the medial prefrontal cortex. Picture a very small area of your brain. From that area comes a lot of our critical self talk and particularly, thoughts about how we compare ourselves to others. Yet WE are much more than that! Picture your entire SELF which radiates all kinds of experience, connection and information. It informs us also …though often not as loudly as our medial prefrontal cortex! When the chatter gets going, it helps me to remember to breath and center into my entire self.

  16. Shane Conant on

    Kinda think that the Artistic struggle goes with the territory and discouragement is a lack of faith in what your senses tell you is there. Fleeting moments captured for the enjoyment of others. Fragile and passing but held close to the heart when shared with others is the very stuff of life. Value yes but is the love always returned? No not always enough at times to validate oneself. It’s good thing that value exists not only internally but also externally in the world that does have an end. It reflects eternity but in itself cannot achieve validation but for the eternal that it reflects and longs for. Love conquers all. John 3:16

  17. I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer two years ago and immediately went into a deep depression. I realized that painting was the only thing that would help me survive and so I started painting 5×7 canvases and have just completed No. 70 They were just shown at a charity event and receive a tremendous reaction and I sold some!
    But now I must paint every day regardless. It’s been a tough road and my creativity has held me in good stead and I am so thankful for this gift

  18. Greetings All:
    I was a clinical Counselor for 44 years and am now a full time Artist (every day/ 4 hours per day). And I love it.
    Cognitive Therapy has invented the concept of “reframing”. Let me share it with you regard an event that occurred today.
    I got up at 4 am as usual. Ready to work (play) with Art. at 6 am I went out and found that my only vehicle, my truck, had a foot wide circle of breakage of its windshield. I must be in Phoenix, AZ tomorrow to make the final decisions for Art placement in an exhibition I am curating. A crises you say. Well….not if I reframe. First I cast aside my negative thoughts and made a plan to solve the problem. I asked about glass repair in our small town at the Realty office. They directed me to a glass reframing shop. I wrote down the phone numbers and called. To make a long story shorter, my windshield was fixed by 2 pm.
    My other reframe was to observe that my old windshield had some nicks and eventually needed to be replace anyway. Also, I celebrated that the glass company was so efficient and wrote a letter of recommendation to the President of the family owned glass business citing the two employees that helped me.
    A crises you say? No…a Joyful experience.

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