The point of being an artist is that you may live

Painting advice from Sherwood Anderson

It’s World Art Day, and for that reason I’m sending you a timeless letter of advice from the pen of Sherwood Anderson. It’s taken from Letters of Note: Art, a collection of the world’s most inspiring letters with art at their heart—featuring Michelangelo, Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Artemisia Gentileschi, Oscar Howe, Martin Scorsese, Henri Matisse, Mick Jagger, Augusta Savage, Vincent van Gogh, & many others. Admittedly I’m biased, but I have to say: it’s a very good book x

American writer Sherwood Anderson began his life in Clyde, Ohio, in 1873, and spent much of his early life taking on manual labour jobs until a brief career in advertising was cut short by a nervous breakdown. Eventually he was able to sustain himself and his family doing what he loved most—writing—and he is now best known for his influential 1919 collection of stories, Winesburg, Ohio, and his 1925 novel, Dark Laughter. In December of 1926, Anderson, his wife Elizabeth, and his two children, John and Mimi, boarded the United States Lines S.S. President Roosevelt in New York and sailed to Europe for a long stay, and to drop the children off in France where they were to attend school. In April, shortly after Anderson arrived home, he wrote a letter of advice to his son, who was now studying painting in Paris.

Dear John,

Something I should have said in my letter yesterday.

In relation to painting.

Don’t be carried off your feet by anything because it is modern—the latest thing.

Go to the Louvre often and spend a good deal of time before the Rembrandts, the Delacroixs.

Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.

Then you can think of the thing before you.

Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean?

The object drawn doesn’t matter so much. It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.

Draw, draw hundreds of drawings.

Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.

The object of art is not to make saleable pictures. It is to save yourself.

Any clearness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.

The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for fifteen years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.

For days, weeks, and months now I can’t do it.

You saw me in Paris this winter. I was in a dead blank time. You have to live through such times all your life.

The thing, of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.

The point of being an artist is that you may live.

Such things as you suggested in your letter the other day. I said “Don’t do what you would be ashamed to tell me about.”

I was wrong.

You can’t depend on me. Don’t do what you would be ashamed of before a sheet of white paper—or a canvas.

The materials have to take the place of God.

About color. Be careful. Go to nature all you can. Instead of paint shops—other men’s palettes—look at the sides of buildings in every light. Learn to observe little things—a red apple lying on a grey cloth.

Trees—trees against hills—everything. I know little enough. It seems to me that if I wanted to learn about color I would try always to make a separation. There is a plowed field here before me, below it is a meadow, half decayed cornstalks in the meadow making yellow lines, stumps, sometimes like looking into an ink bottle, sometimes almost blue.

The same in nature is a composition.

You look at it thinking—what made up that color. I have walked over a piece of ground, after seeing it from a distance—trying to see what made the color I saw.

Light makes so much difference.

You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.

I write as though you were a man. Well, you must know my heart is set on you.

It isn’t your success I want. There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you.