How To Be An Artist

How to Be an Artist-Final

(Drawing by Kate Holden)


If there is one piece of advice I could give to artists of all disciplines, in all stages of their careers, it would be this: make art. Period.

Writer and art critic Sigrun Hodne posted this simple, but brilliant drawing on her blog, Sub Rosa. The drawing is by Kate Holden, a freelance illustrator from the UK who “made that image late one night last September while feeling particularly frustrated at all the young artists I was seeing on places like Tumblr who instead of working hard making art just sat around moping because when they did draw something it wasn’t flawless!”

The secret to thriving as an artist—to making your best work and finding contentment—is doing, regardless of how profound or how terrible the final product.

As Sol LeWitt once advised Eva Hesse in this letter, we must “stop thinking, worrying, looking over…

[our] shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO….”


Sol LeWitt-Eva Hesse Letter-Page 1-FINAL


Sounds simple, right? Well, it is, and it isn’t.

Making art and “doing” are too often stymied by our own psychological muddles. Our mental outlook matters just as much as the practical actions we take in pursuit of a creative life.

To thrive as artists, we must become adept at moving through fear and turning ideas into action. Here is another excerpt from LeWitt’s letter to Hesse:

It is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty you [sic] mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going.


Eva Hesse at work in her studio in Kettwig an der Ruhr, Germany, 1964 / 1965 (Photo by Nathan Kernan © The Estate of Eva Hesse courtesy Hauser & Wirth)

Eva Hesse at work in her studio in Kettwig an der Ruhr, Germany, 1964 / 1965
(Photo by Nathan Kernan © The Estate of Eva Hesse courtesy Hauser & Wirth)


Successful artists are resilient. They’re mindful, open, and unafraid. They take risks and maintain a steady sense of self-worth not conflated with externals. There is a direct correlation between thriving and our willingness to be vulnerable.

But many of us are so hellbent on avoiding such feelings of vulnerability, that we engineer our lives to stay small—we fly just below the radar. And not only are our lives small, but our art becomes small as well.

It’s as simple and complicated as this: if we want to make our best work, we must believe that what we have to say matters. We must believe wholeheartedly in our own vision of the world.

We must be willing to be imperfect, vulnerable, playful, uncertain, and authentic. Doing is the creative habit that separates those who go places from those who spin their wheels.

(Note: Sol LeWitt’s letter to Eva Hesse is courtesy The LeWitt Collection in Connecticut)



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By | 2016-11-11T21:49:38+00:00 10.08.13|Images, Process, The Complete Creative|8 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Robin Eichert October 9, 2013 at 7:20 am

    I believe this is good advice for how to be a successful person, not just an artist. Great stuff, thank you!

    • Michelle Aldredge October 9, 2013 at 8:49 am

      I agree, Robin. I have a friend who keeps a page of the Sol LeWitt letter taped above his desk as a reminder. Perhaps I’ll give that a try…?

  2. Ilona Mifflin October 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Thank you for this fantastic encouragement! I love the diagram. And the letter. And your commentary! It’s just what I needed to hear even though I wouldn’t call myself an artist.

  3. michael October 10, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Timing was perfect, keep showing up, and do your work.

  4. Sigrun October 10, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Thank you Michelle – such wise and wonderful words!

  5. Kate Holden April 23, 2014 at 5:36 am

    Hi, I’m the artist who drew that flowchart. Could you credit me, please? Kate Holden. I’m a freelance illustrator from the UK and I made that image late one night last September while feeling particularly frustrated at all the young artists I was seeing on places like Tumblr who instead of working hard making art just sat around moping because when they did draw something it wasn’t flawless!
    It’s been spread all over the internet without my permission or any credit to me for making it. Thank you for at least trying to source it. You’re one of the very few people I’ve found posting it who did try!

  6. […] Love this inspiring post about how to be an artist […]

  7. Artists Anonymous « Rock Paper Paint June 27, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    […] artistic process is summarized perfectly in a flowchart developed by Kate Holden and published in Gwarlingo: While somebody with a modicom of computer programming knowledge would draw the flowchart […]

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