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Motivation and Discipline Don't Help

My art studio, 2004

This was one half of my small kitchen in the 1-bedroom apartment I lived in. I did not have stable north light, so I hung a sheer white curtain to filter the direct sunlight.

In 2004 I took a class that taught me the basic historic technique for creating a layered oil painting. To practice I set up this little studio in my kitchen and a did a painting using the method I was learning in the class. 

Study for Vase and Creamer

9 x 9 inches, pencil on paper

The still life was the first drawing and the first oil painting I had done on my own in about 10 years. I was exhilarated and thrilled, and mostly just so relieved when I made this little painting.

Vase and Creamer

9 x 9 inches, oil on panel

It had taken me years of "thawing out" a severe, crippling artists' block to get to the point where I could even attempt to make a painting.


For many years after I graduated from art school at RISD I was very discouraged as an artist. I did not ever make any art on my own, outside the occasional life-drawing class. I felt like I was an artist. But a real artist paints, and I was not painting. I felt like I "should" be painting. 

I think I was stymied by my idea of what art and painting should be, by my idea of what was "Important Art."

Important Art was what was showing in the New York gallery scene of the 1990's, or in the New York MOMA. Important Art was what my art school friends who went on to do Masters of Fine Arts degrees were doing: very large, abstract or semi-abstract paintings.

I had never had an inclination to paint abstractly, and the semi-abstract figure-ish work I was introduced to in art school looked to me like what an insane person might paint.

All that was interesting to me intellectually, and I liked to look at it and talk about it with my friends, and I admired many of them for their skill with painting abstractly, but I never felt a shred of desire to paint that way.

But the only other option for a painter, other than Abstract or Figurative (semi-abstract figure-ish), was to be a Bad Artist. A bad artist was a "sellout" who sold pictures of flowers or children or seascapes at tourist galleries. I was very afraid that if I made that kind of art I would be a Bad Artist.

I left art school believing that Important Art came entirely or mostly from your head, and that art done while looking at something in real life was just a "study". Landscape, Figure, Portrait, and Still Life were all ok to do as studies, but if you were to do that for your real Work, you would fall into the category of Bad Artist.

I had been accepted into the most prestigious art school in the country based on my high school portfolio of highly realistic drawings and paintings done from life. And then I was taught that that was not art.

So, feeling like I was never going to be a Real Artist much less an Important Artist, I just stopped making art. I described myself to acquaintances as a designer, never as an artist.

For years I let people people assume I'd majored in design at the Rhode Island School of Design, and did not reveal that I'd spent all of my 4 years there doing figure drawing and oil painting.

But over the years after art school I got very depressed. I put in hours at my graphic design job, and mostly just killed time between my working and sleeping hours.

But I always knew what my problem was, I always knew that I would feel better if I could start painting. So I tried very hard for a lot of years to start painting. In fact, in my head, I was trying very hard to get back to painting pretty much all of the time.These were the things I tried:

  • Trying to be "disciplined"
  • Trying to be "motivated"
  • Making plans to do x just 10 minutes a day
  • Being angry and disappointed at myself
  • Putting enormous pressure on myself
I did a LOT of that, all the time, for many years, and none of it was successful for helping me get back to making art. It just made me feel worse.

I began to realize that my idea that I might be a Bad Artist was stopping me from doing ANYTHING creative. So I decided to do the smallest, tiniest project that felt creative but that was NOT ART. As soon as I called it art, I could not make myself do it. 

So the smallest, easiest thing I could find to do, that was a tiny bit creative, was going to a fabric store and buying buttons. I spent a long time picking out the buttons. I did not make anything with them, I just bought them.

It sounds so silly, and it's completely embarrassing to me that that was my creative project. It was embarrassing to me even then, when I did it. But I had gotten to such a low point of despair, that doing something so small and insignificant as buying buttons felt better than the way I felt most the time.

After I bought the buttons, and did some more equally small "creative projects", and after a while I felt inspired to play with collage. I had experimented with collage in art school, and so I started collecting materials again and making collages again. I did this on my living room floor, with the TV on. I made about 20 of these:

"The Stage", 2003
9 x 12, mixed media on paper

Then, in 2003 I saw the movie "The Girl with the Pearl Earring", which is about Vermeer. The movie imagines that the subject of his famous painting is his young maid, whom he trains to mix his paints. The movie is beautifully shot, with gorgeous sequences showing Scarlet Johansson sifting pigments and mixing oils by soft Dutch light filtered through small windowpanes. 

I started wondering if anyone taught how to do Old Masters' painting techniques any more, and if I could learn any of that. A few months later I found Kirstine Reiner's ad for art classes on Craigslist, offering lessons on mixing paint pigments and Old Master oil techniques. In early 2004 I signed up for 10 lessons.... and for the first time in many years, I picked up a paintbrush.


So many of my students struggle with how to set up a consistent practice outside of class hours. I can see the pressure they are putting on themselves, and their frustration. 

I tell them to remember learning to drive a car as a teenager: There is no way you could learn to drive if you only practiced an hour or two a week in Driver's Ed for a couple months. You had to put in dozens, maybe hundreds of hours behind the wheel for a few years before driving a car started to feel completely comfortable and natural. Learning to paint is exactly like that. As the instructor, I can give you some help and ideas and guidelines, but to get a feel for painting, you just have to do it on your own for a few hundred hours.

But I know it's hard to find a way to put in those hours. 

If you want to paint and you are not painting, then whatever you are currently doing to try to paint is not working, so try something completely different.

Instead, just do the smallest thing you can call "creative." Go for a walk and take some snapshots. But if you plan to do that and you find the weekend goes by and you didn't get around to it, do something smaller: just go browse in a flower shop or bicycle shop. And if that does not happen, just notice a crack in the pavement with some moss growing in it. Just stop and look at something that interests you for 5 seconds. 

That's it, you are being creative.

We are all creative all the time, we just don't realize it. If you want to paint, you probably already notice things around you all the time you wish you could paint or draw. Our ideas about what is Art, or what is Real Art, or what is Good Art versus Bad Art , don't help us to actually be artists. Don't focus on being a good artist. Don't try to be motivated or disciplined, don't even try to be an Artist. 

Just focus your attention on what interests you in your normal, day-to-day life, starting with just a few seconds or minutes at a time. The rest takes care of itself.

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  • Response
    I came across a fantastic blog post ‘Motivation and Discipline don’t help‘ by the realist painter Sadie Valeri that I just have to share with any fellow artist reading this blog who may be going through a loss of direction with their art or a total block in creating.
  • Response
    [...]Sadie Valeri Atelier | Classical Realism Oil Paintings and Art Classes | San Francisco, California - Blog - Motivation and Discipline Don't Help[...]

Reader Comments (29)

Thank you, Sadie.

Mid-way into making my n-th sphere drawings I wandered off to take a moment's rest besides my laptop, and as usual I opened blogs of artists whose work I admire to see what's going on in their studio. And here it is, this blog entry -- thank you for spending such significant time writing a long, revealing post like this in your busy schedule to share the experiences along the long, hard roads of artistic pursuit.

Very few people would like to admit what you have shared with your students in class, and here on your blog. I love your work but it is the sincerity & honesty you have shown toward art, and the process of making art that makes me admire you as an artist, a person I look up to.

You don't know how much it means to learn about what difficulty you have gone through before to reach who you are and what you are able to do today. Every time I get really frustrated in front of the easel, I read them to encourage myself to stick to the vision and keep on moving.

Thank you. You are an artist who teaches -- not only about making art, but also about how to be an artist, and how to be a human being in its most sincere sense. I will always remember what I have learned from you.

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElflling

It's always reassuring to know that someone whom one admires also went through a deep trough of despondence and despair - and found her way out! Setting unrealistic goals for oneself and comparing oneself to others (and their achievements) are losing efforts from the get go.
Thank you for your honesty and sharing your experience. You are an inspiration. All the best,
Margaret Tcheng Ware

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret Tcheng


This was very inspirational. Thank you for sharing. I myself have been feeling down with my work and currently in a "artistic bump" that leaves me wondering if I should continue this route. For the past few months, I've been in hiatus from the artistic environment because of the exact problems you mentioned on this post.


December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatias Salas

I had a 6 year painter's block after feeling like what I painted wasn't "real art". It took taking an encaustic wax workshop, something I knew absolutely nothing about, with an instructor who has become my biggest cheerleader and mentor, in order to get back into painting. I don't know what made me sign up for the class, but I am glad I did.

I think we get so bogged down with what art is supposed to look like that it kills any joy we have for making it. It's hard to be creative under so much pressure.

Very nice post and beautiful work!

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJhina Alvarado

I really admire your work and I follow your blog faithfully. Thanks for posting your experience and your former studio setup. It's encouraging and thoughtful. Your sincerity is refreshing.

By the way, your studio setup is just like mine, only I use a corner of my bedroom. :-)

Best wishes,
Richard Jones

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Jones

A remarkably honest assessment of where many of us find ourselves at some point in our "art lives". I was so discouraged after undergraduate work (BFA) I went to law school and didn't paint for over 12 years. The 'real art" drumbeat is hard to ignore.

I am sure your honesty and sensitivity on this subject will help many. Well done!

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Paris

P.S. My first studio when I started to paint again was about a 5' x 5' corner of a storage building. And I was thrilled to have it!

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Paris

Thanks for your sincere post. I admire your work a lot. Your are a real artist.

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie Heather

You could have been describing my life exactly! After high school I studied for 2 years at a college that selected its students for their drawing ability. Then I went on to university where the profs were all abstract artists. By the end of 3 years there I was so discouraged that I chose to not go for my masters as I had intended. I stopped art making for over a decade, later studying graphic design which lead to my job. Finally I got back to painting after finding a wonderful art club of mainly seniors 20 and 30 years older than I was, but with whom I shared a vision that it was ok to be a representational artist. I always thought of myself as an artist but it took a long time to get to here.

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Berry, B.F.A., R.G.D.

This is a wonderful post! I have sometimes had the same inertia and fear of being a "bad artist." I have both a BFA and an MFA but worked for years as an illustrator because I too had been taught that the really good stuff was non-representational. I have always tried to remember what it was that first took my interest and attention regarding the act of drawing. The ability to make a little world of one's own and to have whatever you want in that world was a big factor. I am coming into the last third of my life and "career" and find that accolades and awards, while still very nice to consider, are much less important to me than the feeling I have when totally immersed in a painting or drawing or some of the fibre/textile projects I so love to do. Art should be about love of the process and hopefully the rest takes care of itself.

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Martin Sampson

Thank you so much for this post!!! Reading it was very healing for my soul. I definitely identify with your sentiments. It struck me while reading your post, why do we do this to ourselves?

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArborescence

Thank you.

December 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

i've always admired your work Sadie and it is so kind of you to share your experiences... and i thought i was the only one feeling those things;)

December 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrahina q.h.

Thank you so much, everyone, for all your insightful comments. It continues to be a revelation to me how many young artists are made to feel isolated and not "good enough," and how those injuries stay with us all our lives.

The most important thing is to keep making art. Nothing else is more important. Just keep going!

December 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSadie J. Valeri

Sadie, firstly, I am glad I found you on Facebook.

It's stories like this that inspire me.
When I was in high school, I got accepted at the Chicago Art Institutes School of Art during a portfolio day. It was my dream. My family didn't have any money, it was too late to apply for scholarship and I could not afford it so I started work right after school. I worked for 5 years and sat down and thought if I did pursue art, I would be a commercial artist and I would never feel the joy to create what I wanted which was a bit of a cop out...I chose to be a nurse which is very stable but VERY STRESSFUL... I had put away my dream to be 'an artist' for many years until a very dark depressing period of my life began and I started to paint. It helped me escape...I have not stopped painting and I push myself to be better and to try everything...
I had a goal to get into a gallery and to travel and to find some success somewhere...I have met those.
I set a goal to get out of the basement and get a real studio...flooring is being laid this week! :)

I think it is important to never give up, follow YOUR passion and push the art is mine and it makes me happy!

Your in the right place and where you should be...your work has inspired and motivated me...keep doing what your doing!! Thank you for such a heartfelt and insightful post.

December 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Leib

Like so many others my wife Maria and I follow your blog. I find your work hugely inspirational and truly exceptional. It's impossible for me to put into words what I feel when I see each new piece. Knowing you personally and having watched an ever-so-small part of your artistic journey from when we met to where we are now lends to it a magic and wonder that's too deep to fathom. My reply to your post doesn't have a specific point, per se, so please forgive me while I ramble a smidge.
I am a commercial artist. There are a lot of different reasons why this definition is true. In part it's because others tell me what to paint/draw/sculpt and then I do it (to their specifications). In part it's because I get paid to do it instead of getting paid after the piece is done. But I think the main reason this definition applies is because of my subject matter. I create monsters. Dinosaurs and dragons, nightmare beasts and goblins. People like me aren't real artists. Our work appeals to low-brow, childish mind sets and has nothing socially or politically relevant to say. Just ask a fine art dealer. I'm sure they can tell you all about it. When I was in art school I argued a great deal with my professors. I told them that "commercial" art was just art, and that much of it was just as valid as that hanging in the galleries in new york. Not that I'm trying to convince anyone here. That's a conversation for another time. More just that I think I am a commercial artist not because of any flaw in my character, a mercenary nature that states I will only produce art for money, but that I am the artist that I am because it was the only venue where that which burned within my mind could escape into the world and be appreciated not reviled. I've sincerely made my peace with that. But it took years for me as well. In the circles I move in there is a lot of discussion about the emotional bankruptcy of what we do, about everyone's "personal projects", things they pursue for fulfillment to repair the damage done by the art factory environment we subsist in. I do personal stuff, too, to be sure. But I love what I do and what I create. I just wish it hadn't taken me so long to realize that it was all right for me to feel that way. Rambling session over, now.

December 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterc.

Sadie, You have clearly hit a very strong nerve and I think so many, many artists have similar journeys. I am one of them, although far behind you. Your story inspires me to continue on the path. The most important lesson you have helped me with is to listen to yourself and to validate your own vision. There are many ways to make art, but we each have our own personal authentic way. Thanks, Connie C

December 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

Sadie, I think the word "creative" is just as crippling as the word"art." I gave up both a looooong time ago and went forward just painting what I really wanted to paint.
Your buddy,
Catherine Prescott

December 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercatherine prescott

I couldn't believe it after reading your post - it was like you'd sifted through my soul and identified the very thing I struggle with everyday!! The pressure to create 'great art' is always present and it's comforting to know I'm not alone.
Thank you, wonderful post Sadie.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHolly Hartwell

C- I can totally identify with your illustrator vs. artist personality split...I like what Brad Holland has to say about the subject which is that us "illustrators" should just think and market ourselves as artists...just cuz we already are!

Great post, Sadie. I wonder how many art school grads have the same experience- I know hardly any of my old classmates do any painting anymore.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark Heng

Excellent post Sadie. It was so honest and heart felt. I am sure that through this post, you have helped many creative people who go through so much self doubt. I too went through a similar struggle. Such a truthful post tells a lot about who you are. I feel honored just to know you a little bit. Best wishes in all you do, you ARE amazing!

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterloriann


Thank you so much for this post. I've been following your blog for many months now. Your work looks so effortless and has such a quiet grace, even when you show your progress, it's hard to believe you have ever struggled.

Right now I feel like I'm going through what you did when you graduated from RISD, accept at my school representational art was kitschy and Thomas Kinkade was the devil's sidekick(the only present day artist I knew at the time to paint representationally).

This year I enrolled in an online atelier program with Jonathan Hardesty and am thrilled with what I am learning so far. I had never heard of an atelier before, and how great would it have been if I had known in high school!Now I have to make up for lost time...

Thank you for your blog, for your honesty and well, everything! I have learned so much from you and only wish I lived on the west coast so I could learn from you personally.

December 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan

Thank you Sadie for such an insightful post. From the number of comments your blog post has definitely struck a chord with your readers. After reading it I went and blogged about your post and my experiences of Art School messing my head up.

Your work is stunning by the way - 'The Bottle Collection' is beautiful.

Best wishes, Emma

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmma Brooks


My I say that your story is a sad testament to "Modern" Art Schools and their philosophies.
Let me refer you to a movement afoot at the Art Renewal Center:

Thank you

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Plummer

Hi Sadie, you've also described my experience, particularly the Bad vs Important art dilemma, which is a large part of why I dropped out of a university art school, and then spent years floundering for a possible subject/direction, before giving up painting entirely...until now. How encouraging it is to read the story of an artist who's faced similar obstacles, known the same paralysis, and yet come through it all to paint as beautifully as you do, and to teach others...Thanks for posting this!

January 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie
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