Advice to an Artist, from Sherwood Anderson

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Sherwood AndersonSherwood Anderson is one of my favourite writers. For years, I had this letter (published in The Sherwood Anderson Reader) he wrote to his son - an aspiring painter in Paris at the time - photocopied and enlarged on my wall. Anderson was in his early 50s. To my mind it says pretty much everything that needs to be said about creating art. Or just being a human being. 



Ripshin Farm

Grant, Virginia



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 salable 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. 



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