I’m in a relaxed state of mind as the fog lifts off the lake this Sunday morning. There is a loon about 30 feet off the dock and she just took a dive, startled by the noise of my fingers on my iPad’s keyboard. The lake is quiet and peaceful, no boat noise. I did see an early morning canoe in the distance, in the shadow of the mountain. There are layers of trees, each a little lighter and grayer as they recede into the distance, and the water is still as a statue. The lake is like a giant amplifier, and I can actually hear the conversation of the couple in the canoe though they are a half mile away. Nothing interesting, just small talk.

Last weekend I was invited to be a part of something I consider pretty special: the Putney Painters, a painting group in Putney, Vermont, headed by legendary artist Richard Schmid and his wife, Nancy Guzik. As my Grandmother Luella used to say, “a red letter day.” I’ve been once before, when Richard painted my portrait. But this time I was invited to paint with the group.

This was the second-to-last official Putney Painters gathering involving Richard Schmid. He has decided to end it officially because of other things he wants to accomplish drawing his time and attention. The group has been meeting weekly, certain times of the year, in a lovely old red barn called Village Arts of Putney for the past 10 or so years.

Sometimes I get invited to places because people want press or coverage, but that wasn’t the case this time; no one was over-promoting or asking for coverage. It was just a calm, easygoing day, where we all painted. And because I set up directly behind Richard, where I could see every brushstroke, I learned while I observed and painted.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Richard paint before, and one day I set up in the garden next to him and did a painting of him painting. Of course, I’ve watched all his DVDs, and I’ve read his books, including the new version of Alla Prima, the must-read bible on painting. He also told me how excited he is because before Christmas, he is re-releasing his book The Landscapes with more content, and even more brilliant scans and printing, making the few remaining copies of his current Landscapes book a rare collectible.

What I learned in painting with Richard this time was that he is not in a hurry, as I tend to be. Everything is slow and deliberate, even though his paintings look like they were done rapidly and are filled with energy. He takes time in observation, then takes time mixing, then more time observing, then he lays down a perfect stroke. He once told me he used to spend his time correcting mistakes, so by being more deliberate and careful, he eliminates mistakes up front.

I also noticed how softly he paints. He spends a lot of time laying down soft brushstrokes, and in some cases he softens them still further, with a sable brush or even his hands or a rag. It was an important lesson for me … slowing down and being soft.

He talked about how likeness is achieved by squinting down and painting the big shapes, saying that one does not need to know anatomy, but just to paint the shapes one sees. He talked about the importance of squinting for shape — but not making things as dark as they appear when squinting.

But I’m not here to provide an art lesson today.

Richard finished his painting early and walked through the room to talk with and help most of the painters, people who had all been painting with him — in some cases, over decades. It was amazing, the quality of the paintings by the people in the room … people like Kathy Anderson, Stephanie Birdsall, Charlie Hunter, and many others I’d met only once or twice before. Stephanie was like a giddy little girl after Richard spent 10 minutes showing her how to get perfect soft edges on her painting. “I’ve been here on and off for years, and this one day was one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned,” she told me.

I shuddered inside when the master sauntered up to my painting, studied it, then said, “I think your drawing is off on the back of the head.” (We were painting Symi Jackson from Rosemary & Co Brushes.) Then he took his brush and measured and said, “Nope, I was wrong. It’s perfect.”

He looked at me and said, “I had no idea you were such a good painter.” Then he walked away.

Though I’ve always found Richard to be encouraging to others, I also know he does not throw out compliments unless there is good reason. He always looks for something encouraging to say to someone, for sure — “nice colors” kinds of things. But to hear this sent me to the moon. Of course, what I did not tell him is that I was watching and trying to emulate what he did. So the compliment may not be fully deserved … but I’ll take it.

That then brings me to my point for today.

The secret no one ever told me about, for decades, is that the biggest, most successful people are generous and focus constantly on generosity.

Though the media makes out big business leaders as ruthless, hard-nosed jerks, I’ve learned that for the most part, the opposite is true. Most of the business owners I know, some of whom have even become billionaires, are not ruthless at all. Instead, they are generous. They have learned, as I did, that if you set out to actually change people’s lives, set out to help them while expecting nothing in return, you magically end up more successful. It could almost be considered one of the laws of the universe.

I spent many decades in business without fully understanding this principle. Though I’ve always been a giving person, I kind of separated that out to my personal life. It was radio talk host Dave Ramsey who urged me to incorporate a spirit of generosity into my business.

It was like flipping a switch. When I told my team to approach everything this way, it was an eye-opener for us all, and suddenly it gave us more purpose. Suddenly things were not just about business or profits, they were about using the business as a tool to change lives, to make change in the lives of others. Showing up for work had a new meaning, and my entire demeanor changed.

No one likes to show up for work unless there is a bigger mission, and my mission on the art side of my business is to teach 1 million people to paint. Painting changed something inside of me, and I want others to experience the joy, the satisfaction, the continual stimulation, and the ability to use their creativity.

If I had to define my purpose in everything I do, it’s to educate, inspire, and engage people. If something pops up and it does not fit within those three words, I don’t do it. It’s got to fit the mission.

One thing I hear continually about Richard Schmid is that he is generous. I could see it when I watched him truly interested in helping the Putney Painters. I’ve heard it from dozens of people who say his true interest in helping them resulted in their entire careers blossoming.

I was raised by generous parents and grandparents who instilled those values into me at a young age. But my mentors in business never taught me this important lesson, and I ultimately had to find it on my own. I spent a lot of years wandering around without a mission. Though I had goals, I did not have a bigger purpose.

Since changing that attitude a few years ago, everything has changed in our world, and we’re able to affect a lot more lives in so many ways I never thought would be possible. We even managed to pay for and build a home in a homeless village because we take a significant part of our earnings and try to put them to good use for charities. It sure feels better coming to work every day knowing that our work has deeper meaning.

Once generosity found my heart, I kept running into others who operate on this principle, and I’m seeing lives and attitudes change because of so many others taking this approach.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t work if you do it for the purpose of growing your business. But it will help your business grow, as a side benefit. And even if it doesn’t, it makes showing up for work much more pleasurable.

As you know, I teach marketing for artists, and I spend a lot of time studying the biggest successes. And I’ve since discovered that though all are savvy marketers, the majority are very generous. I think that’s why Richard Schmid became so famous. He’s a brilliant painter, but there are other brilliant painters who have never been discovered or become so successful. I think it’s that spirit of generosity that propels people beyond anything they could do on their own.

I asked Richard where he learned this spirit of giving. “My mother,” he said. “We were always raised to put others first.”
So our thought for this week is: What can you do to be more generous to others, expecting absolutely nothing in return? In what ways can you go above and beyond to be generous?

Though this weekly note is fairly new, readership is already soaring. Imagine how much impact you and I can have if we each implement more generosity for a solid week. I think it could be huge.

Recently I discovered a hot young artist by the name of Sean Escott, who I think is the next budding superstar plein air painter. He sent me an e-mail asking for some advice, and though time is tight, I gave him more time than I had to help him launch his career. Frankly, once he is discovered, his life is going to change.

Anyway, at the end of our talk, he said, “How can I repay you?” And though it was tempting to say, “Send me a painting” or something, my heart told me that would send the wrong message. My reply was simple: “One day you’ll have a chance to help someone learn the important lessons you’ve already learned. The best thing you can do to pay me back is to do this for someone else in the future. Pay it forward.”

That, my friends, is what we all need to do. Play the long game. Pay it forward. And even if business rewards don’t come, it doesn’t matter, because seeing someone’s eyes light up when you’ve been unexpectedly generous — that’s the best possible reward you can ever get.

This week, be generous. It truly is the secret to success.

PS: I took some photos at the Putney Painters that day. You can view them below.