Why I Give My Paintings Away

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Several years ago, my wife, Lindsey, and I visited a relative whose late husband was a struggling, though respected, Abstract Expressionist in New York. Although his paintings had been in galleries, museums, and private collections, he died without reaching the higher levels of the art market. Our relative had remained in their vast apartment near Central Park, which housed the late painter’s studio. In it were hundreds of canvases piled on top of each other. Some were stuck together with thick globs of oil paint that hadn’t fully dried when added to the pile decades earlier. The volume was overwhelming and his widow didn’t know what to do with them. I was horrified!

I want my paintings on walls not stacked up in an attic. I’ve known too many painters with storage units housing artworks that will, literally, never see the light of day. That’s how I feel now; but even before I got serious about painting, I liked how it felt to give pieces away.

During college, I worked in a photo lab for the campus yearbook and newspaper, and later entered an art school to study photography—only lasting one semester before dropping out—so, I was used to having my photos seen and even sold. Around that time, I started to dabble with painting and gave a few Early Works to my parents, sister, and aunt.

The Road to Enlightenment
Lillian Kaplan, Westwood, CA
1972 • 24 x 30

I liked having my artwork on display. As I mention in my Artist’s Statement, when I was a child I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to gaze at the Impressionist paintings. I can remember a heartfelt sensation that maybe, someday, I could be a painter like that—a dream that was always in the back of my mind, as it must be for most aspiring artists. It didn’t dawn on me how my work would find an audience, nor that one day they would be “priceless,” which is what I often tell people.

Turned Off to Selling

I met Lindsey Hall at an arts and crafts fair in 1977, where I was selling flying toys for a friend and she had a booth of her soft-sculpture dolls. After falling in love at first sight, we expanded her “Gürze Designs” doll business. As this 1984 video clip shows, the dolls took off, and in addition to the hundreds of stores where they were sold, we also attended lots of fairs.


Even though we wholesaled a quarter-million handmade dolls, we struggled financially.  The fairs were horrendous. The thing that I most detested was when someone would “absolutely love” the dolls and laugh at how funny they were, but wouldn’t buy one. I saw the same dynamic replayed at every other artist’s and craftsperson’s booth, as well.

That feeling stuck with me, and even though I was a decade away from taking up oils regularly, I knew I did not want to ever go through the experience of putting my artistic work front and center to be rejected by the public. Because I’d had no training and didn’t really know what I was doing, I painted without outside opinions. I developed my own style and techniques, and that included not following a path towards galleries and gift shops—all of which were outlets for Gürze Designs.

Around the start of the new millennium, I’d been painting more and more, and when friends would compliment a piece, I’d offer it to them. Even when I might have felt that the pictures were flawed, I figured if someone wanted one, they could have it. Here are a few examples from that period:

Train over Buena Vista Lagoon ~
Rick & Cheryl Negus, Carlsbad, CA
2002 • 48 x 32


Morro Rock & Power Plant ~
Michael & Jordonna Dores, Morro Bay, CA
2002 • 30 x 24


Santa Barbara #1 ~
Steve & Shelly Koski, Santa Barbara, CA
2003 • 24 x 18

Everyone Wants a Free Painting!

Having those friends hang my paintings in their homes gave me confidence, and, as is evident by the All Paintings chronological gallery, my output steadily increased with their validation. Of course, I was only a “hobbyist,” but I wasn’t shy about talking about painting or showing pictures of my latest canvases. Around that time, our professional lives also shifted. The doll business had ceased years earlier, and we were writing and publishing books, including the first ever written about bulimia. Our company, Gürze Books, became the world’s leading resource for information on eating disorders. I traveled extensively to professional conferences and speaking engagements, and wherever I went, I felt driven to let everyone know that—in addition to writing, publishing, and pioneering the eating disorders field—I was an oil painter. And, I gave my artwork away! I unabashedly featured paintings as title cards in my PowerPoint talks, simply because I felt compelled to do so.  Subsequently, I’ve given scores of my paintings to therapists throughout the United States and in several other countries, as well.

Carlsbad Flower Fields #5 ~ Catherine Cook-Cottone, Buffalo, NY 2013 • 8 x 10


Back Roads Central Coast ~
Johanna McShane, Lafayette, CA
2012 • 24 x 18


Venice, CA Canal #2 ~
Steve Emmett, Providence, RI
2014 • 20 x 16

While my artist friends were bending over backward to sell a small percentage of their paintings, mine were getting hung all over the place. The book business was good, and I felt that I could afford to give more away. The costs were small compared to the satisfaction I was getting by knowing that friends and strangers were seeing my artwork every day. At first, I thought it was cool that my loved ones would think of me whenever they noticed my paintings on their walls; but, when eating disorders treatment centers started hanging them up I really liked the idea that the moments of meditation and inspiration I experienced during the painting process would somehow rub off on the viewers.

When the Balboa Park Conservancy agreed to accept twenty of my pictures for their offices, I could not have been happier. Most exciting is that their boardroom is the locale for meetings with representatives from the park’s 17 museums and other dignitaries.


Leigh visits paintings • August, 2015


Balboa Park Conservancy Boardroom

Priceless or Worthless?

Lindsey and I enjoy watching the “Antiques Roadshow” on television, especially when participants bring in paintings by obscure artists. I’m amazed by how much the expert knows, and based on what I hear, I can usually estimate the value pretty closely. I like to think that on a show someday far in the future, someone will bring an old, framed canvas passed down from their parents and grandparents. The expert will see my signature, find LeighPaintings.com (or whatever source is in use by then), and will say, “It’s hard to put a value on that piece…”

For me, the value comes in having people see them.

Be sure to check under Available Paintings to find out about receiving one of my pictures.





  1. Tom Udell on May 11, 2022 at 4:26 pm

    My daughter graduated Rhode Island School of Design and it cost me a great deal of money. She is an excellent painter with unusual sensibilities. It’s hard enough for her to make a living as is, but when the competition is giving away their product for free it is very unfair, and it will take her that much longer to pay me back. So, Leigh, STOP GIVING AWAY YOUR PAINTINGS!!!


    • Leigh Cohn on May 12, 2022 at 8:33 am

      Thanks, Tom. You are absolutely right! This year instead of giving away paintings, I’m asking that donations be made to the Ocean Conservancy.

  2. Ray Lemberg on November 12, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    Leigh, you are one very exceptional artist, and more importantly human being. It is my good fortune to know you. All my best,
    Ray Lemberg

  3. Linda Alspaugh on August 31, 2020 at 6:01 pm

    I loved reading your story. In today’s head spinning world it’s so refreshing to learn about someone who has such a generous heart. Your paintings are beautiful. You have a wonderful talent. My husband and I love how you capture the feeling of our favorite place Terra Mar. Thank you.

  4. RORY D on November 18, 2019 at 11:48 pm

    As a proud owner (foot of bed where I see every morning) – is your beautiful So. Cal beach. Thanks again for Beauty.

  5. Dina Good on October 31, 2019 at 10:15 pm

    Oh my goodness! My heart is full, reading this and knowing what joy you’ve brought to countless people, simply for the sake of art and kindness! How inspiring! I wear a necklace that costs me $5, but is pretty — when anyone compliments me on it, I give it to them. I always have a few at home to replace the one I gave away. Definitely NOT the same as giving away a gorgeous painting to someone who admires it, but the feeling of enjoying gifting must be a little similar, but on a grand scale. You are a treasure! Thank you for filling our world with your art.

  6. Jordonna Dores on October 25, 2019 at 2:31 am

    What a joy it has been to follow your journey. When it was time to sell our home on the Swan River, one of the things that eased the “letting go” was that we got to bring the paintings with us. Thank you for your generosity in sharing so many….of both Morro Bay and Montana. I must admit I feel a tad bit guilty for having quite a few of your paintings adorn our walls…but also glad to know that so many others are enjoying your creative work. And what a body of work it has become!

  7. Mary Ann Lane on August 7, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    I love looking at your paintings from years ago and currently. They keep getting more beautiful and I love each one. I can only imagine the number of people that grace the many walls in homes and businesses. Thank you for keeping me up to date on your research of Monet and other painters. I love reading your newsletter. Love the video!

  8. Dennis Koski on March 21, 2019 at 6:47 pm

    Wow! Was that fun reading and watching the video of your younger selves. Love is, love is, love is.

  9. Francesca Droll on February 8, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    It has been so fun to follow your artistic journey over these many years! We proudly have 3 Leigh Cohn paintings so I didn’t request another one. I’m so happy to hear that you will continue painting and that you’ve found new inspiration to keep you motivated. Paint on!

  10. Tara Hoveland on November 18, 2018 at 8:31 pm

    Love this story! I too used to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the impressionist paintings. I am no artist, but appreciate being surrounded by art, at home, in my office, and in mother nature. Thank you for sharing your story and your art with the world.

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