How to be an artist

134

Dear Artist,

Today is my and my twin brother James’ birthday and the second anniversary of the day we said goodbye to Dad. An old friend recently came to the door with an amazing gift. It was something my dad had given to his dad shortly after they met in Fuengirola, Spain in 1964. Bert, an Englishman, first noticed Dad standing at an easel near the beach. A hobbyist, Bert cruised up behind to take a look, and as he did, a little crowd grew around the painter. The story goes that after a long period of saying nothing, Bert suddenly exclaimed, “My, that’s a magnificent brush!”

RG286-Myself-at-Work-1969-12x16IMG_5338

“Myself at work, 1969”
12 x 16 painting
by Robert Genn

Yesterday, Bert’s son David handed me a small, coiled notebook. Inside, in Dad’s handwriting, it read, “How To Be An Artist, by Robert Genn, for the private edification of Bert Wallis. Copyright 1965.” Dad was 29. Along with tips on perspective, diagrams, how to light an object, the difference between good and bad trees, tone, value and colour (the trickiest part,) the book explains the specifics of preparing a canvas for oil painting, toning a ground and the ins and outs of alla prima. It also covers glazing and mixing greys. Part personalized instruction manual for a friend and part first-draft of these letters, “How To Be An Artist” reads as the purest, greenest incarnation of what would emerge as a lifelong cathedral of themes. Here’s an excerpt:

Bert-Wallis-and-Carol-Genn_Isle-of-Man-1981-11x14

“Bert Wallis and Carol Genn, Isle of Man, 1981”
11 x 14 painting
by Robert Genn

“Paint in positive strokes, full brush, pressed right out, stroked, dragged or scumbled. (If you fiddle around too early we will have to let you go.)”

And:

“Note: All of the activities of picture making (drawing, colouring, philosophizing) merge to make one whole solution in the end. Try to anticipate problems in your drawings. EG: Don’t stand a brown cow in a brown field. Make it a white horse.”

And:

“Let your enthusiasms take you where they will. Conventions are to learn by, but don’t let them govern you. If you have a passion to paint on glass like Kennington, go to it. New things help you and sharpen your self-knowledge — you learn what you can and cannot do. Learning what you cannot do is just as important as learning what you can do.”

RG_Village-Below-the-Olives_24x30

“Village below the olives” (circa 1999)
24 x 30 inch painting
by Robert Genn

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Because good paintings are ‘life enhancing’ (Berenson) — they should be positive, happy things. It follows that if the artist is unhappy, he gives it away with every little stroke of his brush. This is why they say, ‘Paint with gusto.’ Nobody likes niggly-fiddly persons, let alone paintings. So, put in the ‘work’ to give yourself the ‘courage’ to be ‘happy’ when you paint. A TALL ORDER.” (Robert Genn, from How To Be An Artist, 1965)

Esoterica: While both are gone now, the friendship of Bert and Bob lives on in the little book that Bob made for Bert, that Bert kept and passed on to David, who gave it to me at the end of May, 2016. “Addenda: There are no rules. Some axioms, conventions and methods that look like rules and sometimes pass for rules are of value. Because they save us the trouble of learning things the hard way (which often is the best way) they allow us sooner to be able to stand upon the shoulders of other men.” (Robert Genn, May 15, 1936 – May 27, 2014)

We plan to publish How To Be An Artist by Robert Genn in the very near future.

How-To-Be-An-Artist-Cover

HowToBeAnArtist_How-To-Light-An-Object

HowToBeAnArtist_Paint-It-In-Positive-

 

 

 

If you find these letters beneficial, please share and encourage your friends to subscribe. The Painter’s Keys is published primarily by a team of volunteers, with a goal to reach as many creative people as possible. Thanks for your friendship. Subscribe here!

“ ‘The poor reader is the seldom reader,’ ” said Franklin, I think. So it is with paintings: PAINT LOTS. The more you practice what you know, the more you know what to practice.” (Robert Genn)

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134 Comments

  1. I hope you will publish How to be An Artist exactly how it is…with the stains, the scribbles, etc. One of the books I treasure is a published journal of Frida Kahlo with her scribbles and her written thoughts as she went through the trials of Diego’s infidelity and her many surgeries to relieve her pain. I look forward to another book to treasure….

  2. What a priceless gift…..and a very Happy Birthday to you and your brother. Bitter sweet no doubt. Thank you so much for these gifts of insight and experience you share with us all. Another priceless gift.

    • Oh Joy! Please please make sure we know when the book will come out, hopefully in it’s original form! Thank you Sara for continuing to publish these letters. Your dad was a jewel and you are too. And Happy Birthday to you and your brother!

  3. Wow, what a blessing to receive this book back into your lives. My first thought was – I hope they publish it! Then I scrolled down and saw that was exactly your plan. Awesome is an over-used word, but this really is AWESOME!

    • Me too. Me too. All of the above. What a miracle – as though your dad’s hand reached through the clouds to bless you both and all of you volunteers. And in so doing, blessing all of the many artists he inspired and encouraged as we trudge the road of happy destiny. Yes please, advance list for this treasure.

    • What a gift to receive – a source of spirit and love. Thank you for sharing it with us. Like Beth, I also hoped you would publish it and then felt exhilirated when you wrote, that that was your plan. Happy birthday.

  4. Karen Robinson on

    Hope truly wonderful, I can’t wait to see it, and thank you for all these lovely quotes. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

  5. Lisa Bancroft on

    Happy Birthday to both of you — fancy that, real Gemini twins! It is also my birthday today, a day of celebration, but also a day of remembrance as my father-in-law passed away on this day in 2014, just like your father. I treated myself to a lovely petit gris paintbrush today but I’ll also consider your blog post a gift — the advice you share is inspiring and I look forward to the publication of your father’s little book of advice.

    • Happy Birthday, Lisa…sending you warmth on this special day. Thank you for your friendship — and thank you to everyone here for being a part of the Painter’s Keys. Sara

  6. Just another reminder of just how much Robert is still with us and encouraging each of us along on our journey. Thank you for sharing–and best wishes for a Special Day to you and your brother. I share this birthday, too, and feel honored to do so.

  7. Lynda Vowell on

    What a timeless treasure and tribute to your Dad! Thank you for sharing it with us. Cannot wait to se the book!

  8. Loved this post…the seedlings of the generous, insightful and talented man we all came to know and treasure! Loved seeing who he was and what he was doing earlier in his art journey. It pays to pause to help the fellow traveller.

    Thank you to the awesome son for sharing it back!!!

  9. What a beautiful story, and how fortunate you are to have the book come back to you. I’m so glad you’ll publish it. I look forward to having a copy!

  10. Certainly will look forward to ‘The Book’….always love to see these newsletters…wonderful that you keep them coming..thank you Sara….

  11. What a lovely surprise , Happy Birthday to you and your brother . Your dad still guides many from the beyond . Such a birthday gift . Looking forward to reading it . Hard work , and lots of , ” well ,. that doesn’t work ” to find yourself as an artist . What an inspiration your dad was, and still is . Happy day to you Sara

  12. What a wonderful gift! Thank you for telling us about it. And happy birthday to you and your brother, Sara. Keep give US the gifts you so readily share.

  13. Sara…this is the best tribute ever to your Dad! It’s even by your Dad! Can’t wait to see the published copy.
    Happy ,happy Birthday to you and James!
    Love,
    Steph

  14. Joanne Coulton on

    Oh My! Thank you SoMuch for sharing! Love transcends and has no boarders! I feel your love shared.

  15. Happy Birthday and thank you for sharing this heart warming birthday gift. Look forward to seeing the book when you publish.

  16. Happy Birthday Sara and James! What an extraordinary treasure you have and I would love to have a copy of this special book when you publish. Thank you so much for sharing!

  17. Brenda Lowery on

    How wonderful a gift! Twice over and now soon again for all of us who so cherish your dad’s insight -and now yours. Happy Birthday, indeed!

  18. It’s such a joy to see the constant connection to your family and especially your dad’s passion for helping us make the best art one can. His painting/writing job, his love, and his ability to communicate is a treasure.

    Your family’s genetic engineering is perfection!

  19. joanna Kabat on

    I will look forward to this book -I enjoy The Painter’s Keys so much! It’s inspiring, surprising and encouraging. Thanks for this.

  20. Please add me to the list of those who would like to buy the book. I would love to have a bit of your father’s advice to listen to when things don’t go right. Many Thanks for all the letters. Love them all.

  21. What a wonderful story!Happy birthday to you!
    Let’s hear it for handwriting! What a treasure your father left.
    Isn’t it amazing to see your own parent’s handwriting appear ?
    And what a story it tells…the mere fact that he wrote this wonderful little book at all!
    Not to mention the information therein. A treasure you are so generous to share.

  22. Dear Sarah, happy birthday to you and thanks a lot for sharing this beautiful gift with us! Like many others I am looking forward to see the book and to order a copy as soon as it will be published. Regarding to that I would like to bring something to your attention (which you may have thought of yourself already). Though a lover of ‘facsimile editions” I would ask you to publish the text of the book in “proper printing” letters because many people who are – like me – not native speakers of the English language may have trouble recognising the words your Dad scribbled underneath his drawings and I would not like to miss one of them! A few pages in facsimile would be delightful, though!
    Thank you and I wish you all the best!
    Marinus Verhagen

  23. Steven Sweeney on

    I would immediately purchase several copies, to have available for hand-outs to artists whose interest is sincere and who are needful of a handful of tools to get their projects going. I have others of Mr. Genn’s books, but those are MINE!

  24. Judy Breedlove on

    What a wonderful present. Happy Birthday to you and your brother. Put me on the list to purchase this wonderful book. My mother has been gone for almost 20 years now; but, she always surprises me by slipping a little drawing between the pages of a long forgotten book or magazine…..little sketches of animals, a ship, a child. I treasure these “found” treasures almost as much as her paintings on my wall.

  25. Robert Coleman on

    Happy Birthday to you and your brother, and may God grant you many years!!
    And may your father’s memory be eternal!
    Plus what a wonderful surprise to receive back your father’s book. For a number of years I have been reading your father’s thoughts and then your thoughts and the reprise articles of his works. It would be fantastic to see the original source of his philosophy of art, which is what I love about your continuing blog. These musings are so pertinent to our art efforts, whether we work in charcoal, watercolor, pastel or oil. We all look forward to whichever way you publish the book, either as a copy of the original or as a typeset version. I’d love to get the copy of the original, just to get the flavor of Robert’s artistry. Looking forward to updates on the publishing details…. Thanks so much, bob.c

  26. Happy birthday Sara and James! Thanks for this blog post. What a wonderful gift you have been given, and I look forward to seeing it in print! I have a poster on my wall of one of Bob’s letters entitled “How to be an Artist.” It is one of my favourite reads and reminders!
    Anna

  27. Many happy returns. O looks like you got one. I love the quote: ” My, what a magnificent brush”. It is just like your father to see the priceless humour in such a statement. I can’t believe it’s been two years already. Those painful days seem far away, but the joy and humour feel like yesterday. Thanks for helping us keep his legacy and memory alive.

  28. Oh this is so exciting. I’m teary eyed at the thought of this friendship and his gift. To Bert, to you and to us all :)

  29. What a precious treat this letter is for all of us, Sara. It stopped me in the middle of a busy day and elated me. Bob was such a unique person graced with the talent to give what was needed. His generosity, charm, and humor are memorable – there are so many stories that need to be told. Happy birthday Sara and James. Thank you for this beautiful present!

  30. Hello Sara:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with your readers. We all miss your Dad!
    What a loving mark he has made on so many and this story just confirms it.
    Keep inspiring us Sara, just as your Father did. Love your artwork.
    Your newsletter is on my reading list every time I teach a workshop.
    Kindly, Jan

  31. Happy Birthday! I LOVE the book. Your dad always did speak to my heart. Thank you so much for publishing it. Please let me know when I can get a copy. I enjoy your blog posts very much. Thank You.
    Janet

  32. I am tempted to change my name to Bert Wallis so that I too can benefit from Robert’s “private edification”! Yes, PLEASE do publish that wonderful note book. Julian (for now).

  33. Happy Birthday Sara and James!.
    What a magnificent gift!!
    How wonderful you share the grace with the talent of your father ( and yours) with us in this newsletter.
    Look forward to the little book in print to gift myself and others!

  34. Shane Conant on

    What a legacy of sharing and love that you are so ably continuing on. A real art indeed!
    Happy Birthday!

  35. What an extraordinary surprise gift!! Lovely. You share my mother’s birthday as well. Just recently my daughters and I visited the spot she now enjoys, Botanical Beach on Vancouver Is. Her free spirit is truly free now. Many happy returns. And yes, I would love a copy of the book, please, please, please!!!

    • GEORGE REIS on

      SARA . A MOST HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FROM ANOTHER MAY TWIN OF NINETY YEARS AGO, MOST OF THEM SPENT BEHIND AN EASEL….AN ADMIRER OF YOUR DAD WHO YOU CONTINUE TO KEEP ALIVE………WELL DONE………………………….GEORGE

  36. Fabulous, touching letter. Happy birthday to you and your twin! I echo all the above letters…..can’t wait for the book. Bless you Sara and thanks.

  37. Happy Birthday to you and your brother Sara. It was a year ago since my father passed away, he was a dynamic painter, thinker and inspiration as well. Thank you for continuing the spirit, love and inspiration – as an artist and a daughter and simply – a very generous soul.

  38. What a wonderful gift indeed. Thank you for sharing, and I look forward to seeing it be available to all of us down the road.

  39. Happy Birthday, Sara! Like others have written, I’m looking forward to seeing the book and more versions of the Genn inspiration. I’m not a religious zealot, but Gennism sure has a tantalizing appeal.

    • Kathleen Burford on

      Happy Birthday Sara and James, the sadness of the second anniversary of your Dad’s death must be brightened by the wonderful legacy he has left you all. Our Love to your Mother three years ago we were in china with you all on your birthday

  40. A most happy birthday to you and your brother! You are going into my Bible book of birthday dates along with the rest of my friends and family.

    You’ve gone a great job of this, Sarah. And I am so sorry for OUR loss.

    Beth Mahy,
    Dallas

  41. Another Gemini birthday here! I am in good company. I followed your Dad’s many gifts of knowledge, plus learning to live my final days as I have been diagnosed with the same disease. I paint every day and recently had an exhibit of 70 small paintings I did since that dark day. I focus on painting every day and look forward each morning to get to the easel. I thank him every day. So happy birthday to you and James ! How wonderful to feel the presence of your Dad through this exceptional gift.

  42. Absolutely wonderful, your recounting of your dad’s encounter with Bert. I look forward to ordering the little book when it’s published. And happy birthday!!

    • Ann Froshaug on

      Thank you Sara, for the latest heart warming piece. I am so grateful I stumbled on Painter’s Keys shortly before your wise and generous father died. Sorry to write that shocking word but his always directness and getting through to what matters was and is so striking: you continue this practical and actually loving guidance which is so reliably sent out to the community of ‘us’… like an unending letter from a dear and wise friend. I look forward to the postings which are so encouraging and again and again moving.Thank you, Ann

  43. The story was, as usual, wonderful enough…but the news of the forthcoming sharing of the book is true to your Dad’s ongoing spirit of (Genn-erosity), which you have obviously inherited. Many Blessings and love to you and James on your special day and the year to come. Your letters always make my day and I can’t put into words how grateful I have been to be a part of this tribe for all these years. Namaste.
    Ps, Please forgive the pun, couldn’t resist :)

  44. This letter is such a treat! Best wishes and many happy memories to you both on your birthday and in the year to some.

    • Judy Klinger on

      Happy Birthday, Sara,
      Your Dad lives on in our lives every day, whether working in the field of art, or traveling or enjoying the nature around us.
      You are a gem that creates his never-ending legacy and your own contributions to art and beauty. Thanks so much.

      Judy K.

  45. Happy Birthday Sara, to you and your twin. The book is a treasure and thank you for sharing, and I so agree that it should be reproduced as is. Thank you also for continuing the Letters, I look forward to every post and go back and reread my giant book of your Dad’s letters often.

  46. Sara, some gifts are beyond price. Your father was himself one such gift and this tangible, timeless reminder of him, his living interest in others, and his lifelong craftsmanship is another. I am so happy for you.

  47. All I can add to what has been said is ——Thank you for carrying on your father’s legacy Sara. He was an exceptional human being who shared his great gift with us and instilled it in you. As artists, we are blessed to have these insights. The book will be one more piece of the treasure to which we all look forward. Many happy returns of this day.

  48. Elaine McManus on

    What a beautiful gift and a treasure of your dad’s life and work! I’m delighted to learn that you’ll be publishing it and look forward to reading and learning from a special artist. Hope you enjoyed a wonderful birthday.

  49. As always, beautiful and inspiring thoughts; thank you! Love a copy of the book. Happy birthday to you and your brother. :-)

  50. Maritza Burgos on

    Happy Birthday Sara to you and your Brother,best wishes for the day and the year to come, and how wonderful to read about the especial present you received from your dad, Robert
    He is still reaching out to you and all of us across time!, I can not wait to be able to hold and read such precious little book, and like previous comments, the original, handwritten, scribbled version is the best option !!
    As for the tittle “How to be an Artist” I would also add “and How to live”….,as Robert’s observations have always struck me as an everyman’s philosophy of life
    Thank you for sharing and keeping the Painter’s Key Community alive and thriving.
    Maritza ,from Melbourne,Australia

  51. Cynthia Grover on

    Happy birthday, Sara. Thank you for continuing your Dad’s legacy these past years. The little book is truly a gem and I am eager to buy several. It would be lovely if you can include images of some of the more meaningful sketches in your Dad’s handwriting, along with the text – even more delightful!

  52. Happy belated Birthday to you and your brother. Thank you for all you’ve done to remember your wonderful Dad and look forward to the book also. I have all his letters form the beginning and cherish them all. Much love

  53. Thank you, Sara, for continuing your Father’s legacy. Truly a blessing for all who are lucky to have a connection to the,Painters Keys. And a belated birthday wish for you and your brother….Have a Wonderful and Happy Year. I, too, look forward to buying a copy of your new Treasure from your Dad.
    Best Regards,
    Patricia Lynn

  54. Steve Eborall on

    Hello Sara,
    I hope you had a lovely birthday. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about art, and your father’s legacy and wonderful advice. I look forward to buying the book when it comes out.
    Best wishes,
    Steve

    PS, I was out cycling the other day ( a rare event in itself) when I thought about your dad. I remember he made a small bike trailer (art dog) that he would pull behind his bike, and then set up and paint.

  55. Dan Clement on

    Happy birthday to you and your brother, and thank you for the posts that you take the time to write. I’m always excited to see yours and your dad’s.

  56. You are very lucky. Both my grand-fathers were artists and I had to learn to paint many years after their passing, without their knowledge being passed on. I wish I had something like that from each each of them. Many Happy returns.

  57. Happy Birthday to you and your brother. Your Dad, it seems, found a way to contact you both on your birthday. What a wonderful present from the past. Thank you for carrying on The Painter’s Keys…. I would be lost some days without it. The subject of the posts still have a way of appearing just when I need a them. Thank you for sharing.

  58. Oh, WOW!! What a wonderful gift to share with the world. I can’t wait for this to be published! Please, Please, Please, Publish it exactly as it is in the note book? I want to see the hand writing, lines and EVERYTHING! :-D

  59. The handwritten notebook by Robert Genn is a GEM. Though I would love to see the printed version of it…It would be kinda cool to see the scan version of the handwritten notebook.

  60. What a treasure to receive your dad’s handwritten book. I started reading your dad’s blog when I started painting 14 years ago. There were moments I did not know where I was going in my art and questioned myself so much. Then I would read your dad’s blog and thought he must have been eavesdropping on the conversations between me and myself. He was such a hope to inspire me to keep on keeping on and give me perspective for grounding.

    sign me up for a copy of that book!

  61. Oh I would just love a copy when it comes out! How will we know?
    I listened to your Dads interview on the AHA show a long time ago and he was the most inspiring man! It’s the only episode I downloaded and I have listened to it at least ten times or more. What a wonderful man he was :0)

  62. Isn’t Robert Genn dead? If so, pretty weird that everyone loves his work, but doesn’t seem to know he can’t read their comments. Or am I thinking of another painter?

  63. Dear Anonomous,
    You apparently are not amongst the troves of us who have followed Robert Genn’s letters for years, having come to love the man in ways indescribable. It is his daughter Sara who carries his message on. And by the way, I am quite sure Robert still follows all this – and guides his daughter – from somewhere in heaven above.

    And Sara, yes, I too look forward to the book. How strange to say I miss your dad. But I do.

  64. Sara, a belated happy birthday to you and your twin. Your letter on being an artist jogged a memory for me that I thought I would share. In 2013, a MacArthur Grant recipient, Teresita Fernandez spoke eloquently to the business of being an artist as her commencement address to graduates of the Virginia Commonwealth School of the Arts. The piece is rather long so I have included the link for anyone interested: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/29/teresita-fernandez-commencement-address/

    Her remarks are rich with insight. One I particularly favor was this:
    ” When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them, “Why”? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.”

    I have taken her point to heart and attempt to explain to an artist why I like a work they have produced when the piece is posted online. The process is absolutely valid. I find that I must really examine the piece to discover why it spun my fan then share that observation with the artist in a comment. Most of this activity has to do with FaceBook’s “En Plein Air” Paintings and Painters.
    Thank you again for continuing this newsletter. Like so many of your subscribers, I look forward to it appearing early in the morning to be enjoyed with that first cup of coffee. A combination that seems to get a day started on the right track.

    Tom Auld

  65. Fredda Williams on

    My husband at 84 is just starting his journey into the arts. He is hooked and works daily for many hours. I always have a problem when I want to give him a gift. You have solved my problem this year. Cannot wait for the book to be printed.
    Please put me on the list for first printing. Thank you, Fredda

  66. Marilyn Somers on

    While I’m not painting at this time of healing (well) from surgery, my spirit is lifted and inspired from the threat of boredom by the Painers’ Keys! Thank you!
    If you are compiling a list of buyers of Roberts book, “How to be an Artist”, please add my name. !’ll treasure it.

    • Lillian E Walsh on

      When, oh When , my friend! I await this book with much anticipation. Sara, I have your father’s other book and enjoy it often. The thoughts and rhymes within its covers encourage me when the days are gloomy and enhance my thoughts even more in the light of a sunny day!
      Until the day I hear it is available, I shall keep rereading my tattered copy! in rose petals and paint,

  67. Raymond Tony Hawkins on

    I have been a follower and admirer of Robert Genn’s creative inspiration and philosophy for many years. Painterskeys.com has long been a valuable resource to so many talented dreamers.
    Thank you Sarah, you and your crew are doing an excellent job. Your wisdom and wit are so much like your dad’s.
    Can’t wait until the book is published.

  68. Has that wonderful book been published yet? That will be a gift fir the creative spirit and a gift from a friend I cherish but never have met.
    Please put me on the list of where how and when I can order the book.
    Thanks Geri Adam

  69. Venkatarao P Rao on

    I happened on this lovely letter while reading to days letter Playing with light,saw this at the bottom where several letters were highlighted. I am so glad to have read it. I read the letters sporadically,when I read one that leads to several more.
    I have loved the letters and gleaned your father’s wisdom from them. You are one lucky person to be his daughter. I would like to purchase a copy of the book when published. I would like to see the copy of the original page on one side and the type set text on the opposite side, that would be great. What a wonderful gift that would be to the community.

  70. I’m VERY late to the party. I have kept all of these letters going back a year (and I read diligently before you took over, Sara!) I just saw this one, and it is simply beautiful!

    Where are you guys in the process of publishing this book? I would definitely buy a copy! What a beautiful idea!

    Keep up the good work. These letters are gorgeous, and I find myself sharing them on my Facebook page a lot. So inspiring!

  71. just saw this come up again. I realize that I already wrote more than a year ago, , but, maybe it is a sign that I saw it today again. I have read Robert Genns letters since 2002, and enjoyed them all. I will treasure a little book. How it is coming along? Diane

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