Art director


Dear Artist,

Back in my days of freelance skirmishes on the periphery of the advertising business, I was often confronted with a person known as “Art Director.” Apart from making occasional good suggestions, this individual would change copy, fonts, illustrations and otherwise red-pencil my brilliance. Time and again I was sent back to the drawing board. One time I had devised a program for a meat packer that involved billboards with a huge wiener being carried off by cute little cartooned picnicking ants. He removed the ants. “One does not want to draw attention to the negative side of picnics,” he told me. It was about this time that I decided that the advertising game was not for me.

Weeping Woman, 1937 Oil on canvas 60 x 50 cm by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Weeping Woman, 1937
Oil on canvas
60 x 50 cm
by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Valuable lessons were learned in those atmospheric offices: However wrong, a second opinion is always interesting. However stupid, anything can be discussed. However wonderful, my greatest ideas — for some reason or other — might never see the light of day. As I was already out and about showing my paintings, I had come to the conclusion that the trick for fine artists was to have their own art director built in. While my wildest fantasy might be followed with impunity, the internal director was a useful partner and true friend who never got on my nerves or spoiled my fun. I rather came to like him. He was more sober than I, and he had a mature wisdom and taste that won my respect. He often suggested that I try harder and reach farther. And while he shot down a few of my “impossible projects,” I credit him with saving myself a lot of heartbreak.

Three Musicians, 1921 Oil on canvas 204.5 x 188.3 cm by Pablo Picasso

Three Musicians, 1921
Oil on canvas
204.5 x 188.3 cm
by Pablo Picasso

Keeping the company of my internal art director also taught self-reliance and self-motivation. At any time of day or night I could enter his office. Being another part of me, he was always willing to make suggestions, give council or criticize current efforts. It was like looking without fear into a mirror. These two guys, well suited as partners, shone back at me. The Eastern mystic Rumi has said, “It is criticism that polishes your mirror.” I began to see that many admirable artists have also lived with a mirror and a similar dual nature. With superb levels of self-criticism and self-governance, they have strategically and tactfully raised themselves. Brilliant creators are simply folks who are brilliantly self-critical.

Best regards,


PS: “Tell me what company thou keepest, and I’ll tell thee what thou art.” (Miguel de Cervantes)

Head, 1913–14 Cut and pasted coloured paper, gouache and charcoal on paperboard 43.5 × 33 cm by Pablo Picasso

Head, 1913–14
Cut and pasted coloured paper, gouache and charcoal on paperboard
43.5 × 33 cm
by Pablo Picasso

Esoterica: Many artists fear criticism and tighten up when they think they are going to get it. Learning to live with criticism is part of creative maturity. Advertising agencies thrive on it. Proper agency people may even become dependent on others for creative decision-making. When agency folks retire and become self-anointed artists, and I know lots of them, they often have trouble rationalizing the transition to self. At the same time many have learned to have no fear of criticism, self or otherwise. This is a good thing. “If criticism had any power to harm, the skunk would be extinct by now.” (Fred Allen)

This letter was originally published as “Art director” on January 13, 2006.

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“What a genius, that Picasso. It is a pity he doesn’t paint.” (Marc Chagall)



  1. Thank you, Sara and Robert! You seem to send these letters out, specifically on the day I am relating to it. Was just thinking this morning, about how important it is to be aware of, and listen to, your inner voice, or critic. To know yourself, and be true to it, despite what is going on around you, and in your life. And the Cervantes quote, is pertinent to me, right now. Seems one of my friendships is ending. It was always kind of a “rocky” one. I think it takes knowing ourselves well, to then pick our friends well. The Chagall quote is funny. And enjoyed seeing some of Picasso’s work. Thanks, again!

  2. Often I have to find a way to trick myself into not looking at one stroke or area, from a distance, and look at the whole. I am good at finding problems in the work of others, where the idea has been compromised by the details. I wonder how Pablo looked at his work. Maybe he just kept on working.

  3. Having also worked in both commercial and fine art, my analogy is that trying to apply fine art in a commercial art job is like trying to make brownies from a soup recipe.
    As to Kate’s comment about losing friends, someone once pointed out to me that some people are in your life for a reason or a season. When we paint, we realize we are different each day, gaining experience and integrating our changing feelings with our skills and talents. Sometimes we learn things about ourselves that are deal breakers with our previous way of living and painting. While it’s painful to lose a friendship, as good ones are few and far between, artists have to rely on truth, or else their art won’t progress. We can’t always keep everything the same without shortchanging creative possibilities.

    • Hi Peggy. I also took a commercial art job, after studying fine art in college. And, I agree with you, how different they are. My fine art self never “warmed up” to commercial art. And, I agree with you that some people are in our life for a season. It is painful to let go of a friendship. At some point, it’s not working, for either person, anymore. Like you said, people change all the time. Other things change. It’s scary to let go. But, with some maturity, you realize you have to take some risks, in order to do what you are meant to do. And even in relationships, sometimes we have to let go, to move forward in our creative life.

  4. When I first started to be an illustrator I soon discovered that my clients thought that they knew what they wanted but when shown what they asked for said no it needed something else
    I too gave up that world and became a painter and teacher and that life was right for me
    In recent years I have been asked for a painting as a commission and it without fail had its similar problems that the picture needed something else!! Despite the fact that they said that they loved what I did and wanted my talents to shine Well I guess that they were not exactly honest about trusting me

  5. It really is about trusting your own taste and choices, isn’t it. It’s difficult to not allow outside critiques to sway us away from our own vision and intentions. Having played the art organization game for some decades, I recall the influence over so many artists who kneeled completely on believing the only way to feel a sense of success was through acceptance by jurors and critiques. I recall feeling that way myself. If an artwork was rejected, it was slashed. Not to say there weren’t fine artists there who knew what they were talking about, they did. But once I went into rehab in my studio entirely solo with my internal art director, I found a sense of peace and self acceptance that I needed all along. Maybe this is an age and stage thing, more years to look back on and do my own critiques. I think there’s a Mark Twain quote in there somewhere. :) Thanks always for the words, Sara and Robert!

  6. Similar to my experiences, but most important lesson is to not take criticism personally. The greatest art may not be the right art for a particular purpose or person.
    Also sometimes the critic is right.

  7. I also worked in various capacities in advertising after many years as a fine artist and with no formal training as a designer, I somehow made a living as an art director, production manager and designer.
    While hating deadlines, wanting to be busy in my studio and being forced out of my comfort zone many times, I learned that ideas showed up in odd places and my fears of running out of creative ideas never materialized. I was taught you had to save your creative energies for your studio as though you might run into a deficit. I see that there’s no limit to creativity- it’s just a matter of tapping into it and paying attention.
    I used to think that time at work was wasted but now see that I learned lots of skills that I now use
    In my studio practice full time.

    • Thomas, your inner art director must be related to mine. I envy the others here who have a skilled art director on whom they can depend. Mine makes matters even more confusing – if possible, questions the value of entire effort, then insists upon a prolonged coffee break.

      Thank you (((Sara))))

  8. I do a lot of so-called “Caricatures” where I try to draw accurately drawn heads on child-size bodies in suitably whimsical situations or accurately drawn more serious “fine art” portraits from photographs. The “second opinion” I fear is the person who looks over the shoulder of the person who commissioned the portrait and says “That does not look like you (or our dearly departed Aunt Milly)” I try to remember they have seen the living person a thousands of times over the years, but often feel confident I have captured the essence of the person shown in the photo. It can still feel very discouraging at times. Doing live portraits is much more fun.

  9. brenda j butka on

    Reminded of Gertrude Stein, upon viewing her portrait by Picasso, complained “I don’t look like that!” “You will, Madame, you will”, Picasso is supposed to have replied.

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No Featured Workshop Neomosaic
Mixed Media
30 x 30 inches

Featured Artist

We live in a fractured world. Wars, famine and power games are forcing people to abandon their homes and their way of life in hopes of finding peace. For lack of education or specialized skills, the poor are not accepted into our northern communities. They stay in the camps on the borders of turmoil, separated from local community. Animals are caught in the crossfire. Even the trees and the rocks suffer the agony of imbalance. This chaos is evident in my work. In between the rivulets of paint and the textural accidents I choose colours and forms to suggest a landscape where beauty continues to reign. We can still change the tide and build a new world harmony. Certainly, contemporary will focuses on gold instead of beauty. Yet, beauty is essential to the wellbeing of the planet. She is essential to the survival of humanity.


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