Decoding the road map


Dear Artist,

Artist Mitchell Freifeld wrote from Portland, Oregon to ask for more clarity concerning the letter “Ignorance,” which mentioned my dad’s criteria when jurying. “It would be a great benefit to have this road map ‘decoded’ in the simplest possible terms. I’m sure others who read the piece would like to see this as well.”


“Three Fireplaces”
oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches
by Mitchell Freifeld

While these points are subject to modification — sometimes there’s something major to upset them, like, “I like it” — here’s Dad’s list, with my notes:

Robert Genn’s Evaluation Points

Compositional Integrity — “Even in front of nature one must compose,” wrote Edgar Degas. You do this with eye-control, line-ups, weighting, corner management and by avoiding the ever-problematic homeostasis — overly regular, even-spaced or lined-up objects.

Sound Craftsmanship — I once observed an art consultant ask an ambitious amateur how long it would take for her collage to disintegrate. While conservators are re-gluing a cigarette butt to a Jackson Pollock drip as we speak, realize that your marks have the potential to outlive you. Use archival materials, finish with a mark of authorship and, in every way possible, show you care.


oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches
by Mitchell Freifeld

Colour Sensitivity — “Color is the daily bread of the eyes,” wrote watercolourist Frank Webb. “It is not only seen but also must be felt.” Mastering its power both technically and intuitively elevates and identifies superior work.

Creative Interest — Dad called this, “What can be?” Is there an opportunity to show more imagination?

Design Control — Is it clear who is conducting this orchestra? “Any time one or more things are consciously put together in a way that they can accomplish something better than they could have accomplished individually,” wrote Charles Eames, “this is an act of design.”

Gestural Momentum — Never underestimate the power of a few bold strokes. Then, leave your strokes alone.

Artistic Flair — Have you added something that is uniquely and bravely yours?

Expressive Intensity — This has less to do with brashness and more to do with the subtle art of showing your commitment. How do you convey your message? What is the deeper “why” to your work? Can you say it clearly?

Professional Touch — From the sureness and commitment of your strokes, the twist in your hanging wires to the polish of your signature, consistent painterly quality, one neat area, a perfect gradation, a characteristic line or other undeniable markers of your style that can be recognized from across a room — what are the signatures of professionalism that set your work apart?


“Table for Three”
oil on canvas, 45 x 40 inches
by Mitchell Freifeld

Surface Quality — Can you show evidence of a million experiments in brushwork, all distilled into a handful of techniques that you now claim as your own? Scumbling, glazing, wiping, spraying, dragging, feathering, edging; texture, super-flat surface, oil-bar application, resin use, holiday space, mirror-shine. Your magic is the double-whammy illusion of a picture sitting atop a 2D plane of creative play.

Intellectual Depth — Is it a lake of feeling or a knocked-off puddle? Where did it come from? Are you able to reverse-engineer the internal sources of your external output?

Visual Distinction — Squint. Is it yours? “One really beautiful wrist motion, that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it,” said Helen Frankenthaler. “It looks as if it were born in a minute.”

Technical Challenge — “Technique is noticed most markedly in the case of those who have not mastered it,” wrote Leon Trotsky. And so, we must continue to work to master our most difficult technical challenges, rendering them unnoticeable. Whatever it is you are exploring in your painting today, choose the most technically difficult aspect and climb the mountain of how to do it peerlessly.


“Thirteenth and Hoyt”
oil on canvas, 40 x 45 inches
by Mitchell Freifeld



PS: “Be both the gardener and the rose.” (Author unknown)

Esoterica: The last of the items listed in Dad’s jurying criteria was something called, Artistic Audacity. To a group of painters set up in an island meadow, he recommended they run at their canvases with a large brush and lay a first stroke without hesitation. As an ice-breaker to timidity, it was merely an exercise to physically embody for a moment, the courage required to make any kind of mark in the first place. “Courage,” said John Wayne, “is being scared to death — but saddling up anyway.”

To each and every one of you, we thank you for your continued creative friendship and wish you a very happy holiday. With gratitude and best wishes from all of us at The Painter’s Keys,
Sara, Shawn and Peter.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet, but the roots are down there riotous.” (Rumi)



  1. The Painter’s Keys is consistently the most useful and inspirational email message I read on a regular basis. It’s so helpful to me. Decoding the Road Map inspires me to work harder, more carefully and consistently, and with greater passion. Thank you.

  2. “What Makes A Great Painting? ” is not only a question worth asking for an artist, but one to keep under constant examination and exploration. What a great insight this is, Sara, not only into your dad’s criteria for evaluating artworks, but into the world of art–what it means and what it CAN mean to the viewer when creation, imagination and intention are in full swing in a painting.
    Thank you for this.

  3. Oh my goodness, this one is a gem among many. I’ve judged many shows in my lifetime. I’ve also judged my own work. The technique sends a message right away, but a second look tells the story. An artist is both a story teller and an entry to a private space between the viewer and the maker. Long may that be so.

  4. John Wayne always acted like he was cavalry or some sort of hero. These were movie rolls, but he seemed to convince himself. While the statement he made is true in its essence, I reject its reinforcing of the Wayne myth.

    • Agreed. More or less. When you say ‘movie rolls’, no doubt you meant ‘movie roles’. Nonetheless, it’s generally accepted that he was not really ‘an actor’ in the truest sense of the word. Once in an interview being asked about his ‘acting’ he admitted quite readily: In my films, I play John Wayne.

  5. Thank you! As a quiltmaking artist, i’ve often used many of these criteria, and your restating of your dad’s list adds more thoughts to my own!

  6. Thank you all for this tireless discussion. Never dull.
    Happy Christmas and a healthy, happy creative new year to each and every one. may you all be touched by grace and a conduit for it’s flowing in the world.
    Much love,


  7. Thank you Sara, for continuing your father’s work and continually inspiring us. May you, Sean and Peter have a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year of painting!

    Love to you all,

    David Lazarony

  8. This has been a very insightful article. Thanks for publishing it. I will print it off and keep it in my studio to remind myself of its advise and wisdom. It is indeed courage that is needed to take a risk and explore. There is so much to
    be tried, so happy to be involved in the arts. Thanks again, very useful.

  9. Thanks for sharing this annotated list, of things to consider when judging a work of art.
    Some additional things I look for are:
    Does it look interesting from both close up, and far away?
    Does it hold my attention, and make me want to look at it longer, to find less obvious things in it?
    Does it make me feel something that can’t be expressed in words?
    Does it make me wonder why, how, and/or what?

    Best wishes to you and all the artist in the world, past, present, and future.

  10. While I agree with the points made in your clarification, I especially like the referral to Pollock’s disintegrating butt! Who is responsible for hoisting trash as art if not for the judges? The public will believe whatever they’re told and behold, Mr. Pollock is revered as one of the great artists….bless his heart.
    Thank you for showcasing Mitchell Freifeld….I like it!

  11. Profoundly well put!
    Am going to relook all my unsolved canvasses!
    Your Dad must have been so special.
    Happy Christmas, and a wonderful New Year!

  12. Thank you for this publication. As I begin 2019, I’m contemplating how it will be a “Step forward”, artistically, from 2018. I want to print these evaluation points in large font and put them up in my studio.
    Merry Christmas to all!

  13. As an artist, I’ve printed this to hang it on my studio wall as a checklist for each painting–both when staring and when I think I’ve finished. Thanks for sharing.

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COME PAINT MEXICO with Hermann Brandt
February 20, 2019 to March 6, 2019


I am very happy to be teaching two workshops at Casa Buena Art Retreat Center again next year.  Register for one or stay for both.

THE FIGURE – Feb 20 – 27, ’19. Enjoy working with a live model using dry media. We will deal with proportion, measurement and likeness.

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original pastel 15 x 15 inches

Featured Artist

Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.